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Painting, kick boxing and puppetry may not seem to go together, but at master Kruu Lek’s Baan Chang Thai arts and muay Chaiya school, expressive art and mindful boxing synthesise seamlessly. Simultaneously teaching an ancient type of muay Thai known as muay Chaiya along with several forms of traditional Thai art, the school is highly regarded both for its excellence and devotion to keeping these aspects of traditional Thai culture alive.
A native of Thonburi, Kruu Lek (kruu is a term of respect meaning “teacher”) started the school 16 years ago to provide Bangkok with a platform for exploring his particular blend of skills. Born into a family of artists, mediums like painting, drawing, sculpture, traditional Thai mask (khon) making and puppetry came naturally to Kruu Lek at an early age.
The master has continued with the arts throughout his life, and today he teaches Thai-style painting and drawing regularly to people of all ages. His intricate and elaborate traditional Thai style murals have been purchased and donated to Buddhist temples, where they grace the walls of sacred spaces alongside ancient works of art.
At the age of 16, Kruu Lek met muay Chaiya grand master Ajarn Khet Sriyabhai from the town of Chaiya near Surat Thani in southern Thailand. This grand master had received and refined the ancient fighting art of muay Chaiya from a direct lineage dating back to a famed warrior turned Buddhist monk who first taught the techniques to the people of the area several hundred years ago.
As a fighting style, muay Chaiya emphasises control, concentration and patience, and it aims to take advantage of an opponent’s energy by tactfully re-directing it at the right instant. Muay Chaiya is considered not just a fighting technique but also a sort of performing art, and Kruu Lek occasionally partakes in performances that showcase muay Chaiya more as a dance than a fight.
Pivotal to the art of muay Chaiya above all else, experienced boxers are able to keep a strong yet calm, peaceful, and humble state of mind, which is not swayed by the violence and competition of a match. Kruu Lek says that “a stable mentality, modesty, a careful and mindful nature, honesty, gratefulness and a real interest” are prerequisites for training at Baan Chang Thai.
Several of Kruu Lek’s students have fought at Lumpini boxing stadium, which some might say is more about the spectacle (and the money) than the art and tradition of Thai boxing. Yet, the master says, even when his students have lost at Lumpini and other venues, “they are still relaxed”. It’s another way of saying that in the muay Chaiya way, winning or losing pales in importance to keeping a calm, respectful, modest and mindful attitude no matter what the outcome.
Kruu Lek trained with Ajarn Khet Sriyabhai for five years before the grand master passed away when Kruu Lek was 21. After the grand master’s passing, Kruu Lek received the teachings of several other elder muay Chaiya masters for many years before taking his rightful place as a master himself. Since opening the school, he has taught muay Chaiya to the Thai Royal Army, Thai action movie stars and prominent Thai boxers. He is also invited regularly to teach abroad, and has received accolades from Thai princess Sirindhorn.
One of our first questions for Kruu Lek was, “Is there any relation between the art and fighting aspects of the school?” Without flinching the master replied, “They are the same.” Though it may be difficult to comprehend from a Western perspective that’s accustomed to dog-eat-dog style UFC fighting, on the one hand, and proper art exhibitions complete with “creative types” sipping martinis, on the other, a visit to Baan Chang Thai exemplifies how if done with the correct state of mind, each are truly two sides of the same coin. To be successful, both require focus, patience, mindfulness, and the willingness to dig so deeply into oneself that “oneself” is forgotten in the process.
Baan Chang Thai offers several types of lessons: three-hour long Thai painting and drawing classes are held on Saturdays and Sundays, with “art for kids” one-hour classes also available. The cost is 3,000 baht for 12 classes, and students may show up or skip as they please with no time limit on usage of the lessons.
“Normal” group muay Chaiya lessons run 800 baht for four two-hour lessons and are held on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, while “special” private lessons are available throughout weekdays at flexible times. The cost for these is 10,000 baht for 12 two-hour lessons, but rates go down if attending with two or more people. If just wanting to try it out, a single “normal” lesson costs 500 baht while a “special” one runs 1,000. Kruu Lek speaks English and consistently teaches a mix of Thai and foreign students.
How to get there
To get here on foot from the Ekkamai BTS (sky train) station, take the stairs out of the station at Exit 1 and then walk straight a short ways along the footpath before turning right onto Ekkamai Road. Walk another 1.5 kilometres; when you reach Soi 10, on the right, thereâ€™s a green sign for Baan Chang Thai, which is no more than 50 metres down on the left.