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Health and wellness

Muay Thai fight couple’s non-profit gym gives sense of purpose to Thai village children

Husband-and-wife former pro fighters have dedicated their lives to giving refuge, training and hope to poor and often parentless children in rural northeast Thailand, their gym supported by regular donations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 7:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 8:47pm

Muay Thai led Frances Watthanaya into a backstreet Bangkok gym when she was 19 years old, and it led her to the love of her life.

“I never believed in that kind of stuff, but I remember seeing him skipping rope and that was it. I was in love,” says Watthanaya of the man who would become her husband, Boom Watthanaya. “Muay Thai trainers are very good with feeling energies, and they all picked up on it straight away.”

The couple were soon married, and after both fought professionally on Thailand’s regional circuits, they spent an extended period in Watthanaya’s native Canada, where she finished a Bachelor of Arts degree in South East Asian Studies, and their daughter Parvati was born.

But Thailand – and Muay Thai – kept calling.

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Watthanaya had first started training in Muay Thai as a frustrated teen in the small Canadian town of Rossland, British Columbia (population: 3,500), in which she was raised. The martial art – a national treasure in Thailand – had given her life structure, as well as developing her sense of worth and purpose, and it had led to an opportunity to become a full-time professional fighter. Hence Watthanaya had found herself in that Bangkok gym after buying herself a one-way ticket.

The couple eventually set up a base back in Boom’s home village in the Isaan region of northeastern Thailand and, one morning, while he was off working in Malaysia as a Muay Thai coach, Watthanaya decided it was time to get the pads on again and to set to work.

Again, it was a decision that would change the course of her life.

Curious local kids noticed what Watthanaya was up to, and quickly decided they wanted to join in.

“They saw me there in the dirt and they asked if they could train, and I said of course,” says Watthanaya.

She filmed a training session and a video she posted on Facebook went viral. It garnered so much support, Watthanaya was moved to start a GoFundMe campaign. In a short time, she had raised enough money to build the non-profit Wor. Watthana Muay Thai Gym to help at-risk youngsters.

It also allowed her husband to return home, help get the gym going, to start training the children and, importantly, provide them with someone to look up to.

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“He’s the foundation of the gym,” says Watthanaya. “He’s not just a trainer but a role model for the kids. From my perspective, not having role models is a big problem in Isaan. Those willing and able to work flock to the city. Those left behind are the children, elderly – and those unwilling or unable to work.”

The couple have now dedicated their lives to giving refuge, training and hope to impoverished and often parentless local children.

The gym is sustained by a monthly donation programme, while Watthanaya has been able to find work that helps further fuel her passion for the martial art as a writer for the leading Asian combat sports website The Fight Nation (http://www.thefightnation.com).

It’s less about producing champions [than] about keeping the kids active and safe, helping them with their education and empowering them so they make the right decisions
Frances Watthanaya

They also help raise money to support two other gyms in the district.

“The kids come on their own,” explains Watthanaya. “We have a lot of kids come and go, and we’re fine with that. And we don’t by any means require them to fight. But in order to get the most from the programme they have to train a minimum of five days a week – and they have fun.”

As Watthanaya found through her own experiences with Muay Thai, a regular training schedule gives structure where it may be lacking, as it is with many of the kids around Isaan.

“My husband grew up in the village without any opportunities,” she says. “He watched his brothers get abused by the police, and make wrong choices, and get arrested. There’s a lot of gang violence, drug use and alcoholism – and I’m talking children.

“The children are mostly left to themselves and it’s pretty rough. So what we’re here to do is to help turn these kids into self-sufficient, confident adults.

“It’s less about producing champions [than] about keeping the kids active and safe, helping them with their education and empowering them so they make the right decisions. The training helps in keeping them motivated and they learn to value themselves.”

Joining the gym has also expanded their horizons, with a number of the children now hoping to one day be able to travel as Muay Thai trainers. There is also an increasing number of girls joining the programme.

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It was the video of one such young fighter training that caught the attention of Hong Kong supermodel Mia Kang, and has led to the gym benefiting from an upcoming 109 World Women retreat in Koh Samui to be led by Kang and Hong Kong yoga teacher Chaukei Ngai (https://109world.com), from April 12-17.

“The 109 World retreats donate money into the local community, so Mia said she wanted the money to go to Wor. Watthana Muay Thai Gym,” says Watthanaya. “Then Mia and I decided to put that money towards an all-girl day of Muay Thai fights. It would give girls a turn to shine.

“Girl fighting in Thailand is accepted, but there is just not as much opportunity for them. So we thought this all-day all-girl card would be awesome – and it’s down for April 19.”

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Watthanaya says that once the kids start training, they start to make better choices about what they are eating, and how they are spending their time.

“For me as a child growing up, Muay Thai was a huge stress release,” she says. “It was a huge anxiety release, too. It was instant. I felt very empowered. Girls that age – 14, 15 – are a little bit crazy, and it just added that structure to my life and I was hooked.”

As a way of explaining the attraction of Muay Thai, Watthanaya recalls a quote from the legendary Dutch combat sport star Lucia Rijker.

“She said that it’s human nature to avoid pain and difficult situations, and by fighting you are confronting all of those things,” says Watthanaya. “It’s just real life in there, and for me that’s what Muay Thai means. It’s empowering and it’s humbling, and that’s what I needed as a kid.”

For more about Wor. Watthana Muay Thai Gym go to www.worwatthana.com.