In readiness for husband James’ 40th birthday, I booked us onto, no, not a relaxing eat-and-drink-as-much-as-you-like long weekend away, but a full-on fitness bootcamp in the hills of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Here’s how we fared. (Warning: sweat and lycra feature heavily in the below gallery).
For many people, teetering on the brink of 40 is not fun. As one of James’s best friends helpfully commented to him recently, “You’re closer to the grave than the cradle.” With that touching thought in mind, I thought I’d find a retreat for us that would boost our fitness levels and make us feel in tip-top shape for his impending birthday. This was no yogic, deep-breathing, bendy retreat. This “break” was going to be full-on bootcamp exercise from dawn till dusk, with maybe a light meal thrown in.
The last time we’d visited Chiang Mai was in our distant youth, backpacking across Asia. We’d taken the train up from Bangkok, dirty old backpacks hanging on the racks above us, eating Cup Noodles on the way. Our first visit saw us trek up mountains, with me pathetically crying for help because I was so unfit. That’s what eating crisps and drinking beer for six months does to you; it was not one of my finest moments. This trip was going to be different.
British couple Louise and Richard Thomas set up Fresh Start Thailand Bootcamp in Chiang Mai at the beginning of 2010. Both have a strong background in health and fitness: Louise started her own high-energy aerobics business in the UK when she was just 19; Richard is an ex-British Royal Marines Commando Physical Training instructor, as well as a police officer in their home county of Somerset.
The programmes run week to week, with new arrivals arriving Friday evening or Saturday morning as the previous batch leaves. Some people go for one week or less (we went for five days, five nights); some choose to stay for longer. While we were there, one of our group members, Tom, decided to up his stay from one week to three, and another, Scott (the bootcamp’s “biggest loser” so far) agreed to return for an eight-week programme.
The number of trainers depends on the size of the group participating. There were nine in our group. Our leaders were Jaran Panichkul (JP) and Phil Burns, and Louise joined us from the UK.
Exercises are devised with all fitness levels in mind. James and I would have liked to think we were both relatively fit, but we were still continuously kept on our toes and struggled through plenty of the exercises.
The variety of activities on Fresh Start’s programme, from circuit training and a day of cycling to power-walking, hill sprints, Muay Thai and footie-fitness, meant that we were never bored, and never wondering when it was going to end. Some were purely physically challenging, but some, such as the team sports and rope games, required a combination of physical fitness and mental agility, as well as a good old competitive spirit.
Sample bootcamp days
– 7.45am to 8.30am: 4km walk to Prem International School to use its facilities.
– 8.30am to 10am: Cardio-tennis with La De, focusing on cardio improvement and played to Michael Jackson tunes.
– 10am to 11.30am: Team games, using mental and physical agility.
– 12.30pm to 1.45pm: Low ropes, a team game across a rope assault course.
– 2.30pm to 4pm: Circuits back at the spa’s X Track.
– 4.15pm to 5.15pm: Aqua-aerobics at the resort pool.
– Evening: Massage.
– 7am to 8am: Breakfast.
– 8.30am to 10am: At Huay Tung Tao Lake for walking and exercises.
– 10.30am to 11.30am: Circuits at Huay Kaew Park.
– 12pm to 1.30pm: Step challenge at Doi Suthep Temple.
– 2pm to 4pm: Muay Thai at KC Muay Thai gym.
– Evening: Infrared sauna.
JP was born in the US, schooled in Thailand then returned to the US where he spent over ten years in the army, including service in Iraq. He’s clearly über-fit, but also a caring guy who takes the time to get to know you and your aims. Phil told us that the only sport JP didn’t excel at was soccer, but he wasn’t exactly bad at that, either.
Phil Burns is originally from the UK, where he spent years coaching and playing professional football, notably for Reading, Portsmouth and the Manchester United youth team. He also volunteers for the Football Plus and Care for Children Christian charities in Chiang Mai, an indication of his generous and selfless nature.
The Chiang Mai resort
We reached the Spa Resort Chiang Mai, in Mai Rim, after a quick 45-minute transfer from the airport, included in the rates, and were welcomed with typical Thai warmth. Our deluxe pool room was on the ground floor, and had all the basics. What we appreciated as the week went on was that our direct neighbours were fellow bootcampers, so we were never short of a smiling face (or a grimace in pain!).
