In Isaan, Following in the Footsteps of a Legendary Fighter

A journey to discover the roots of Muay Thai takes a Houston-based photographer halfway across the world.

By Max Burkhalter September 27, 2016

This is the second of a four-part series on traveling to Thailand to document the journeys of two Houston natives exploring Muay Thai in its element. Read part one here.

After a two-hour car ride to Bangkok, and a four-and-a-half-hour minivan ride into the Isaan region, we made it Nong Ki with Noi, the legendary competitor with close to 300 fights under his belt who would serve as our guide.

My traveling companion, Houston-based Muay Thai fighter Greg Sanzo, moved to Thailand a year ago to train with just such fighters, and I was here to document our journey, discovering more about the combat sport we both love in its native setting.

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Noi, a Muay Thai fighter since he was a boy, and our guide in Nong Ki.

The Isaan area has traditionally been one of the poorest regions in Thailand, and certainly different than the busy resort city of Pattaya where we'd spent the last few nights. Far inland from the coast, Isaan is a place of rural farmland and small shops.

Here, the majority of people speak a Lao dialect instead of Thai, though the sport of Muay Thai is as much a central aspect of Isaan culture as the spired, traditional spirit houses we saw at the entrance of nearly every home and business. We stopped first at a local bustling market to pick up some food—the usual fried fish, vegetables, grilled chicken and curries.

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Spirit houses, meant to provide an appealing and respectful home for spirits, sit for sale on the side of the road in Nong Ki.

From there we proceeded to Noi's parents house, a larger home within in the town. The family was gracious and inviting, and the children curious. We all sat outside and and ate our meal, relaxing and talking as we enjoyed the fresh food. The ride up was exhausting and a full belly meant I was close to passing out, but I couldn't keep my mind from racing.

All I could think about was my plan for the next few days; all that mattered Muay Thai. Isaan, in particular, had called to me from across the Pacific Ocean. I first heard about the area in a Muay Thai documentary called Born To Fight. Little did I know at the time I'd soon be visiting one of the gyms I'd been watching on YouTube, halfway across the world.

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Master Hoymook, owner and coach at Pahuyuth Camp.

The next day Noi took me to that famous gym, Nonghkee Pahuyuth Camp, which has produced its fair share of champions over the decades. The owner, Master Pramote Hoymook, has been training fighters there for the last 50 years, his presence—like the camp itself—humble and approachable despite a fearsome reputation.

Master Hoymook took us to a training session up the road, since there wasn't much action going on at his camp that sleepy day. There, Greg was finally able to get some training in, while I captured what I could with my camera.

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A sparring session in Nong Ki

Later that day, Noi took us to an entirely different place, far removed from the fighting ring: a beautiful Khmer temple, the Phanom Rung, originally built as a Hindu temple to Shiva. The temple—the largest of its kind in Thailand—was impressive in its ornate details and meticulous design.

And although the temple and the ring wouldn't appear to share much in common, both possess ancient roots, the temple built between the 10th and 13th centuries, and Muay Thai tracing its roots to the 16th century. Its very name in Thai means "ancient boxing"—ironic, considering how popular the sport has become today in the 21st century.

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The Phanom Rung temple complex was built between the 10th and 13th centuries.


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Stacked rocks sit outside the Phanom Rung temple.


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A police officer stands watch nearby the Phanom Rung temple.

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A young Muay Thai fighter coming up through the camps in Isaan.

This is the second of a four-part series on traveling to Thailand to document the journeys of two Houston natives exploring Muay Thai in its element. Read part one here. 

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