Discovering Tai Chi & Other Martial Arts in Bangkok
In the middle of Bangkok’s business district, surrounded by skyscrapers and a multi-laned network of main routes, sits Lumpini Park, the city’s best loved open space. Lacking the sterility and dearth of shade which characterises many of Asia’s parks, it is a natural refuge for locals and tourists alike who long to escape the hectic pace, pollution and traffic of Thailand’s capital city.
Lumpini was created in the 1920s at the behest of the King Rama VI. It covers 57.6 hectares and can be entered by one of six gates set into the surrounding coral coloured wall. It is also encircled by a moat which houses giant monitor lizards, turtles and hungry looking catfish. The water continues in the interior of the park, forming a river and two lakes where swan necked pedal boats can be hired.
Entering by the grandest of the gates next to Silom MRT station, where a statue of its royal creator stands guard, you will find two kiosks, one for tourist information and the other selling drinks and snacks. If you come between 6 and 7am or 5 and 6pm, you will also be greeted by the throbbing beat of disco tunes which accompany the daily, free aerobics class.
Siang Leng Tai Kek Club
Fortunately the sound will fade as you take the path to the left and head over towards Siang Leng Tai Kek Club, possibly the longest running and biggest of the martial arts groups within the park. The club was established in 1980 by principal teacher Surasak Siripojanakul, who is also very active both in Thailand’s Tai Chi Federation and the management of the park itself.
The group is one of several which were inspired by visits by the Dong (Tung) family to Bangkok. Mr Sirpojanakul started the group after studying with Dong Hu Ling, son of Tung Ying Jie, who was a disciple of Yang Cheng Fu and is said to have brought tai chi to Thailand. The group practise all Yang style forms, sword and fan, and they meet between 6.30 and 9am every day.
The group describes itself as focussing on health, social and competition aspects of the art, and social gatherings are clearly an important part, with the principal joking that he sees more of his “tai chi family” than his real one. They get involved in charitable causes, visit other parts of Thailand together and often meet up outside the park. In thirty six years they estimate that there have been three thousand members, and current membership is at three hundred, including various foreign nationals. Members’ age range is twenty to ninety seven, with an average of fifty five. Those interested in joining in are welcome to a free trial, and thereafter membership is THB 1,000 per year.
Sadly, Surasak Siripojanakul, founder and principal teacher of Siang Leng Tai Kek Club, passed away in October 2016. Members continue to meet to practice but Mr Siripojanakul is very much missed both by the group and the wider Bangkok tai chi community.
Archan Yao’s Group
Next to Siang Leng Tai Kek Club, but starting the day considerably later at 8am, is the group of Archan Yao, who was originally a student of Dong Hu Ling in Mr Siropojanakul’s group. Instead of the main stream Yang forms, the 81 and 54 are practised, as well as sword and sabre. One of the few groups to engage in push hands, both fixed and moving, students study this aspect to learn about qi rather than as a competitive exercise.
Mr Yao established his own group about twenty years ago when two people who were suffering ill health ask him to teach them tai chi. Word spread and more and more began to join. There are currently about one hundred members again including several foreigners. The group’s relatively late hours (8am – 12pm) and breezy spot next to the floating island make it popular with visiting tourists who come to watch, but to join the group commitment is expected. Mr Yao often expects students to spend many hours in Zhan Zhuang standing practice. He considers it imperative that they master the basic principles and develop their centre and body before moving on to higher level practice.
Senior students help those with less experience and members come when they can during the core hours; many are working. The age range is very wide – ten to ninety eight years – and there are a number of teenage students. Membership is free. Mr Yao is regularly asked to talk to other groups about tai chi and push hands.
Master Jian Lin’s Tai Chi Group
Now if you continue to traverse the island you may spot a few women doing qi gong, and possibly some impressively flexible yoga from the contortionist who practises and offers lessons there. Cross the bridge at the far end, turn right and immediately on your left is Master Jian Lin’s Tai Chi Group. They’ve been together for some thirteen years, although only four with the current master.
The group started after some students visited Beijing to look for a teacher and were fortunate to discover Li Sun Por, a fourth generation descendent of Yang Lu Chan by his son, Yang Shao Hou. Mr Li’s advanced age means he cannot no longer come to teach in Thailand, and he has been replaced by fellow disciple Mr Jian Lin, who continues to visit every year for one or two months.
