Lethwei in Yangon
Until recently, Myanmar’s doors remained only slightly ajar to foreign visitors. The gusts of political reform have blown open the gates to one of Asia’s most secretive countries. Today, the nation formerly known as Burma is changing at breakneck speed as it hurtles along its course to modernisation and full democracy. It’s old capital, Yangon, may have been usurped by the custom-built political centre Naypyidaw, but the colonial city is still the heart of the Burmese culture, with golden spires, crumbling British architecture and Lethwei, the brutal cousin of Muay Thai. Lethwei in Yangon was also in decline over the years, but the sport has begun to grow again thanks to political reform.
Lethwei is known as the art of nine limbs, as it utilises all of the strikes of Muay Thai, but also includes headbutts and throws not permitted in Thailand. Gloves are not worn, just hand wraps and tape, and a knockout is the only way to win. Regular fights pack out Aung San and Thuwanna Stadiums in Yangon. For decades, outsiders only had a glimpse of Lethwei through grainy videos of bareknuckle fights between Thailand and Myanmar in border villages. While the video technology has evolved, Lethwei has remained as brutal as ever. The real difference is that foreign fighters, such as Canadian Dave Leduc, are beginning to infiltrate the top levels of the sport, formerly the reserve of legendary fighters like Tway Ma Shaung.
Gyms in Yangon have begun to welcome more foreigners each year. Thut Ti is an older gym run by famed fighter Lone Chaw and original owner Win Zin Oo. The basic gym has a small stable of fighters, such as their champion Shan Ko, but also sees a few foreigners looking for an authentic Lethwei training camp. Newer camps like Phoenix Myanmar Lethwei Gym have modern facilities akin to those in Bangkok. Phoenix appeals to many foreigners as it has a comfortable, indoor training environment. Whether you want comfort or spit and sawdust, Yangon has what you are searching for. The hope for promoters is that Lethwei in Yangon will be like Muay Thai in Bangkok.
Known to the British as Rangoon, Yangon is an architectural relic. Colonial edifices sit side-by-side with towering Burmese pagodas. The unbelievably beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda is the city’s golden crown. 99 metres tall, covered in 24 carat gold and topped with a 76 carat diamond surrounded by 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, it is a true world wonder. The spiritual pivot of Burma is a jaw-dropping contrast to the poverty that everyday Burmese live in.
Second-hand Japanese Toyota Corolla taxis with home-made replacement seats and missing floor panels crawl through the city’s permanent traffic jam. Huge wads of low denomination Burmese Kyat stretch your pockets, after a visit to money changers who accept only crisp US dollars in exchange. Feeling like a gangster with your cash roll, you scour the city streets in search of sustenance. The Muslim quarter close to the Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon has the best curries and biriyanis in the city. Cups of milky Burmese tea are poured continuously in the central market by men in sarong-like longyi with the air permeated by the smell of fermenting fish.
Yangon is the ultimate time capsule Asian city and you should see it soon, before developers turn it into a clone of any other Southeast Asian cityscape.
Photos by talented Burmese photographer Zarni Phyo.