Love and Building a Business Abroad

By Yana Fleming
Apr 28, 2017
Diana Campillo has lived in 10 countries and visited dozens more. She speaks Spanish, English, French, Italian and some Thai. A Brit by birth and Mexican by ancestry, she is my most American friend around here. When you ask about her favorite place to live growing up she fondly recalls, “Italy was fun because I was in my early teens, had lots of friends, started to find my freedom. I loved the food, the lifestyle. I lived in Genoa and traveled around Liguria. I loved to just get on the train visit a different town every weekend.”
Today, Diana is the co-owner of Rawai Muay Thai gym in Khao Lak, Thailand. How she came to be in “the fight game” is a story best told in her own words.

I am a middle age woman who took the road less traveled. Ended up with a life I could have never imagined

Where did you grow up?
The short answer is “all over.” I was born in London. Four years later, we moved to Paris. Four years after that we moved to Mexico City. Then to Washington D.C. for more four years. Then back to Mexico City for one year and to Genoa, Italy where I finished middle school. I completed high school in Boston. My Dad worked for the Mexican diplomatic service, and that’s why we moved around a lot. We were lucky to have such beautiful cities to live in though. My only complaint was having to make new friends and leave old ones behind. It was hard for me to deal with and was the cause of many arguments growing up.
How did you come to live in Thailand?
After September 11th, I began to question my life choices. I was finishing a Ph.D. program in Public Policy at the University of Maryland and doing an internship at the World Bank in D.C. My professors were supportive, and it looked as though I might be going into a life in Academia. But when the planes crashed on that fateful day in 2001, I realized how fickle life was. That it could end at any moment and I felt I still wanted to see more of the world. I did not want to focus only on work. So I made up my mind to travel again, and in 2002 I took a job in Chengdu, China, working as an English teacher at a local college.
After one year of working and traveling around China, I visited Thailand. On a boat trip to the Similan Islands, I bumped into my future husband, Tuk. He spoke little English, and I spoke no Thai but somehow we hit it off, and we have been married for 14 years.


Thai is a tonal language, and I can’t tell the difference between rice and knee 

What was it like learning Thai?
Well, it’s a work in progress. I find that learning a language is much easier as a child. With Thai, I focused on learning the numbers first. I would go to the markets and bargain with the sellers. I was not afraid of looking or sounding silly. Thai is a tonal language, unlike the Western languages. To my untrained ears, many words sound the same. I can’t tell the difference between rice and knee which in Thai are said almost the same (“khao”) but with slightly different tones. To make life easier I just try to keep my sentences short and talk with a monotone sound. Thai people understand me from the content of the whole sentence as opposed to the individual words.
How has it been blending into a Thai & Muslim family?
It was hard the first year, mostly because I was stubborn. Raised in the West, you are taught to speak up, to stand out. I hold freedom as a fundamental value, freedom of belief, of choice, of movement, everything. And as a woman, I hold these beliefs close to my heart.

With time, however, I learned to be flexible, to pick my battles.

My husband, Tuk, is Muslim and was raised in a lower class, traditional family. His parents are old school, and they did not approve of me in the beginning. With time, however, I learned to be flexible, to pick my battles. My husband also had to change his expectations, and we were able to meet in the middle.
I did not change much. Actually, I just stopped letting differences bother me. If I wanted to join in a family event, I would, and if not I wouldn’t. I stopped caring about what his family might think of me, of what locals might say. I just focused on Tuk, on our business, and with time, people accepted me as I am.

I was in love, I knew nothing about boxing but jumped at the idea of starting a business with Tuk

What are the biggest lessons you learned as an entrepreneur?
I learned to take risks but to also think things through. I was falling in love with a Thai boxer. I wanted to stay in Thailand but knew I could not stay a tourist forever. I had to find something to do. Tuk had been a fighter all his life; boxing was his passion. I knew nothing about it but jumped at the idea of starting a business together.
I was young enough to be fearless yet, old enough to be realistic. We needed funds, and I had some savings. Had I known back then all the hardships we would have to face, I might not have done it. But I also believe that life offers you opportunities, and I’m too curious not to take them.
We opened Rawai Muay Thai in November 2003. Back then there were few gyms in Phuket and none that taught foreigners in a camp setting. Back then people would visit a gym, take a class and head back to their hotel. We had the idea of building bungalows and having our guests stay in the camp. We wanted people to have an all-inclusive experience, to spend time with Thais, in and out of the ring. We started with one student, Adam from England. Now we have 15 trainers and around 30–40 students per month who visit us from all over the world.
How is it to raise third culture kids in a small town?
Our kids are 12 and 8, two girls. They are known in Thai as “Luk Krung,” or half children (half Thai and half foreign). I speak to them in English, although my mother tongue is Spanish. Living in Asia, I thought English would be more practical for them. Their father speaks to them in Thai.
We moved from Phuket to Khao Lak, about four years ago. We bought land in Khao Lak and built a second gym and moved our business here. Our gym rental contract finished in Phuket, and we wanted to be in a smaller, calmer place, better suited for people who want to train. However, Khao Lak is a small seaside town, a tourist destination, and thus has few schools.
The girls go to a school about 45 minutes away. When they get back home from school, they train at the gym. They seem happy. They are more Thai than foreign, I think…having been born here and lived in Thailand all their life. We do visit my family back in Mexico from time to time, and hopefully, the girls can live abroad when they finish high school, and see the world as I did.

Moving around taught me to be flexible, to accept people and cultures more and to judge less

Living abroad all my life molded me into who I am today. I am a person with no hometown, a person with few lifelong friends. Moving around was tough growing up, but it taught me to be flexible, to accept people and cultures more and to judge less. To understand that my way is not the only way. That there are infinite ways to look at the world and to do things. That is the beauty of the world, and traveling gives us a glimpse of it every day.