The style is Yang Ancient Traditional and forms the 108 and 201. Under their previous master the group also learned staff, spear and sword and a 73 hand form which Mr Li modified himself from the small, fast form. The foci are health and internal energy.
There are eight members in Bangkok plus another four in Chiang Rai, the youngest about thirty. The master does not come to the park during his visits, however, but rather teaches inside privately where he can give personal attention to his students. At other times they practise from about 7 to 9am and oldest member Liu Song Chuan gives instruction. Mr Liu is himself a former pupil of Dong Hu Ling and Gang Sou Zhou (Cheng Man Ching style) who at seventy nine has been practising tai chi for some sixty three years.
Anyone is welcome to join the group for a free trial, but they have found foreigners rarely stay in Thailand long enough to show the level of commitment which their master expects if he is to teach them seriously. The price is THB 300 per month which pays for the storage container and cleaning of the attractive round practice area.
Wu (Hao) Taiji
Next up is Wu (Hao) Taiji, situated a little further along past the Tawan Yim exercise and play area. Their space is also round, next to a bridge and river. Wu (Hao) is a popular style in China but not often found elsewhere, despite being one of the “original” five family styles of tai chi. The group descends from the Hua Xiao Lu line. As Hong Kongese member Frankie informed me, it is not a visual style, the emphasis being very much on internal movement.
The group was created seventeen years ago by the master and doctor of Chinese Traditional Medicine , Li Wei Ming. He lived in Bangkok for many years, but has now returned to his native Shanghai. He continues to visit for three months every years during China’s winter. When he is not there members just practice together; there is no teaching. The style has only three forms, which take about an hour altogether. Practice is every day between 7 and 8 am.
There are about forty five members, including from Hong Kong, the Netherlands and America. Average age is fifty, although the oldest member, Mr Li’s former nurse, is ninety. She apparently has a very strong root and is impossible to push! The group has a good sense of harmony and members feel comfortable together. They socialise occasionally, especially during the master’s visit. Membership costs THB 300 per month, with the master also offering private lessons at his home.
Wisdom Tai Chi
On Saturday mornings, after the Wu (Hao) Group has departed, the space is taken over by Wisdom Tai Chi from 9 until 10.30 am. This group also holds classes at the same time on Mondays at Bensajiri Park on Sukhumvit. There are twenty core members and others who come from time to time including foreigners from China, France, Japan and Mexico.
The group boasts three teachers each from a different discipline. Mr Nuttapon, with twenty five years practice, was another student of the Dong family. Mr Surasak has studied at Wudang Mountain in China as well as learning a one thousand year old qi gong form said to have been created by Ghengis Khan’s qi gong master.
The third teacher, Mr Wut, practises baji, a martial art combining bagua with Chen tai chi, which he learned from his grandfather. This is quite a martial style, although the group’s main foci are qi, mind and spirit and “old fashioned style tai chi.” They practise the Yang 85 form as well as bagua and Chen. Both moving and fixed push hands are taught as well as qi gong.
About forty per cent of the pupils are aged around twenty and sixty per cent about fifty. Teaching is tailored to the needs of the different age groups. A free trial is offered but thereafter the group charges THB 2,000 or 3,000 per month, although less if students are not wealthy.
Mr Surasak says his group concentrates on the martial and health aspects of tai chi, but more than this they are looking to improve the immortal mind and spirit, building a force field of qi and a purifying energy for life.
Bagua Group for Health
Now across to the left next to the playground we find one of the hardest working groups in the park, Bagua Group for Health. With core hours of 6 – 9 am every day, there are usually practitioners there in the half light from 5.30 and others to be seen long after 9.30. There are about sixty members including some from Russia, Germany, America and Taiwan. Average age is over sixty although there are several youngsters.
In 1996 Liang style bagua master Wei Dong Li came to Bangkok from China and saw that while there was plenty of tai chi, no one was practising bagua. He started the group and continues to visit every year in winter for two or three months. At the start of each visit, he appoints two members who will act as teachers in his absence, so that students can continue to progress.
