In a sweltering training camp on a tropical Thai island, sweaty tourists wearing oversized gloves and baggy shorts slam their fists, knees, elbows and feet into a row of heavy bags.
Welcome to the latest craze in extreme fitness — Muay Thai boxing.
With worries growing about the world’s bulging waistlines, many foreigners are flocking to Thailand to spend their holidays not on the beach, but following a punishing regime of training in Muay Thai and other martial arts.
Some are going to even more extreme lengths, quitting their jobs to spend weeks or months training in an effort to win their long battles with obesity or hone their skills in the hope of becoming professional fighters.
Jordan Henderson, 26, left behind his London lifestyle of long work days, parties and overeating after the doctors warned him that he faced looming heart problems because of his weight of nearly 184kg.
After one month at a training camp in Phuket off Thailand’s southern Andaman Coast, he had already shed about 20kg.
“You’re in an environment where it’s hot all the time, surrounded by people doing fitness,” he said after an early morning workout.
“It’s about taking yourself out of the box that you live in and just focusing on one thing, and that’s to train and lose weight,” he added.
The first few days were far from easy.
“It was horrible — the heat and the training, the aches you get and the dramatic diet change,” Henderson said.
“I’ve gone from eating whatever I liked to grilled chicken, steamed vegetables and brown rice — hungry for weeks,” he added.
However, despite the grueling regime, he never considered packing his bags and leaving early.
Thailand is home to a flourishing Muay Thai training industry welcoming thousands of guests every year, thanks in part to the popularity of mixed martial arts, which combines striking and grappling techniques.
“Mixed martial arts is the fastest growing sport in the world and Muay Thai is an integral part of that,” said Will Elliot, director of Tiger Muay Thai, one of more than a dozen such training camps in Phuket.
“It’s definitely extreme to travel halfway across the world,” said Elliot, whose camp welcomes hundreds of guests each month paying up to about US$100 per week for group training.
“We’re in the tropics. It’s hot. We’re in Thailand, the birthplace of Muay Thai, so it’s about immersion,” he said.
Muay Thai, Thailand’s national sport, is known as the “Art of Eight Limbs” because it combines punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes.
Anyone thinking about signing up should be prepared for the challenge.
“It’s very physically intensive. At the end of a workout you’re going to be exhausted,” Elliot said.
“So if you can maintain that twice a day in combination with a diet, your fitness is going to increase rapidly,” he added.
It worked for James Mason, 29, a former used-car salesman from Britain who weighed 200kg when he arrived in Thailand a year-and-a-half ago, but has since lost more than 100kg.
“The doctor told me that if I didn’t do something drastic to change my life, in five years’ time I would be dead,” he said. “When I first got here I couldn’t walk 200m without my back hurting. I had to sit down and take a breath. I’d be dripping with sweat because of the heat and the humidity.”