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Gym Etiquette in Thailand

Gym etiquette in Thailand’s Muay Thai camps can be different than what you’re used to. Some may even take you by surprise. The last thing you want to do is to come off rude by accident. Don’t worry, we all make mistakes. But the more knowledge you’re equipped with, the fewer mistakes you’ll make – especially the serious ones.

Please keep in mind that this article, as a whole, is not telling you what you should and should not do based on virtue or morals. This article is not telling you what is inherently right or wrong. It is a guide to navigating a culture that is not yours. It is to help you get what you came to the country for – Muay Thai knowledge, new friends, and priceless memories.

Also, note that there are always exceptions to every “rule”. There will be minor changes between gyms. And each major city you visit in Thailand can differ drastically in what they’re exposed to (and therefore, what they’re comfortable with). Thailand and its people are not a monolithic group, but we recommend erring on the side of “caution” when it comes to respect and mannerisms in a country that is not our own. It’s better to accidentally come off as too polite than too rude.

Hierarchy

A lot of gym etiquette in Thailand is a reflection of Thai culture and values. Social hierarchy is one of them. Understand your place as a student of the sport: just because you are a “paying customer” does not mean you are “above” the trainers at the camp.

Teachers are highly revered in Thailand and are given ample amounts of respect. Trainers are considered teachers, thus all trainers are above you on the social hierarchy. They are the teachers, you are the students. Regardless of age, they hold a higher status than you.

The hierarchy is situation-dependant. Within a gym, there is a hierarchy someone would expect from the people around them, but that could drastically change as soon as they leave the gym setting. For example, a head trainer at a gym would get ample respect, but in general society, would be place lower on the hierarchy.

The age hierarchy often leaks over into other hierarchies. There are some trainers that will take offense to a younger trainer being given a higher status. Some camps will automatically have their trainer hierarchy established based solely on age. When you become aware of this fact, you see why most head trainers tend to be the oldest, and why it’s usually the older trainers that are addressed as ajarn (more on this in the next section).

People who are lower on the social hierarchy are expected to do things such as greet first and speak politely to those above them. This means when you enter training, you should wai to the trainers who are there and wai to the trainers who walk in after you.

The hand placement for the wai correlates to how high they are on the hierarchy in relation to you. The higher they place, they higher your wai. For the purposes of being at a Muay Thai gym, your social equals can get a casual wai with your thumb right below your chin. For the trainers, you should wai with your thumb at nose-level or slightly higher. There’s no need to bring your wai up to your forehead or above your head.

Because you are a visitor in the country, you will be given ample leeway if you make a few mistakes. Some trainers are more “old-fashioned” than others, and there are some trainers who are more fluid in their mannerisms with you. Some trainers prefer to treat you in accordance to age rather than social hierarchy. Some trainers who take great offense to students treating them as an equal or “friend”. Not everyone is the same. The general takeaway for this section is to know your place. It’s suggested to enter with the aforementioned “default” mindset and possibly change your actions according to how they interact with you.

Addressing the Trainers and Gym Owners

Kru. Ajarn. You’ve probably heard these two terms at some point, even outside of Thailand. They both are titles for teachers, but there’s a slight difference between the two terms.

Kru means “teacher”, and this can be applied to any of the trainers. Ajarn is also for a teacher but is usually reserved for trainers who are more accomplished and older, and the trainers who are addressed with this title tend to receive a bit more respect than the ones simply addressed as kru. Ajarn are seen as role models and people who are notable members of a community. But older trainers will not take offense if you address them as kru.

The terms in modern days have much more fluidity. There are trainers who will be extremely casual with their fighters and accept being addressed as pi, which is a term that means older brother or sister (but used more universally and casually than kru and ajarn).

You’ll find the following professions addressed as kru: teachers in kindergarten to high school, tutors, trainers.

The following positions may be addressed as ajarn: teachers in high school, professors in university, someone who does sak yant (Buddhist tapping tattoos), trainers.

Situations someone would be called pi: older siblings, older friends, older strangers such as a taxi driver or cook. Some people call their romantic partners pi followed by the partner’s nickname.

To put the three terms (kru, ajarn, pi) into perspective, think of some teachers you may have encountered in your life.

  • Some insisted you addressed them as Mr., Mrs., or Ms. followed by their last name (formal). Example: Ms. Smith
  • Others allowed you to address them as Mr., Mrs., or Ms. followed by their first name (less formal but the status difference is still apparent). Example: Ms. Samantha
  • And then there are teachers that allowed you to call them by their first name or even a nickname. This relationship felt more friendly than student-teacher (very casual). Example: Samantha or Sam

It’s a good idea to default to kru when meeting trainer. You can change this to ajarn if you find that a lot of people around you are addressing them as ajarn.

