Travel adventure doesn’t have to mean saying goodbye to your workouts. And I don’t mean plodding along on the hotel gym treadmill or knocking out push-ups and other “travel exercises” in your hotel room. Why not pretend you’re Dhani Jones and tackle a new sport while you’re on the road? That’s how I’ve found myself scaling limestone cliffs in Vietnam, power yoga-ing under the eye of curious Parisian schoolchildren in a French park…and trading punches with Muay Thai fighters in Bangkok.
New to working out a couple of years ago, and determined to find a bad-ass workout on a trip to Thailand, Muay Thai was the obvious choice. Of course it was. A bloody, violent sport practiced by powerfully strong, lean fighters who begin training as children is a great idea for a lightweight 30-something American female tourist. I found a trainer, Phol, at an open-air gym at the end of a narrow, winding alley and subjected myself to his training for two of the most painful and exhilarating hours of my life.
I battered my legs, elbows, knees and hands against this powerhouse as sweat poured, comical in its quantity. I jabbed, the force of the impact against his iron stance reverberating through me. I slammed my elbows into his hands, jarring my skull. I kicked, trying to mimic the natural grace and elegance with which Phol moved about the ring, wincing at the slam of my shin against him every time. But “power!” he said so I slammed with all my might, thrilled when I got a “good!”. I drove my knees at his stomach, stopped short by his hands—like a brick wall. Over and over until “break!” at which I swigged water greedily, pawing the bottle with my gloved hands.
That afternoon found me in an ice bath at the hotel followed by a trip to the nearest medical clinic–near the red light district, which meant my doctor was a specialist in erectile dysfunction. He treated my sprained wrist competently though, and for $12, a small price to pay for the morning’s adventure.
Still intrigued by Muay Thai on my return to Bangkok two years later, I prepared this time with a month of boxing lessons at home, and signed up for a more civilized experience at the Peninsula Bangkok. A cool breeze off the Chao Phraya river lifting my sweat-soaked hair, I faced off with a grinning fighter on a shady pavilion. “Can I hit you as hard as I want?” I asked, to be met with an even bigger smile. As hotel guests covertly peeked at us from the other side of lush greenery, I reveled in delivering kicks and punches to this bruiser. Between “rounds” I cooled off with bottled water and scented, chilled washcloths provided by the hotel. Recovery from this session came in the form of a massage in the hotel spa.
You can find a sport to try nearly anywhere you travel, even secluded islands in Vietnam’s HaLong Bay. The mystical cliffs draw rock climbers from the world over and I joined them last fall. Asia Outdoors leads well-regarded guided climbing expeditions, providing everything you need for a day on the rocks. Once I dismissed my apprehension at the guides’ ages (between the two of them they were barely my age) and their climbing experience (a year combined), I harnessed up eagerly, adrenaline flowing as I scrambled up several rocks on the fairy-tale beautiful island of Moody Beach. We saved the hardest for last. I’m still a beginner so I’d never attempted a climb harder than a 5.8. There was maybe enough time to attempt a 5.9 as the light waned, and one of the young guides asked with a grin if I wanted to give it a try.
The difference was immediately clear. Never mind the red ants and the rock that crumbled in my hand–the holds were few and far between and I’d hardly call any of them good. It was a long, long climb–the further I went, the further away the top anchor appeared. I talked to myself the entire way up, pausing for one rest to let my shaky arms have a break. “You’re going to get it!” called my husband when I got near the top. And I did, smacking the anchor with a grin that stayed on my face all the way down.
Trading punches with muscle-bound Thai fighters, or scaling rocks halfway round the globe needn’t be up your alley. Seeking out a trainer in a new city can add excitement to your regimen–new environment, personality, and moves make this workout more than a workout–it’s part of your travel adventure!
After skipping training for my entire week of endless bread, cheese, macarons and foie gras in Paris recently, I drug myself to a workout on my final day. My friend and I made our way to Le Jardin Villemin, a park tucked away near Gare de L’est, to meet Iaian Waite, a personal trainer who also offers boot camps at the Eiffel Tower, and power yoga classes. Wine scent wafting from our pores, we began the jumping jacks he assigned with little enthusiasm. Intensely competitive in fitness normally, I just wanted to get through this hour without embarrassing myself. Curious Parisians – including a grade school class – strolling by stopped to watch. “If you see people staring, it’s because they don’t work out,” Iaian explained. A Canadian expat, he primarily works with other expats. The French just don’t take to physical challenge the way Americans do, he told me over coffee later. I felt like the proverbial sore thumb walking back to my hotel later in my workout wear among the impossibly chic and slender Parisians, but as with all my travel sports adventures, I glowed with the after effects of a great workout – and an unforgettable travel memory.
All photos courtesy of Dana McMahan