Xiao ba zhang and 64 palm bagua is practised as well as various weapons. The main emphasis is on health. Membership costs THB 500 for life, plus THB 200 per year with extra payable to cover the cost of the master’s visit. A one week free trial is offered. Member Angsana Ekabhot says “We meet to exercise, see others, ask questions about the practice. It’s a nice martial art.”
Yongnian Tai Chi Chuan Association
Another of the larger tai chi groups is Yongnian Tai Chi Chuan Association, situated next to the Bagua group. It is associated with the Yongnian family in Xian, China. For many years the master, Zhao Youbin, visited annually but for the last few years has been much in demand in Europe and the USA. The group was established in 2001 by Mr Manit Udomkhunadham and Mr Chuchai Jirawongsaphan and membership quickly grew. There are currently about one hundred and twenty members including Bangkok residents and regular visitors from France, Korea, Italy, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and Germany. Over eighty per cent are aged over fifty.
Yongnian practice every day starting before 7am and continuing until 9am. There is also an associated group who practise in the park at Rama 9, one in Nakon Sawan, about two hundred and fifty kilometres from Bangkok, and a second group in Lumpini. In keeping with the family lineage (5th generation direct from Yang Cheng Fu) they practice the 85 form, as well as the Yongnian 37 form, sword, sabre, fan, staff and the modern 24 and 42 forms. Focus is on health and also competition. It costs THB 2,400 for one year’s membership (THB 500 per month for short term visitors) or THB 50,000 for life. Foreigners in particular are welcome to have a free trial.
The group is very active in charity work and also has an full social life, meeting for events and travelling to other parts of the country to expand interest in tai chi.
Further on, just in front of the Friendship Pavilion, is the Yang tai chi group Xin Chun, established about twenty years ago. Master Zhou Chuifang of Shanghai happened to stop by the park on her way to Russia and was spotted practising by two tai chi students. They persuaded her to stay in Bangkok, where she founded the group. She never made it to Russia, though she did return to China some years later. Since then she has made regular visits, but recently realised a long-held wish to become a Buddhist nun and so will no longer teach tai chi.
There are two resident teachers, named Ruttiya and Parichart, the latter being one of the original students. The group practise all the Yang and competition forms as well as sword, sabre and fan. Their key focus is on exercise, though health, posture and competition are all cited as important motivations. The group has about fifty members and is one of the early starters, practising from 5.30am to 7.30am. They have American, Hong Kongese, Swiss and French members, most of whom are aged around sixty five to seventy. A monthly fee of 500 THB is levied for expenses and a free trial is offered. It is described as a friendly group, with people looking forward to coming. They meet occasionally outside the park for visits or parties.
In addition to the many tai chi groups, Lumpini boasts a few less sedate martial art classes. Practising on Sunday mornings only is Wing Chun, the Hong Kong kung fu style made famous by Bruce Lee and Ip Man. Teacher Mr Anant has studied martial arts since 1970, including Muay Thai, Taekwondo, tai chi and boxing. He spent some years in the USA as the student of Sifu Robert Chu, learning Ip Man Wing Chun Kuen and other Wing Chun system. He returned in 1988 to establish the Wing Chun group in Bangkok. His own studies with Sifu Chu are ongoing, ensuring that he continues to improve and develop his kung fu.
The group can be found near the rear of Lumpini Hall and practice various hand and weapon forms including staff and wooden dummy. They also do qi gong and breathing exercises. Focus is on internal feelings and ensuring that traditional practice is retained in Thailand.
Mr Anant offers private lessons at his home and there is a second instructor as his own business activities sometimes make it impossible for him to lead the class. There is a 1,000 THB joining fee plus 500 THB per month. Free trials are not available as training is a long process requiring a high level of commitment. Members are vetted before being admitted to the group.
Since 1988 Mr Anant has taught over one thousand students, including those from the USA, Australia, Canada, Singapore and Malaysia. Current membership is around forty to fifty. There is a large age range with original students continuing to train and the newest members in their teens.
Shi Ba (18) Lou Han
Another kung fu group which meets only at the weekend (Saturday and Sunday 7am – 10am) in front of the Chinese Pavilion is Shi Ba (18) Lou Han. Master Malee, who studied Wushu in the USA, started the group twenty five years ago in order to preserve the knowledge of this southern style Chinese kung fu. The current teacher is Master Seng, who has been studying kung fu since 1989. Students train staff, boxing, sabre and the 18 Lou Han or 18 Golden Shaolin Monks form. The focus is health, and to a lesser extent, self-defence.