The deluxe pool rooms were undergoing renovation during our stay, and the Cloud 9 Sala, where some of the activities including the kettlebell classes, yoga and circuits were held, was earmarked for refurbishment after we had left.
Included in the Fresh Start programme were nightly one-hour massages alternating with one-hour sessions in the infrared sauna. Our days would often start at 7am and not finish until 5pm, with some rest time in between, so the saunas and massages were a much-needed distraction from the physicality of our days.
The resort is also known as a detox centre, offering a variety of courses for those interested in cleansing. These include a seven-day detox cleanse for first-timers, a “live younger longer retreat”, and a juicing retreat. Yoga and meditation programmes are also offered, and it’s not unusual to spot people wandering around the resort in a state of complete Zen, or someone carrying their own colon cleanse bucket, with nobody batting an eyelid.
What we were most apprehensive about, apart from the amount of exercise we’d be doing, was the food. What would we get? And how much would we get? When I first met our fellow bootcampers, one of my first questions was: “Have you been hungry?” The answer was a collective “no”.
The resort’s Radiance Restaurant specialises in vegetarian, vegan and raw foods, some of which are prepared with ingredients from its own organic farm, which grows 30 to 40 different fruits and vegetables depending on the season and need. There are also raw food classes, where guests can pick out some dishes from the menu and learn from the restaurant chefs how to prepare them.
Fresh Start has enlisted the help of raw food expert Sunny Griffin, who leads a weekly talk for the campers titled “Why Raw?” In this, she explains the advantages of eating raw food and why the enzymes that are found only in raw food are so good for us. High quality, healthy raw food features in the diverse menu at the restaurant.
Amy: “I lost 2.4kg in the four days we were there, two inches off my arms and 4.5 inches off my waist. This, coupled with the 7kg I’d lost since Chinese New Year, and the kilo I’ve lost since bootcamp in Chiang Mai, mean I’ve lost 10kg, which I’m over the moon about. I’ve changed many of my eating habits, and am loving mixing it up with my exercise, which has seen me playing with the Singapore Gaelic Lions Football Club (gaeliclions.com) and doing plenty of running, bootcamp, circuit training and more.”
James: “I was not 100 percent sure what to expect. I had visions of scary sergeant major types making my life hell as I waded through swamps and the like, and being fed only mung beans. The reality of the experience in Chiang Mai couldn’t have been more different.
First up, it’s hard work. It is after all a bootcamp for which you have signed up because you want to get healthier. You are exercising for around eight hours a day, which is tough. But the exercises are varied, which stops things being too repetitive.
Secondly, the instructors are great people who really work with you to make sure you are pushing yourself hard enough to gain the most benefit from your time there. They pride themselves on trying to understand your objectives and working with you to maximise your results.
Thirdly, the food. I was never hungry despite the strict calorie-controlled diet, and the food was delicious but ridiculously healthy. I never thought a raw lasagna could taste so good.
The accommodation was basic but clean. The place itself is beautiful, and the views from the exercise sala are breathtaking. Like all things in life, you get out what you put in, but I would go back in a flash.”
James’ statistics: 1.9kg weight loss, minus 2.5 inches from his arms, and minus 4 inches from his waist.
Samantha (fellow bootcamper and Aussie expat living in Hong Kong): “I hadn’t heard of Fresh Start previously but I wanted to find a fitness bootcamp; a Google search came up with Fresh Start and the reviews spoke for themselves.
After losing 6kg in January during my first Fresh Start camp experience, I still had more weight to lose after baby number three. I’d had a positive experience in January so I knew this was the place to return to. I can honestly say Fresh Start has changed my life.
All the trainers have their unique style to motivate, and I benefitted from all of them. I would be hard pushed to choose a favourite, but I got to know JP and Chris the most. And, I and participated in extra sessions of an evening to build up more strength. I’ve become a gym junkie now, spending two hours a day, six days a week with a combination of Crossfit, weights and boxing. I’ve already booked to return for a week in August.
Fresh Start should be a “must do” on anyone’s list. It doesn’t matter what level of fitness you start at. Everyone works as a team and bonds together to push each other through to meet their own individual goals. Yes, it is a bit of hard work, but there’s also a lot of laughing each day, and when you lie down in the evening you feel a sense of achievement.”
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