You may be at a camp where everyone calls the trainers pi. You, as a foreigner, may be told to just call them by their name without a title. You may also be at a camp where the hierarchy is more strict and the fighters don’t dare speak in a familiar manner with the trainers, so you’ll be hearing ajarn and kru.

Gym owners and managers are above trainers on the social hierarchy. Trainers will show ample respect to people in these positions, wai-ing first and addressing them as khun (followed by the boss’ name). Khun can mean “you” but, in this case, it translates better to Mr., Mrs., or Ms. When you address someone as khun, you are giving them a lot of respect. It is clear that you will not cross certain (often professional) boundaries in your interactions with them.

Some gym owners are extremely wealthy and are referred to as sia (followed by their name). Sia is a term that means “rich man”. A couple of notable people in the industry in Thailand are referred to as sia, such as Sia Kaek (owner of PK Saenchaimuaythaigym) and Sia Boat (owner of Petchyindee Academy).

Sia Kaek, second from the left, pictured with some fighters from PK Saenchaimuaythaigym
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Waiting Your Turn

You get to training and the trainers are all busy with their fighters. You start warming up, shadowboxing, and maybe even hit the bag for a few rounds. After what feels like an eternity, you still haven’t worked with anyone on the pads. What’s the deal? Should you ask to hit pads right there and then?

The best thing to do is wait your turn. If you see that all the trainers are busy, there’s not much that can be done. Yes, it can be frustrating to wait, but make the most out of the time. Work on your technique. Get a proper warm-up. And wait until a trainer calls you.

Photo by The MMA Guru

Many gyms, especially in Bangkok, make most of their money off their roster Thai fighters, so the fighters are prioritized during training. Other gyms may just have a lot of people training and not enough trainers to make sure nobody waits for more than a couple rounds. DO NOT demand to hit pads right away. This is extremely disrespectful and you won’t be getting on anybody’s good side. If you want to train on your own schedule, then schedule a private session.

Although you can request to work with a specific trainer, when you are new to a gym, most of the time, it is the trainer that will pick you. And if a particular trainer consistently calls you to hit pads with them, that could very well mean that they’re your “assigned” trainer. The relationship between a trainer and student is complex anywhere in the world, but in Thailand, trainers know which students are under who. It is very rare to see one trainer work with someone else’s student without being told to. Some trainers can get possessive over their students and take great offense to another trainer “taking” their student, even if it’s just for a day or two. They generally take even greater offense to a student who continuously jumps from trainer to trainer or, even worse, from gym to gym.

While a lot of trainers love their jobs, income and extra money can influence their decisions in training. Tips are sometimes expected from non-Thais, depending on the gym. While it is not necessary to tip your trainer just for training, you can if you really want to work with this trainer again but you’re not entirely sure if you will be able to the next training session. Sneak them a couple hundred baht out of everyone’s view, and thank them for the training. The next training session, there is a high chance they will pick you. Be cautioned as there are some trainers, as with anywhere in the world, that will expect this money every single time. Others will see the tip as a gesture of gratitude and that you like working with them, so they will continue to train and teach you. If there is a trainer who never expected anything monetary from you and did a great job training you during your stay, you can tip them at the end (or buy them a nice gift).

Trainers often only get the respect they deserve from fighters, and many of them make little money despite the many hours of physical work they put in. Trainers don’t make extra money off your stay. They often get paid a base salary and can make extra money from teaching private sessions. They will certainly appreciate you giving them something extra.

Padwork

When a trainer calls you to hit pads, drop whatever you’re doing and head to where they are. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of shadowboxing or hitting the bag. DO NOT tell your trainer to wait. Keep in the social hierarchy in mind.

If you are a woman and it is your first time training at this gym, ask if it’s okay to step in between the ropes. There are some gyms that are more conservative and will expect women to enter the ring from under the bottom rope.

As the first round of padwork starts, make sure to wai to your trainer before you make the first hit. When you are done with the round, wai to your trainer again. Every round after that, wai to your trainer at the end of the rounds. This wai signifies you thanking them for the padwork and knowledge, and that you are happy to receive it.

During padwork, try to breathe through your nose. If you must breathe with your mouth, try not to direct it towards your trainer’s face. In Thailand’s hot and humid weather, people are sweating. And people will be sweating even more during training. The last thing a trainer needs on top of this is someone exhaling their hot breath onto them.

woman kicking thai pads in phuket with trainer muay thai
Photo by Helen Tran

Most gyms have timers. The timers signify when the rounds start and end. However, your trainer has the final say on when the round ends. If your trainer tells you to keep doing things after the round has ended, don’t tell them the round is over. They’re fully aware that it is. Keep pushing yourself and rest when the trainer says you can.

