The Ancient Sport of Lethwei

Whenever I travel to an Asian country, I always try to find drop-in kickboxing classes in order to add a different style to my repertoire. Many countries in that part of the world have their own martial arts disciplines, and in Southeast Asia, Muay Thai and its variants are king. Naturally, one of the things that excited me the most when I found out I was moving to Myanmar was the amazing opportunity to learn authentic Muay Thai. After all, Myanmar and Thailand share more than just a long border. After asking around and doing some research, I found out that Muay Thai wasn’t as popular as I thought. Many people attributed it to the long-standing rivalry between the two countries. So I thought ok, let’s find the Burmese version of the sport. Turns out that Burma has three main national sports. One of them is chinlone, which is kind of like hackeysack that is immensely popular throughout Southeast Asia. The other two are bando and lethwei, two types of martial arts that were historically used by the Burmese to fight invaders or conquer other lands. Thailand comes to mind.

Bando feels like a hybrid between karate, kickboxing, and kung-fu. In fact, both Bando and Kung Fu share a common origin in China. I was fortunate enough to be able to take classes at the school I taught at. The teacher was quite the character: a 60-year old man who used to work as part of government security (note: military dictatorship) now laughing at the foreigner whenever he ran out of breath. I didn’t, but he liked to joke about it.

Lethwei would be the Burmese version of Muay Thai, and a much more dangerous one, considering head butts are fair game. That is, if you’re not punching your opponent with your bare knuckles. Since the country opened up in 2010, lethwei has attracted many followers and is increasingly becoming a popular sport, especially outside of the country. Rules are now being implemented to standardize competitions and to minimize damage to the fighters. CNN did a piece about it last year here.

On one of my last Sundays in Myanmar I was able to catch a local tournament with some friends. It was hard-hitting, gritty, and brutal. I remember the ferocity of the fighters much more than in the Muay Thai match I saw in Bangkok only a week before. I tried to process these photos with the same gritty feel that I remember from that day.

Tools of the day: Nikon D7000 + 18-75mm