In a quiet corner of the landscaped grounds at Anantara Chiang Mai Resort, just a few metres from the riverside restaurant where guests are enjoying fresh-squeezed juice and a lavish breakfast buffet, I am being urged to kick the crap out of a man I have just met.
"Harder! Higher! You're very strong," says the recipient of my shoulder-high kicks.
Tanaphong "Ping" Khunhankaew is a martial arts champ and an expert at Muay Thai, a highly combative form of kickboxing. With a gentle smile and calm manner, the 32-year-old from Chiang Mai looks like he wouldn't hurt a fly. Yet, this fighter they call the Lanna Warrior has won 113 of his 134 professional fights. He knocked out his first opponent when he was just 15 years old.
Khunhankaew says winning in the boxing ring is less about the punches and kicks, and mostly about what happens between the ears.
"Muay Thai is beautiful because it is about control, balance, strength and what's in your mind," he says. "It's also about respect."
Respect is something you hear a lot about in Muay Thai circles. Respect for one's opponent, respect for masters of the sport, respect for one's teachers and parents, and respect for the rules of the game. All Muay Thai fights begin with a "wai" ceremony, during which boxers press their hands together and lower their heads, in a gesture of humility and respect for the King, their parents and their trainers.
Each year, on March 17, hundreds of fighters from dozens of countries come together in the Thai city of Ayutthaya to show respect for the masters of the sport. The pupils make a vow that they will study seriously and patiently, show respect and behave fairly to other students. The international gathering is testament to Muay Thai's growing global popularity: at last count there were more than 1000 training camps worldwide, including many in Australia.
Ayutthaya Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a spectacular setting for the festival. As a former capital city of Thailand, it boasts chedis and palaces that have stood for hundreds of years and a rich history going back further than the glorious banyan trees which provide much-needed shade from the blazing March sun.
The colourful Wai Khru respect-paying ceremony is the highlight of a lively festival sure to delight anybody interested in martial arts, or those keen to learn more about Thai culture.
Demonstration fights pit nation against nation (Aussie fighters represent our sporting pride), traditional Thai tattoo artists ink flesh, ancient weaponry is on display, celebrity boxers sign autographs and spruik their gyms, while high-society mavens pose for Thailand Tatler and wave hello to glam "lady boys". Of course, the food is fabulous. And did I mention there are elephants?
As night falls on the festivities, an unforgettable tale of Thai history is performed by a cast of hundreds of dancers, musicians and fighters. They are accompanied by dozens of elephants draped in colourful Thai silk, who steal the show with cheeky antics and their invaluable role in choreographed battle scenes.
Performed against a backdrop of laser spot-lit temples and royal palace relics, it's a rousing reminder that once upon a time, Muay Thai boxing was borne of a very real need to defend a kingdom from invaders. The joyous sky-full of fireworks that close the ceremony bring us back to a more carefree age.
The 12th Wai Khru Muay Thai ceremony and Miracle Muay Thai Martial Arts festival will be held from March 17 at Ayutthaya Historical Park.
Thai Airways flies non-stop from Australia to Bangkok 45 times weekly with connections to Chiang Mai; see thaiairways.com.au or phone 1300 651 960. The easiest way to reach Ayutthaya, about 80 kilometres north of Bangkok, is by taxi (expect to pay about $25 for the ride, which can take anywhere from 1-2 hours, depending on traffic congestion).
In Bangkok, try the Pathumwan Princess Hotel, conveniently attached to shopping giant MBK Center; see pprincess.com. In Ayutthaya, Kantary Hotel is sleek and luxurious and in an ideal location; see kantarycollection.com. At Anantara Chiang Mai Resort, a luxury property on the banks of the River Ping, private Muay Thai lessons can be arranged with martial arts champions. See chiang-mai.anantara.com.
Courses range from a day to a few months. In Bangkok, Master Chai Martial Arts has eight branches; see martialartta.com. The Fairtex Muay Thai Camp in Pattaya is the biggest in Thailand; see fairtexpattaya.com. Lanna Muay Thai trains some of the best boxers in the North, with novices also welcome; see lannamuaythai.com.
Kristie Kellahan travelled with the assistance of Tourism Authority of Thailand.