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Sichuan woman cycles 2,400 km to learn Thai martial art

By YANG WANLI in Bangkok | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-12-13 09:48

Li Zhenxiang is warmly welcomed by Muay Thai superstar Buakaw Banchamek in Chiang Mai in November. CHINA DAILY

Cycling over 2,400 kilometers from Southwest China's Sichuan province to Thailand to learn a Thai martial art, Li Zhenxiang, 35, never imagined she would get an opportunity to be trained by Muay Thai superstar Buakaw Banchamek.

Li, who spent 35 days cycling across Vietnam and Laos to North Thailand's Chiang Mai, described her trip as "fate".

She loves outdoor adventures, and she used to ride a motorcycle or bike across China. Li has traveled to Xizang autonomous region — which has some of the world's most challenging riding routes — eight times.

However, she has little experience when it comes to Muay Thai, a Thai martial art. Having learned the basic skills during her weekly exercises at a club in Sichuan, she decided to travel to Thailand after the tea house she used to run had to be shut down due to operational issues.

"That was the time that I knew I should take a rest," she said.

One of her clients who owned a Muay Thai club suggested to Li that she explore more of the Thai martial art. "It was the greatest-ever decision I've made in my life," she said.

Cross-border cycling and spending many nights in a tent is something most people can hardly imagine. But Li said she was blessed to have received support from people en route. "In Laos, I spent only one night camping in a park because local people were very hospitable. They invited me to stay in their homes or camp in their courtyard."

But the most memorable moment came after her road adventure was covered by media in both China and abroad. Muay Thai champion Buakaw, who read Li's story, shared it on his Facebook account and asked his followers to "give the Chinese woman a warm welcome".

"As fellow fans of Muay Thai, we should be proud that foreigners also admire our national martial art," the Facebook post said.

"I was astonished to know that Buakaw would like to see me at his training camp in Chiang Mai. This is such a great honor that I could never imagine in my life, and I believe it's also a dream for many Muay Thai fans worldwide," Li recalled during a recent conversation.

With a feeling of nervousness, Li initially pitched her tent at a site about 40 km from the Banchamek Boxing Camp, where Buakaw holds his training. "I had to be well-prepared both mentally and physically to meet such a superstar for the first time," she said.

The next morning, Li spent two hours at a coffee shop located some 3 km from her destination.

"I was too nervous and I stopped to have a cup of coffee. I wanted to make sure I looked good, energetic, tidy and clean," she said.

However, all her nervousness vanished when she met Buakaw. She described the Muay Thai legend as "an idol who uses bonding humor, says amusing things, tells jokes, engages in witty banter and generally lightens the mood".

Female fighters

In the past, women were viewed as "unclean" and were not allowed to enter the Muay Thai ring as it was considered a sacred space. Only in the past few years have things changed, and women have been able to make an impact as "Muay Ying", or female fighters.

After she began training under Buakaw, Li abstained from alcohol and woke up at 6 am six days a week with three sessions per day.

"People ask me about … 'tricks' or 'special skills' Buakaw has taught me. My answer is: the longer you learn from Buakaw … (you realize that) what has led to his success is the daily practice of the most basic movements," she said.

"I'm aiming to qualify to take part in a contest in Thailand," Li said, adding that she needs to lose weight to become eligible for entry into the women's 48-kilogram category.

As her story went viral on the Chinese social media platform Weibo and was reported by media in countries she traveled through, many internet users commended Li's spirit of adventure. "The journey from China to Thailand (was) like a box of chocolates, which I surprisingly got a taste that I've never had before. I'm not sure of my destination, but I will always remember where and why I started," Li added.

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