There are between ten and twenty members at present, and there have been students from France, England, Germany and the USA. Average age at twenty is much younger than most of the martial art groups in the park. There is a fee of 500 THB per month, and private lessons are also available at 1,000 THB per hour. It is possible to have a free trial. Although there are no social gatherings, the members are close and have fun practising. They describe themselves as being like brothers and sisters, with everyone relaxed and equal.
Japanese Old Martial Art Kobujutsu
Back at the main park gates, behind the small shop from 10am until 12pm on Saturdays and Sundays you will find Japanese Old Martial Art Kobujutsu. Sensei Kurishima came to Thailand from his native Japan twenty years ago and established the group five years later. His studies have included kendo, karate, English boxing, aikido, judo and knife throwing. He teaches jo (a Japanese staff about 130cm in length), Japanese sword and long stick to a group of about ten students.
Classes are free and there have been many students over the years, mainly from Thailand and Japan. The current oldest student is fifty eight, but age is unimportant to the style. Connecting with the universe is the main focus.
Fred Behar (Ecole d’Equilibre Central)
Between November and May you will also find the Frenchman Frederick (Fred) Behar, head of Ecole d’Equilibre Central, in Lumpini Park. He has been visiting Bangkok during the winter for fifteen years and spends three hours each morning practising tai chi and push hands. He is currently at Lumpini on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, and other days at the smaller Benjasiri Park on Sukhumvit. When he is not in Thailand he is based in St Remy sur Durolle, Auvergne, France, holds occasional push hands workshops around Europe and also teaches at international tai chi gatherings.
Fred says that he does not have a master and is not affiliated with any school. He has searched but not found the principles he wishes to follow with other teachers. He practises the style of Yang Jian Hou, forms of 73 and 201 movements plus fixed push hands with the emphasis very much on not using excessive force. This is also his key focus and his tai chi orientation is the philosophical. He explains “I don’t win, it’s the other who loses.” He practises with his long term student who came to Bangkok three years ago and implored him to teach her.
Others are welcome to join in and he has had students from Thailand, China, Malaysia, France, Italy, Sri Lanka, England and Australia, mainly interested in push hands. Stretching and mobility are important aspects of Fred’s style and thus training. Price varies and there is no charge for one time students. Fred visits Malaysia twice a year to push hands with the local groups in Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
Deng Wenping (Taiji Anapanasati)
Deng Wenping of Taiji Anapanasati is another sporadic visitor to the park. He first learnt tai chi from the caretaker at his school, real life imitating art in the form of the film Karate Kid. Deng went on to study with Wu Hao master Li Wei Ming in Lumpini. He now practises the Yang 85 and Wu Hao forms with his own revisions as well as push hands. He has taught in the Confucius Institute in nearby Chula University and also holds workshops in China.
The success of his internet blog and tai chi book mean that he is much sought-after, and pupils have come from Indonesia as well as China to study with him. The book, whose title translates to something like: “How to learn taiji quickly in the correct way,” is published by the Beijing Sports University Press. Unfortunately so far it is only available in Mandarin. Deng’s focus is on “pure” tai chi, internal changes, mind and breathing. He speaks of the knee and other physical problems prevalent in Chinese practitioners, which in his opinion arise from the emphasis on competition tai chi. His own goal is to improve health and teach easier ways of moving.
Taichi Chuan Renkokai
If you are looking for Chen style tai chi you might have to consider going outside Lumpini park. Former students of the Xin Chun group, Thai and Japanese couple Chaichan and Machiyo Pluksaranun started their own group, Taichi Chuan Renkokai, in 2006. They hold classes in Benjasiri Park and at their dojo nearby on Sukhumvit. In 2004 Machiyo spent two years studying Chen style at the Beijing Sports University, and Chaichan has also spent time in China at Chen Jia Gou, the birthplace of the art. The group is affiliated with Master Chen Xiao Xing, brother of the current lineage holder. They also teach Yang style tai chi.
