“Lethwei, the Burmese no gloves boxing martial art had captured my imagination. Not knowing what to expect, I booked a flight to Yangon.”
Below is the short film I made in Myanmar, followed by some screen grabs and an excerpt from the journal I kept.
The film is in Burmese and English, with sub-titles for both audiences.
Some notes on what it was like arriving in Yangon with the plan to learn about Lethwei and make a short film.
This was the fight sport that in its traditional form had no rounds, no points and of course, no gloves. It was essentially boxing by submission, where to win, a fighter would have to force a concession or up to three knockouts before a bout was discontinued.
Burma, newly branded as Myanmar, perhaps as an attempt to distance itself from a tumultuous past, is a land of fifty million people, mainly Buddhists, that has remained largely closed to the outside world.
Flying in over Yangon, there wasn’t much of a cityscape, just quartered up rice and grain paddies separated by embankments on a flat, yet invoking landscape. The sun was low in the sky and glistened yellow, as it created a flare on the airplane’s window. I peered out and shot stills past the wing, reaching over the sleeping Thai man sat next to me, thinking to myself, this is a spectacular place.
My contact, let’s call him A, greeted me at the airport dressed in a camo tee shirt and sarong, his wiry frame booming with energy and enthusiasm. I had been in put in touch with A through an editor friend who had just written an article about martial arts in Asia. After a few emails exchanged, A agreed to help me find a group to train with over a ten-day trip.
The map of Yangon I was given only covered an area 10 x 15 km. Outside of that apparently, ‘there wasn’t much’.
When I arrived, the apartment I was supposed to live in during training was still under construction. They had cleared a room in the construction site, with a mat and bottle of drinking water. I wanted to live and train like a Burmese fighter, nothing more, nothing less.
I surrendered my passport, which would then be taken to the local counsel for registration. A few hours later, I was told my request for lodging at the construction site was denied. My local contact’s advice was to just keep the door locked and ‘stay quiet’ if the police came to check at night.
Instead of hiding out, I took my pack and went for a walk around the city. I stumbled upon the China Town Inn, a friendly, yet run down establishment with the reception on the second floor. For $20 per night, this was going to be home.
The following day, I was picked up by my contact and taken to Win Zin Oo’s Thut-Ti gym to meet veteran Burmese fighter Lone Chaw, a national icon. I was welcomed graciously to observe the professional fighters training and took a few pictures. Before long, they asked me if I wanted ‘to play’. That was my cue to put on my shorts and put away the camera.
These were hard fighters with soft smiles. They were overflowing with laughter, radiating with energy and positivity. They had legs like tree trunks from the ankles up with vascular calves and tattoos but with the gentlest eyes, despite cuts on faces and blood in one’s eye.
One fighter trained with a broken hand that was still healing from repeated strikes to an opponent’s face. When asked about it through the translator, he sheepishly grinned and nodded humbly.
As I began my training session with the veteran fighter, the others stopped to watch. I was there to learn and would do my best to gain their acceptance.
I could tell they did not quite know what to make of me and was later told that until trust has been formed they will not share techniques, mindful that knowledge can be used against an opponent.
At the end of my first session with Lone Chaw, I was drenched in sweat, dirty and smiling ear to ear. I took off my shirt to dry and Lone Shaw, concerned for my health, gave me the shirt off his back telling me to be cautious not to catch a cold. At the end, the fighters came to say hello and smiled. We agreed I would see them the next day in the morning and train two times per day after that.
That night, I took some notes in my hotel, then went to buy bug spray and emptied a can in the room before venturing out for dinner. Chicken soup was starting to taste like the standard form of nourishment for breakfast, lunch and dinner. To try something new, in a restaurant where they only had a Burmese language menu, I decided to adventurously just point at a menu item and nod and see what it was when it arrived in front of me.
The day before, I took a business card, in Burmese, from a restaurant close to where the professional fighters trained. I used this to tell a taxi driver where I was going, across town, then knew how to navigate to the gym from the restaurant.
It was still early by the time I got to the gym. The cold concrete on my bare feet felt like winter at home.
The warm-up, I learned, is the same every day. It starts with a fifteen-minute routine bouncing on an old tire alternating positions each minute. For the first minute, you jump in a fighting stance ten times, then switch stances, going back and forth until the minute is up. Then, you do jumping lunges for a minute on the tire, before switching back to the alternating fighting stances.
Lone Chaw, the veteran, sat with his legs crossed, reading the newspaper, chewing betelnut as I hit the tire. He could not have been less interested in watching me bounce on the tire, nearly to exhaustion, before we even started to train. I thought to myself, the man has done what I was doing enough in his lifetime.
After the first two minutes on the tire, I was ready to call it a day. Obviously, that wasn’t an option. I just thought to myself, only thirteen minutes to go.
I was starting to wonder what, exactly, I was doing in a no gloves boxing gym in Yangon, Myanmar.
As I jumped bare foot up and down on the tire, the skin wore off my toes, they started to bleed, and we hadn’t even started boxing. The younger fighter with the broken hand, Ko Mu Do, noticed, and pointed to how the tire was torn where it wore on my toes, and turned it over for me even though I wasn’t about to complain. Lone Chaw didn’t take his stare off his newspaper as I bounced up and down, up and down on the tire. Later, I learned that it was okay to use shoes when bouncing on the tires during warm up. Makes sense.
Following the warm-up I had a stretching session with Shan Ko, who had teeth implants behind his ready smile. Apparently his teeth had been gradually knocked out over a number of fights. He was always happy and joking. His kicks could chop down a tree.
Lone Chaw and I continued the sequences we had worked on the day before. He was patient, but also demanding and let me know with a quick jab if I had my guard down or was being sloppy. I was getting discouraged with my left kicks, but Lone Chaw cheered me on as I made it through the sets. The hour training session passed quickly, after some new punch, kick and knee sequences.
I picked up a taxi off the street back to my hotel. As I paid, the driver shyly asked if I had been with Lone Chaw. He knew, as did the rest of the neighborhood, where I had been and showed a big, grinning thumbs up as I closed the door.
Professional bouts were held at a stadium on the outskirts of Yangon. Opposed against the sunset sky, the stadium dominated the otherwise rural landscape.
We were taken through the back corridors to meet the young fighters about to test their skills and nerves. Some of them were downright handsome, in the primes of their lives. A few short minutes later, some would return to the locker rooms bloodied with swollen eyes and flaps of skin hanging from their faces, but, as I was learning, smiles were part of life here even after a fight.
There was a ferocity in the ring. Blood spattered to the tune of knuckles ramming against a boy’s head who would not quit, even after being knocked down, he just kept getting up for more and the referee did not stop the bout.
After dinner, driving along a boulevard bordering a large pagoda in Yangon, the taxi driver proudly told me he was born in Mandalay. His questions were simple but genuine. I could tell he was interested in where I was from, without trying to sell me anything. It was a refreshing experience as a tourist, to have a conversation, in passing, without any other looming exchange.
As we drove by Shwedegon Pagoda I felt an unfamiliar feeling reminiscent of my childhood. I realized it was because I was free in this old man’s taxi on the night streets of Yangon. I hadn’t a care in the world.
Back to my little hotel room that was feeling increasingly comfortable, I washed my shirt and socks, hung them up to dry, downloaded the days’ digital pictures, charged all batteries and went to sleep.