written by Diana Rathborne
With the exception of a few years after college, I have always gone to summer camp. The last five years, I’ve been lucky enough to go to two camps each summer. One is run by Ajarn Surachai Sirisute (“Master Chai”) Oregon, and the other by Sifu Rick Faye in Wisconsin. Once again, this year’s Pacific Northwest Muay Thai Camp (the “Oregon Camp”) was an amazing challenge and experience. It is an intense experience that I value, dread, and have to train hard for each year, but each year I leave the camp a better martial artist than when I arrived. The training, instruction, camaraderie and environment combine to equip a Muay Thai fighter/trainer with the form and discipline of the Muay Thai fighters from Thailand. Master Chai, with his intense scrutiny and attention to detail, misses nothing and brings the best out of everyone.
The invitation to go to the Oregon Camp is only extended to a select few fighters, instructors and students. Each year, the number of students who would like to go greatly exceeds the capacity to accommodate them. This year, over two hundred students were turned away. Some of this year’s students had been on a waiting list for four years. “Campers” came from around the world: New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Luxembourg, and all across the United States. The demographics included about 30% women, and the ages ranged from 16 to 67. Martial arts school owners and their students, fighters, military personnel, police, martial artists, heart surgeons, computer people, engineers and artists all came together to put themselves through one of the most rigorous experiences imaginable, and they call it “vacation.” Many of the instructors also call it “professional development” and “continuing education.”
Some of this year’s first-timers to the Camp were Kuehn Kru* Dwight Woods from Miami, Kuehn Kru David Hatch from Michigan, Kuehn Kru Ralf Beckman, Kuehn Kru Oliver Nickel, and Kuehn Kru Cord Stahlman (Kuehn Kru is the Thai title for Instructor) from Germany. All five are amazing martial artists and Muay Thai
instructors of long standing under Master Chai. Each was finally able to fit this experience into the hectic schedule of a professional martial arts instructor. The most well known “professional martial artist” in attendance, Guro Dan Inosanto, celebrated his 67th birthday at the Camp. At 67, he does all the training, sparring, pad work, bag work, and was at the camp from 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. each day. Any time I felt tired, all I had to do was look over and see Guro Inosanto working hard, and it shut me up.
This year, Kuehn Kru Greg Nelson from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota was at the Camp, for his 13th season. Greg was diagnosed 15 months ago with an advanced, aggressive form of lymphoma. He has been battling for his life, and his body has been ravaged by both cancer and the treatment. After a stem cell transplant, he has been steadily getting stronger. He is the only person to survive the disease thus far. His particular permutation of this cancer is actually going to be named after him (Nelson’s Non-hodgkins Lymphoma). He and his wife, Vee, their daughter, Nina, and son Gunnar, all made the trek to Oregon (with 2 nephews in tow) to come to the Camp this year. Kuehn Kru Greg was not expected to still be here, and the fact that he taught 60 rounds on the last afternoon of the camp is unbelievable, inspirational, and the ultimate no-whining check. One of the main factors he credits for his miraculous survival is the rigors and discipline of his martial arts training.
The Camp is held at a beautiful site in the Silver Falls State Park outside of Salem, Oregon. A lodge-style building is the hub of the Camp. The first floor has the kitchen, bathrooms and fireplace (and 22 heavy bags). Picnic tables are set up outside under a tarp, and each year it is signed by every student. Bunk beds and floor space on the second floor are taken up with 60+ campers. Many students bring tents and take advantage of the opportunity to actually “camp.” Some students also stay at a nearby hotel – a 30-minute drive.
The first day, students started arriving in the morning, the last of them coming in at 4:00 a.m. In the evening, there was a dinner and orientation by Master Chai. At the orientation, the participants introduced themselves, told where they were from, and whom they train under. Afterwards, Master Chai outlined some basic housekeeping issues, and set the time for the first run, which was at 6:15 a.m. At 6:00 a.m., coffee was ready, and everyone in the building was up getting ready for the run. At 6:15, a group stretch was led by Kuehn Kru Bob Carver (Canada) and that started the day, followed by the 3-mile run. The run took us through morning fog on a winding road in the pine forest. A competition between the fastest five or six participants is always interesting to observe for those of us at the back of the pack. Each year I’ve attended, Kuehn Kru David Cervantes (Monterrey, Mexico) finished first, each day he ran. Guro Dan Inosanto waited at the halfway point to ensure that everyone made it to the turn before having to bike himself up the 1.5 mile hill that dominated the run. At the end of the run, everyone shadowboxed until the last runner came in. After a great breakfast and a rest, the training started in earnest at 9:00 a.m.