A variety of forms are practised, including Chen small frame and sabre and all the competition forms. Although students take part in competitions, the group’s focus is on health and changing the condition of the body. Many students come from Japan (although there have been others from Italy, Taiwan and Spain). The Japanese are often in Thailand on business contracts for three or four years and like to compete to have a memory for when they return to their own country.
Machiyo’s classes are at the dojo Monday to Thursday between 10am and 12pm. Chaichan teaches on Sundays from 7am to 8.30am in the park. Other times he is busy with his work, Painless Swing Therapy, a Japanese manipulation technique which provides non-intrusive pain relief.
There are about thirty members in the group, most aged around forty five. A free trial is offered, but thereafter it is 1,000 THB per annum with classes at 2,500 THB reducing to 2,000 THB for the Sunday lesson. In keeping with Japanese tradition, performances are held to celebrate the group’s third, fifth, seventh and tenth anniversaries.
Yuan Quan Tai Chi Wudang Hui
Over in the large park on Suan Luang Rama IX, away from the commercial district of Bangkok, is the Yuan Quan Tai Chi Wudang Hui group. They were established eight years ago as a result of a visit by Master Qian Yuan Ze of Nanjing, one time coach to the national team of China. The teacher in situ is Ajan Mon, who has some twenty years tai chi experience, and the master continues to visit most years for a two month period.
Style is Yang and Chen (not Wudang despite the name) and the group practise all the modern competition forms as well as Yang 48 and 86. Student motivation is mainly health, but also competition and having fun (the group has fifteen juvenile members, the youngest only six years old). There are sixty five members, with an average age of fifty and only one foreigner at present, long term member Bernard Orso who is from France. When I visited the group there was also a student from the USA, who was taking advantage of the one month free trial offered.
Practice hours are every day between 6.30am and 9am, extended to midday on Sundays. The cost is 1,200 THB plus 200 THB per month payable annually, with an additional 5,500 THB for the master’s visit.
The group is know for its hard working seriousness and discipline. They are very active in the Tai Chi Association and are involved in setting new standards for tai chi in Thailand including a new test for teaching each form, and giving demonstrations throughout the country.
Muay Thai: Lumpinee Boxing Stadium
Thailand’s national sport is Muay Thai boxing, with the most famous venue, Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, a stone’s throw away from the park. Sadly, the stadium was demolished in 2014 and moved to brand new purpose built premises twenty kilometres away. However, boxers can still be seen running in the park and training at the three outdoor gyms.
Lumpini plays host to many other groups, whose activities range from ballroom dancing to meeting friends for a game of chess or a pot of tea. Apart from those I have mentioned, there are other tai chi clubs and a number practising qi gong. There are also many other martial arts groups in Bangkok, and an early morning visit to almost any of the parks will uncover a group of tai chi enthusiasts practising before the day gets too hot, or they are obliged to go to work. I would particularly recommend dropping in on Song Narongchai and Saran Rom Tai Chi Group, Yang stylists who are based in a small but lovely park near Wat Pho and the Royal Palace.
2016 Tai Chi Competition of Thailand
The 2016 Tai Chi Competition of Thailand will be held on 5 November. Now in its twelfth year, the competition attracts entrants from other countries and this year organisers are offering a hotel and tour package deal to foreign teams. Unfortunately, push hands is less common and not currently included in the competition, although perhaps this will change in years to come. Whilst Thailand may not be associated with tai chi in the same way as China, it is certainly a popular past-time here and its popularity shows no signs of diminishing.
Thailand Association of Tai Chi competition: www.taijithai.net
Push hands in Lumpini Park: https://www.facebook.com/bangkokpushhands
Mr Song Narongchai demonstrates an old Yang family form in Lumpini Park: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlBsN5sO8us
You can read more about visiting Thailand to study tai chi in my book, The Tai Chi Companion. This practical guide contains a range of exercises and activities. It includes sections on opening the joints, improving mobility, stretching muscles and relaxation of both body and mind, designed specifically to complement the study of tai chi. There’s also guidance on taking up tai chi and and studying abroad, information on different styles and a wry look at the competing versions of its history. It is available from Amazon, the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain’s shop and other online retailers as a paperback and e-book.
Author: Lucy Gardner
Images: Lucy Gardner