How to define an adventure traveler? There's really no one way.
Some travelers would call an adventure nothing less than barreling down death road on a bicycle at 15,000 feet; others like their adventure in the ease and comfort of quiet contemplation along El Camino Santiago.
What most adventures have in common, though, is living out a dream. You dream, you travel, you gain a new perspective on who you are and your place in the world.
“I think you have to know who you are. Get to know the monster that lives in your soul. Dive deep into your soul and explore it.” -- Tori Amos
At its heart, adventure travel is about stimulation, learning, achievement, and growth as a human being. It is overcoming uncertainty, solving problems, handling adversity, and facing the unknown with confidence.
Travel adventure is more about proving to yourself what you can do than about proving it to others.
Travel adventure isn't just a daredevil's pursuit. It can involve almost any kind of activity, from tasting exotic foods to scaling the world's tallest mountains, if it satisfies an inner longing.
Among the many travel roads less taken, and one of the most grueling, perhaps, is Muay Thai fighting in Thailand.
Why Muy Thai?
Muay Thai rivals any competition I've been to in my travels, including the ultra-impassioned play of the Caribbean World Series of Baseball in Mexico, and the sheer craziness of championship futbol, or soccer, matches in Medellin, Colombia.
The color, pageantry, tradition, and excitement of Thailand's Muay Thai boxing, and its courageous competitors, are among the best in all of professional sports.
Muay Thai also allows fans an intimacy with the fighters that is unparalleled in my experience with sports.
In Muay Thai stadiums I've been to, you are free to wander close to the ring, and even into the preparation and post-fight areas where you can talk to the fighters.
That's how I met my American friend Kalil Zender. I didn't know who she was when I saw her fight on my first visit to Thailand last year. But I noted in the program that she was a fellow American.
After she destroyed her opponent that night, I followed her into the post-fight area and struck up a conversation as her trainers unwound yards of protective cloth wrapping from her hands.
I learned then that Kalil is a Michigan native and a literature student, a rare and intriguing combination of interests.
Our conversation was brief but I said I'd contact her when I returned to Thailand. I did and we'd often have lunch talking over the arc of her life from female academic to professional Asian martial artist. It didn't hurt that she was fascinating, impassioned, and articulate.
The Path of A Warrior Princess
Kalil -- her parents named her after Kahlil Ghibran, though without the 'h' -- was born and raised by artistic and pioneer-spirited parents in a cabin without electricity in the frigid upper peninsula of Michigan, near the shores of Lake Superior. For several long dark months of the year, they were practically snowed in.
But there Kalil learned self-reliance and survival skills, how to draw from within herself the ability to achieve in harsh conditions. She would roam the surrounding forests on her own, learning the skills, mental and physical, that were crucial to survival.
Without TV or video games, she was an avid reader, devouring tales of travel and adventure.
When her family mounted snowmobiles for the long treks to her grandmother's home in the nearest town with electricity, she would look forward to seeing the heroic and capable TV characters she loved to watch. Her favorite was Zena: Princess Warrior.
Her brother, seven years her senior, attended a Muay Thai gym in another town and regaled her with what he'd learned about the traditional, national sport of exotic, tropical Thailand.
That's when Kalil's dream started taking shape. She quietly promised herself that one day she would fight Muay Thai and be her own warrior princess.
After a year in a Michigan university literature program, she moved to Thailand for the first time. She enrolled in a Muay Thai gym and the seeds of her dream began sprouting. But then the assistant professor of literature returned to the U.S. to continue on her academic track toward a graduate degree. She was almost there, when she could no longer contain her longing for Thailand.
She announced to her family and astonished university professors that she would abandon her academic career and return to Thailand to fulfill her destiny. Her parents, who understood the call of the wild in their daughter, supported her.
Knowing the Monster
Kalil was then fully committed to Muay Thai. She hungered to learn as much and as fast as she could and compete in the ring for as long as she was able. When she could no longer fight, she would parlay her experience into opening a training gym of her own in the U. S.
Kalil won an impressive victory in her first fight back in Chiang Mai in March. Afterward, she wrote an upbeat message to friends validating her lifestyle, expressing a new-found sense of confidence in herself. She knew she had made the right decisions. She was enjoying life, training hard, and feeling good about her future.
Then on May 14, after more than 30 professional Muay Thai bouts, she suffered her first serious injury in the ring.
Which brought everything to a halt.
I was seated ringside, cringing at the spectacle. It wasn't that she was hit, nor was it an awkward move on her part. Her knee just gave way. You can look at one of the photos below to see perhaps why.
The first photo was taken right after she collapsed as the referee assesses the injury and calls off the fight, awarding her opponent an easy victory.
The other is Kalil high-kicking about a month before the fight during training at Xmax Thai Boxing Club, her gym in Chiang Mai.
Now take a good, hard look at the back of that taut right knee, how stressed and strained it is.
Muay Thai fighter training typically takes place in grueling two-hour sessions, twice a day, six days a week. It's an extreme conditioning and preparation program that dedicated, disciplined and determined Muay Thai athletes undergo to compete.
Imagine the stresses and strains on those muscles, tendons, and ligaments in Kalil's right knee as it supports the tremendous power generated in the high leg kick practiced over and over and over in the quest for athletic perfection.
It just popped at a most inopportune moment.
Going Down And Getting Up
Kalil was carried out of the ring. But not away from Muay Thai.
The knee didn't require surgery, just long rest and strenuous rehab.
The layoff was an opportunity to visit family and friends in the U.S.
Now, in a couple of months, she expects to resume full training, determined to get back in the ring.
For a foreigner's pursuit of Muay Thai in the sport's traditional, cultural home, the dream of fighters like Kalil is fraught with not only physical challenges, but with strong emotional and mental tests of will, which put together, create a path of adventure travel in the truest sense.
Traveling to a foreign land and learning the language, the customs, and traditions of a different, time-honored culture are necessary to make it possible.
To overcome these obstacles, one must tap a deep, inner well of self-confidence to find the courage and fortitude to see the dream fulfilled.
These are the traits and characteristics that all adventure travelers rely on in one form or another to succeed in fulfilling their dream.
But only the ones like Kalil Zender have the strength of character to make the pursuit of their dream such a travel adventure in the extreme.
Sometimes I wonder why there isn't an adventure travelers hall of fame. Travelers like Kalil could be among its charter inductees.
I'm a retired journalist from Hawaii who tired quickly of retirement and hit the road as a slow solo world traveler in August 2016. I've spent time in 18 countries on four continents and right now I'm enjoying life in Penang, Malaysia.
I've been interviewed about my travels by Nomadic Matt, and Expat Focus, and here's a great story by veteran Borneo newsman and writer James Ritchie, about our meeting in Kuching, titled, A Confluence of Adventure Writers .
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