The training is amazing. For the first session, Master Chai lined everyone up, and we counted off (104 on the first day). Each person had to decide whether he or she would be in the “fighter group.” (80+ were in the fighter group.) Then, we broke into 5 groups, and we were together for the duration of the Camp. Next, shadowboxing and combination work followed for a good 45 minutes. Then the “circuit training” began: 5 stations, 2 – 4 rounds at each station, and at least twice through. (Yes, that’s at least 20 rounds!) A short (3/4 mile) run followed the circuit, and then there was more shadowboxing. Usually at this point, the “non-fighter” group is dismissed, and can wait for lunch. The fighter group then has about 30 minutes of the training on “Prumm.”*
The drilling for the Prumm (Prumm is the standing grappling/kneeing range of Muay Thai) was done in a format called “3 on 1,” and it’s a very sweaty, dusty close-range version of “Monkey in the Middle” with neck grabbing, positioning, and kneeing. Every time the whistle blew, someone else in the group grabbed the “monkey” until the whistle blew once again. If you were too slow making the switch…..30 push-ups.
You definitely do not want to slack on this drill: After a good 5 – 10 minutes, the person in the middle gets rotated out, and someone else is rotated in. This goes on until everyone has been in the middle. The key is to relax and move with your partner. Otherwise, you’ll be completely wiped out and banged up. All the while, Master Chai and the instructors who assisted him, watched for slackers. Kuehn Kru Ray Guinn (Oregon), Kuehn Kru Matteo De Los Reyes (Virginia), Kuehn Kru Nat McIntyre (Minnesota), Kuehn Kru Bob Carver (Canada), Kuehn Kru Will Bernales (Utah) and Guro Dan Inosanto (California) were in charge of assisting Master Chai in the Prumm instruction, callisthenics, and were on push-up patrol. The first day, they were fairly heavily chastised for not making people who were slow in changing partners do push-ups. Those of us within hearing range did not overhear any specific quota given, but there were many, many more people doing push-ups after that. The Prumm drilling was followed by some type of callisthenics. This year, 30 sets of the 8-count bodybuilder was the most prevalent.
Next: lunch time!! The cooks provided the most amazing meals with at least 3 different Thai entrees, for both vegetarians and carnivores. After lunch came napping, knife throwing, studying, icing any injuries, and socializing. This took up time until 3:00 p.m., when the activity started all over again!
The afternoon session was run very much like the morning, with 20 – 40 rounds through the circuit, timing sparring, Prumm, a run, more Prumm and callisthenics. On the last day, 20 rounds of timing sparring were added to the line-up, bringing the total rounds for the day to 89! On the second day of Camp, a boxing workshop was taught by Punong Guro Leonard Trigg. It was held in early afternoon, before the second Muay Thai session. Guro Trigg’s precision, power, and philosophical approach to boxing and martial arts as a whole, was inspirational. One of his topics this year centered on strategy against the left-handed boxer.
After the afternoon session was finished, dinner and showers were next. After dinner, there was a meeting prepping us for the dreaded written test. Guro Inosanto was in charge of giving us the questions and all the answers for the test. When the test will be given is a surprise. What is not a surprise is the penalty for failing it. The thought of an extra 3-mile run, 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups makes everyone take notice and study like crazy. 100 questions are on the test, and have to do with Thai vocabulary, Muay Thai history, and technical knowledge of the art and fighter training. The passing grade is 85 or more. On the fourth day, the tests were graded, and those with 16 or more wrong were singled to make the journey down the hill and back, and to do the sit-ups and push-ups. For those whose native language is German, French or Spanish, a test in English on Thai words is even more of a challenge than it is for the rest of us.
Lights were out at 11:00, but by then, almost everyone was already in bed.
Some other yearly Camp highlights include an afternoon outing to the waterfalls at the Silver Falls State Park, a celebration of Guro Inosanto’s birthday, and an authentic Native American pow wow and party (the last night). This year, an added bonus was an impromptu jam session on the drums featuring Kuehn Kru Dwight Woods, Master Chai, Guro Inosanto and some of the other musically gifted students. Musicians continued to play on the drums during some of the afternoon classes, which made the sparring and pad work even more fun. Also unique to this year was the filming of a documentary about the Camp. The Discovery Channel and National Geographic might be airing the finished documentary in the fall. The training, runs, conversations and meals were all included in the footage.
The amount of work to make this camp an exceptional experience takes many months and a lot of man-hours. The at-camp labors of Kuehn Kru Mike Walrath (camp founder), Kuehn Kru Steve Wilson, Kuehn Kru Bruce Raymer, the cooks, Annete and Kuehn Kru Ken Koenig, and the entire Oregon/Washington crew are staggering. This year, 344 pounds of bananas were consumed (in five days) and the kitchen staff spent hours each day chopping vegetables for the meals! All the elements of the Camp, from training to meals to transportation were excellent. All of these details, combined with training from world famous instructor Master Chai Sirisute, make for a great experience for any Muay Thai practitioner. If you ever get the opportunity to come to the Camp, it is an experience you won’t soon forget. But definitely make sure you train – hard for it!!!