Luxury Resorts Are Using Martial Arts to Highlight Local Cultures
Plan a trip that's worth fighting for.
By Jennifer Flowers
May 26, 2021, 10:25 PM PDT

Capoeira practice at the UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa in Trancoso, Brazil Source: UXUA

I’d spent three intense years training in jeet kune do—an expression of martial arts Bruce Lee developed—before finally making it to Leung Ting Gym in Hong Kong’s neon-lit Yau Ma Tei neighborhood. Among fruit and jade markets, a narrow staircase leads up to this living piece of history. It’s named for one of the last disciples of Grandmaster Ip Man, one of Lee’s most influential teachers, who helped popularize a 300-year-old kung fu style called wing chun.

Leung Ting Gym doesn’t normally allow visitors or drop-in students, so it’s a treat that my concierge at the Rosewood Hong Kong has brought me this far. Through a small window on a mustard-colored door, he and I watch in awe as three students perform the circular and linear hand motions of chi sau. Cantonese for “sticky hands,” it’s a calm, fluid way to diffuse the energy of an attacking opponent, a centuries-old lesson in grace under pressure.

Peering in, I think about wing chun’s founder, a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui from China’s legendary Shaolin Temple. Her fighting system tailored for smaller people has emboldened me as a 5-foot-2 Asian-American woman.

Silat at One&Only Desaru Coast,Source: One&Only Resorts

When I started training, I thought it would just be something to practice at home. But as I learned at Leung Ting Gym, martial arts in their original context are a compelling portal into other cultures, each movement intertwined with heritage and philosophy. In France there’s savate, a 19th century kicking art that evolved from Parisian street fighting but has the elegance of ballet. The highly efficient krav maga used by the Israeli military was developed by Jews in 1930s Czechoslovakia to defend themselves against violence. Filipino martial arts is a beautiful but deadly practice that had to masquerade as a cultural dance after Spanish colonists banned it in the Philippines; now it’s recognized as a national treasure.

Several forward-thinking resorts today are harnessing the martial arts industry—which racks up an estimated $4 billion in the U.S. each year—as a way to meet travelers’ demands for authentic adventure experiences. An invitation into a master’s private world can feel like the kind of genuine insider hospitality that many travelers seek; it’s as culturally enriching as museums, theater, or food.

At the recently opened One&Only Desaru Coast, a resort on the tropical southern tip of Malaysia, guests can privately study the fundamentals of silat, a Southeast Asian fighting style practiced to the beat of single-headed kompang hand drums. The teacher is Muhammad Muiz, who holds the elusive master title with the country’s National Silat Federation. A 45-minute lesson costs $60 per person, the same as a private session with a tennis pro at the resort, but with the added dimension of showcasing Malaysian culture.

Kru Toom at Capella Bangkok Source: Capella Bangkok
In Thailand the eight-month-old Capella Bangkok provides a similar service. When the pandemic subsides, the resort will be the only place in the city to take a private lesson with former muay thai champion Parinya Kiatbusaba, better known as Kru Toom. For $145 she’ll teach you the secrets behind using shins, knees, elbows, and fists as “eight limbs” for fluid combat in the resort’s tree-shaded courtyard by the Chao Phraya River. With the help of a translator, she’ll also offer some historical context for muay thai, derived from centuries of tactics used in the ancient Siamese kingdom, and share her personal journey becoming one of the world’s few transgender boxers.

The UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa in Trancoso, Brazil, pays allegiance to capoeira, an acrobatic regional dance created by enslaved West Africans in the 16th century. The resort, co-founded by Bob Shevlin and Wilbert Das, ex-creative director of fashion label Diesel SpA, opened in 2009 with a capoeira program for underprivileged kids at a local school—many of whom now teach at an academy that raises money by offering $60-an-hour private lessons to guests.

While I watch the class at Leung Ting Gym, my concierge improvises in Cantonese, hoping to broker access on my behalf. Eventually the door opens. The space is so minuscule, only I can enter—and just for a few minutes. I take in the elegant Chinese calligraphy on the walls, the soft-spoken direction from the sifu, or teacher, and the shuffling of the students’ feet.

I fixate on the wooden mook jong practice dummy in the corner, a replica of which sits in my own school back in Brooklyn. It’s an emblem of a tradition that’s crossed many generations, and the sight of it here, thousands of miles from New York, reminds me that these students and I share a rare and refined language. I’ve never felt so at home.