It’s also important to make sure to aim properly during padwork, namely with the teep and knees. It is going to be sweaty and the equipment can get slippery. But your trainer will not appreciate it when you punch, kick, teep or knee them anywhere outside of the pads, especially to their face or groin.

Padwork should be both challenging and fun. It is okay for you to be dynamic and interactive on the pads, not just throwing things the trainer tells you to. This will make things more fun for the trainer as well. But don’t repeatedly off-balance your trainer with sweeps, dumps, and other techniques. And definitely don’t throw elbows or teep to their face as a counter.

Sparring & Clinching

When it comes to sparring and clinching, always try to be more technical than aggressive. Thai fighters grow up fighting very often, and can’t afford to get injured. Even if they don’t fight every week like they used to, they have the sense of technical work ingrained into them.

Muay Thai sparring is play. It’s even in the Thai term เล่นเชิง “len cheing“, len meaning “to play”. Thai fighters will, by default, spar light and technical with you. They spar each other with no ego. If you’re someone who spars hard and tries to knock people out during training, don’t be surprised if nobody wants to go with you the next training session. Nobody wants to get hurt. Chances are that the Thai fighters have much more experience than you do, and them going hard back will only make them look like the “bad guy”, especially if you get hurt. You may meet some Thai fighters that put a bit more power into their shots, but notice how they’re still extremely technical and are not aiming to hurt you.

kids sparring trainer watching and teaching muay thai camp
Photo by Jonathan Tomas

A couple of things that will immediately piss off someone you’re working with are 1) a teep to the face and 2) bad intent. Start the sparring session willing to learn, and don’t teep anyone in the face. More on this in the Mind Your Manners section of this article.

When it comes to clinching, keep in mind that it’s okay to use strength in your upper body but not in your knees. When throwing straight knees to the ribs, don’t aim with your knee cap. Hit them with the inside of your leg (kind of like a slap). You can throw straight knees to the midsection between the ribcage, but always mind your power when doing this. Only do sweeps and dumps that are legal in Muay Thai. No hip throws and no sweeps where you put your leg behind the heel of their foot. And, like with everything else mentioned in this section, mind your power.

If you’re being outworked and are unable to do anything to nullify their shots, don’t get angry. Don’t rely on muscling your strikes to overtake them. Smile and try to learn what they’re doing. Ask them how to counter or block certain shots. People will be willing to teach you if you ask. But if you get angry and spar/clinch emotionally, you’ll get no respect and make no friends.

Like you would wai your trainer at the very beginning of padwork and after every round, do the same with whoever you’re sparring and clinching with. When sparring, wai at the beginning and end of each round. Do the same at the beginning of the clinching session and when time’s up.

Training Elsewhere

If you are only visiting for a couple weeks, you can skim over this part. But if you plan on staying long-term in Thailand as a fighter, definitely don’t skip this section.

If you plan on being at a gym for a long time (or if you are or eventually want to become a sponsored fighter of the camp), do not jump from gym to gym. You could inadvertently burn some bridges doing this.

Loyalty is a pillar of any Muay Thai gym, especially so in Thailand. Gym owners and trainers will be offended if you train elsewhere – you could accidentally signal that the training they’re giving you is lacking in some way. Supposed you just drop in somewhere for the day to hang out with some friends. Or maybe you want to leave town for a couple weeks but still wanna train. The best thing to do is talk to your trainer about it. By keeping your “home gym” in the dark as you go somewhere else, they may think that you don’t like the training and/or you are planning on leaving the gym.

gym women men padwork thailand
Photo by Helen Tran

Understand that you, as someone who plans on staying in Thailand training for a long time, represent one and only one gym. If the gym you represent gets unclear in the chaos of going to different places, that’s going to be a problem. If you are only training casually, this won’t really apply to you. If you’re not fighting and just doing Muay Thai for fitness or fun, there won’t be the same amount of emotional and financial investment in you versus if you were a fighter. (Of course, this is NOT to say that the trainers don’t care about you and if you’re learning – it’s just comparing two different things when it comes to someone training casually versus a fighter.)

Communication is key. If you are not planning on leaving the gym, there’s no reason why you should keep it a secret. If you know that the gym is not okay with you going elsewhere but you do it anyway, you risk losing respect, receiving worse training, or even getting kicked out of the gym. Everyone has phones these days, and if you go somewhere else, the gym will find out, no matter how well you think you’ve hidden it. And if you feel like you have to sneak off to other places to train, there are bigger issues at hand than just the gym finding out you went to train somewhere else.

When you are training elsewhere, do not gossip about your home gym and DO NOT take a fight under the visiting gym.

