You can hear it...even on top of the frenetic music and yelling crowd, you can still hear it. Those nearly bare knuckles hitting his face is something I will never forget. The sound of flesh bludgeoning flesh inside a ring is something simultaneously beautiful and brutal.
This place is really dark and full of smoke. You can chew the humidity and taste the sweat coming from the fighters and spectators alike. I am the only foreigner here, and locals are taking pictures with me while trying to guess what the hell I’m doing there. It is not easy for an outsider to venture into a local Lethwei tournament in Mandalay, Myanmar. How did I get here?
I was traveling through southeast Asia when I was offered a job as a Spanish teacher in a small hostel/art school. I had already read about Lethwei, and my mission was to train whatever martial art the good people of Mandalay would teach me. So for a year I studied Bando with one of the most respected coaches in the region, Moe Gyi.
Bando, alongside with Lethwei (think Muay Thai with no gloves), Naban (an ancient form of grappling) and Banshay (the use of weapons), are the four branches of Myanmar Thaing, a group of martial arts that has been taught here for centuries.
It wasn't easy at all to find a place to begin training Lethwei. I started to ask around, following some threads I found on the Internet. But the language barrier was very difficult to overcome, so even if I made it to the right place, it would be closed when I got there. Or maybe I would find some people training, but they wouldn't speak any English, and needless to say, my Burmese was non-existent. Luckily, the owner of the hostel, a very cool and outgoing father of six kids, took me to a couple of Lethwei dojos after I explained to him what my goal was.
A Lethwei dojo is nothing more than an open field of rocks and sand where kids punch and kick piles of old tires with no gloves or shin guards (or trainers for that matter). Bare knuckles, bare feet, bare soul, all heart. Whenever I stepped in a Lethwei gym, all eyes would fix on me, wondering what the hell this white dude was doing there.
Somehow I never managed to train in those places, mainly due to communication issues with the coaches regarding training times and methodology. The people of Myanmar have a very confusing and misleading way of talking. Imagine a person from Asia avoiding conflict in a conversation and multiply that by a million. They avoid giving accurate information and talk in a way that will never divulge the full story, tiptoeing around the topic with ambiguous answers.
In the end, I met a Scotsman who told me about a gym where a lot of people train different martial arts on a basketball court. Are you kidding me? I am in!
This place did not disappoint. It was like being in a dream (if you are a freak like me, that is). As I stepped onto the basketball court, I could see a bunch of guys doing Taekwondo. Other groups were practicing Wushu (Chinese Kickboxing), Banshay (martial arts with weapons) and Bando (the smaller brother of Lethwei).
To accomplish my mission, I brought a Burmese girl I met at the hotel I was living at to avoid any communication gaps. Even still, this was no easy task. After 30 minutes of talking, the only information I got was that I may or may not be able to train with them, because they had never trained a white dude before. And when I asked about how much it would cost, they replied, “Money, okay.”
I am laughing as I type this right now, but back then it was a bit frustrating. That is one thing you learn from Myanmar people: we all need to chill the fuck out. Western people are so used to having control. Everything has to be stated, written on a document, published somewhere, and so on. The people of Myanmar taught me a very important lesson, so little by little, I became more and more careless.
Eventually I started training there. The first day, I wore my fancy Western training clothes and never felt more ridiculous in my life. These guys trained barefoot on concrete, wearing jeans and shirts. They just couldn't afford different clothes to train in, and they were looking at me like I was different (because I fucking was). So I immediately removed my training shoes to fit in better.
Then the pain started. I am not going to lie, the soles of my feet were destroyed within the first 10 minutes. Imaging doing sidekicks with bare feet on concrete. That is correct, the skin on your soles tears apart very easily. That first day I walked back home with bleeding feet. Same for the second day, and the third. It wasn't until the third week that my soles became hard as rocks.
I kept training with them that year, and I learned a lot of cool techniques, very similar to Muay Thai. They use throws, clinches and spinning elbows, too. Being the only foreigner on the court always made me feel funny. More people started training with us just because they heard a stupid white dude from some weird European country was there punching and kicking.
Then one day, my coach asked me to have a boxing match with one of the other students who was preparing for his first Lethwei fight. Imagine a Muay Thai fight with no gloves, no points and headbutts. The only way to win is to knock your opponent unconscious. My boxing skills are fairly good, so I helped this guy, a civil engineer, get ready.
Fast forward to the present. The Lethwei stadium is in a part of the city I have never been to before despite living here for almost a year. Obviously, I am the only foreigner here, so a constant stream of stares and smiles flow my way the moment I arrive. People walk up to me to take pictures and ask me if I am fighting tonight (I try not to roll my eyes).The atmosphere can be taken from an old kung fu movie, very dark, smokey and loud as fuck. You can feel the chaos in the air.
The civil engineer’s bout is scheduled first. The music plays, and rather suddenly, it’s on. The fans cheer over the speakers, but I can still hear the sounds of fists and shins connecting from my seat. My teammate wins with a flurry of precise elbow strikes. When his opponent falls to the canvas, he immediately kneels to offer respect to his opponent's team. I feel privileged to have been a small part of such a special experience and tradition.