Hygiene

Be extra wary of how good (or bad) your hygiene is when in Thailand. Many people in Thailand are highly offended by bad smells, including body odor. Here are some best practices to follow:

  • ALWAYS wear deodorant. This means to every training session as well as when you’re not training. Even if you’re just hanging around the camp.
  • Shower before you eat. Don’t show up to the dining table, even if it’s not communal, sweaty and stinky. If you can’t take a full shower, at least rinse off and change your clothes.
  • If your gloves and other gear stink, find ways to get rid of the smell. Or get new gear. Trainers will smell your gloves while they hold pads for you, and if you’re clinching with gloves on, your training partner will not appreciate smelly gloves in their face.
  • If you are clinching with no gloves on, rinse your hands and arms with water first. Many gyms have sinks near the rings. You can also do this in the bathroom.
  • Keep your nails short and tidy. This should be done everywhere in the world and applies to the nails on your hands and feet.

Mind Your Manners

On top of all the tips regarding navigating a gym in Thailand, it’s important to be polite. While it can be extremely overwhelming to learn everything about Thai culture, here are some basics that you should not forget.

Women are expected to always be polite. While men can sometimes get away with rowdy language and behavior, women are generally “looked down on” for doing so. This is not a commentary on what is wrong or right, just what the cultural norm is. This means that if you are a woman, you can be subjected to a wide range of expectations, such as being “lady like”, dressing modestly, and not talking back to those higher on the hierarchy.

  • The head is holy and the feet are not.
    • This is why you should not put your feet near your training partners’ faces. This includes face teep and, at some gyms, head kicks.
    • Never touch anyone’s head, especially if they are higher than you on the social hierarchy. This has started physical fights. It is extremely disrespectful to do. The same goes for hair – hairdressers will wai to you before they work on you and some will tell you what they’re about to do.
    • Don’t use your feet for things other than walking, running, and keeping yourself balanced.
      • This means, just to name a few things, don’t use your feet to point at things, don’t use your feet to catch money that’s rolling away from you, and don’t step on people, even if by accident.
      • When you’re crossing your feet while sitting, pay attention to where the bottom of your feet are pointing towards. Make sure the foot on top does not have its sole directed at someone.
  • Dress accordingly. There are places in the country where it is more “okay” to walk around shirtless, but don’t forget the situation and where you are. It is often other non-Thais that don’t dress appropriately for the setting they’re in.
    • At a gym?
      • Sure, go in shirtless or with just a sports bra. But, if you’re a woman, be careful as some places are more conservative and this can be seen as improper.
      • Always wear undershorts to training, no matter your gender. These can be found pretty cheap in Thailand if you forgot to pack some.
    • At any public spaces outside the camp, always wear a shirt. This applies even if you are running in the park.
    • If you’re going to a temple, men need to make sure they at least cover their shoulders. Women need to cover their shoulders and knees. Some temples are more relaxed on what men are wearing, but almost no temples will allow a woman to go in if she’s wearing shorts and a tank top. Any kind of shoes are fine – you’ll be taking them off before you enter the praying areas anyway.
      • On the subject of temples and religion, be careful when coming in close contact with a monk if you’re a woman. Monks are not allowed to directly touch women. This applies outside of the temple. So if you’re on public transportation and the only available seat is next to you, the proper thing to do would be to get up and allow the monk to sit. The monk will not be able to sit next to you otherwise.
    • Be careful about what you say about the royal family and the government. It is ILLEGAL to bad-mouth the royal family. And there have been cases of pro-democracy activists that openly criticized the government that have disappeared.
    • Be wary of your surroundings. If you accidentally bump into someone, apologize. Even if you are in a crowded night market.
    • If someone offers you food, don’t say no. Instead, say that you’re already full, or that you’ll only take a little bit to try.
    • Composure is important, especially in public. If you show anger or yell in public, it is considered rude. People may even say you are ba (crazy).
      • If someone is not understanding what you’re saying, keep your cool. Whip out your phone to translate a few keywords so they have a better understanding of what you need. Or use some terms from the Thai Language series.
    • If you’re going somewhere nice to eat or need to dress not super casual, the best things to keep in mind is to cover your shoulders and cover your toes. Flip flops and tank tops, while are just fine in many other countries, are not considered proper for nightclubs or decent indoor restaurants.
status wai hands greeting thailand
Photo by Andreea Popa

You will be given leeway as someone who is not Thai and is just visiting the country. Remember that you don’t need to be perfect when learning about gym etiquette and putting them into practice. You just have to try.

As stated above, this article is not stating what is right or wrong. It is a guide to navigating and understanding gym etiquette in Thailand’s Muay Thai gyms. Much of this etiquette is based off general Thai culture and mannerisms.

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Fighter, social media manager, content creator and writer. Currently training and fighting full time in Bangkok. Originally from NYC. instagram.com/angelasitan

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