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A reminder - Lethwei and Muay Thai - What Wanting it Means


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First of all, apologies for bringing Myanmar traditional boxing (Lethwei) into this but as far as I understand muay boran (and other fighting styles in the region) originates from Lethwei. I feel there are some people who want to create an impression of animosity between lethwei and muay thai, but I just experience it as two beautiful versions of the same thing. Anyhow, one of my teachers sent me this old photo from his home in Kachin State, northern Myanmar and one of the most active armed conflict zones. And I wanted to share just to remind foreigners who come to fight in Thailand or Cambodia or Myanmar what cultures they are actually interacting with and where your trainers actually come from. 

My teacher in the photo is a sweet, friendly guy in his 20s. He works at three different gyms in Yangon that focus martial arts fitness and he leads his classes with enthusiasm and smiles. He sleeps at the gym where I'm training. Regardless of skill level he'll find and push you beyond your boundaries. He has had about 30-40 fights and is currently recovering from a nasty knee injury and subsequent surgery, waiting to be able to fight again. He's also waiting for an invitation and visa to go teach at a western gym in a western country. To prep for the visa process he goes to English school in his free time. His biggest dream is to become a One Championship fighter. And he keeps his body fit in the meantime.

This photo simply got to me. It's just such a harsh reminder of what it means to really want it. The endless hours you put in that no one is there to see. And it, as so many times before, painfully reminded me of how spoiled I am as a foreigner when trying to choose the most suitable gym for me, or complaining about pad holders style, or not getting fights, or the whatever. 

And the caption I was given with the photo also summarizes the attitude so well: "Now ok before ok you know?"

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21 hours ago, LengLeng said:

I feel there are some people who want to create an impression of animosity between lethwei and muay thai, but I just experience it as two beautiful versions of the same thing.

There is a seriously long, as in centuries long, political animosity between these two countries, intense hatred, and the symbolism of Muay Thai as a national identity and pride plays a really important part of this. It isn't just "some people", its generations of belief.

 

21 hours ago, LengLeng said:

as I understand muay boran (and other fighting styles in the region) originates from Lethwei.

Where do you get this story of origin, I'm curious? My suspicion is that claims like this tend to be ideological in basis.

 

 

 

 

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5 minutes ago, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu said:

There is a seriously long, as in centuries long, political animosity between these two countries, intense hatred, and the symbolism of Muay Thai as a national identity and pride plays a really important part of this. It isn't just "some people", its generations of belief.

 

Where do you get this story of origin, I'm curious? My suspicion is that claims like this tend to be ideological in basis.

 

 

 

 

Yes Kevin, obviously I'm aware of the history between the two countries. 

Nevertheless, if you look online google lethwei muay thai there are lots of discussions by foreigners on which form is the most pure etc etc and "muay thai being a watered down version of lethwei" and so on. There was recently some argument between LeDuc and Liam Harrison etc. It feels like this sort of thing is many times also fuelled by westerners. And it's a bit ridiculous. 

I think the general claim (from people who prefer lethwei) is that since lethwei is supposedly older than muay thai, muay thai must have been influenced by lethwei. Haven't done any own research though. And that wasn't exactly the point with my post either. 

 

 

 

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43 minutes ago, LengLeng said:

if you look online google lethwei muay thai there are lots of discussions by foreigners on which form is the most pure etc etc and "muay thai being a watered down version of lethwei" and so on.

I don't really Google these things, but to be honest much of this "purer" than Muay Thai story seems very ideological, the attempt to lay claim to some forms of supremacy over the Muay Thai of Thailand. First is the claim that it is more brutal (ok, they allow headbutts or KO recoveries, not something you could probably allow in a country with 50,000 fights a year like Thailand), second the claim that is older in some way (I've never really seen an historical evidence that it is the origin), and I can't really take what LeDuc says seriously. He is a pretty much made up media brand image, to be honest about it. I love how successful he is at what he's done, but he really was a Tiger Muay Thai reality show winner before becoming the best Lethwei fighter in the world not long after, and spokesperson for the sport. A more serious question, at least for me, is how much Lethwei is being used as a political tool, perhaps a part of a Sportswashing effort in a country facing some pretty serious human rights violations. It seems clear that LeDuc is being supplemented by the Myanmar government, I mean, his wedding was broadcast on National TV apparently. He's basically a political figure, making political points, but in ways that we from the west have almost no sensitivity toward. I'm not saying that Muay Thai is not used politically in Thailand, it definitely IS, and has been for a century if not longer, but because of that ideological dimension we probably should step carefully regarding a historic foe claiming superiority over the very same politicized element.

43 minutes ago, LengLeng said:

I think the general claim (from people who prefer lethwei) is that since lethwei is supposedly older than muay thai, muay thai must have been influenced by lethwei.

I don't really know where this claim flows from. The 2nd oldest historical evidence of Muay Thai is the fabled story of Nai Khanom Tom (late 18th century), in a handful of verse lines in an epic poem, telling of how - I'm sure you know the story - he cleaned up against a host of the best Burmese fighters. I'm pretty sure, and it's been a while since I read the source material translation, this story is from a Burmese epic, told by the Burmese, not the Thai. It would seem weird to think that Lethwei, historically, somehow supersedes Muay Thai in a fundamentally important way. But...I definitely would be open to any historical evidence.

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9 minutes ago, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu said:

All this is to say, the beautiful story of your trainer is just that, real human beauty. Awesome that you shared it. Such real stuff. But some of the couching of the story, in the larger framework of Lethwei vs Muay Thai for me really is missing some important aspects.

I don't really comment on politics in countries I work in and I don't really want to either Myanmar politics are way too complex for discussions like these. But I think you misunderstand my point. I couldn't care less about which of these disciplines are more pure, I find these debates stupid. What I do see is similarities in what it means to grow up in Thailand or Myanmar and fight for a living. And how far this is from westerners dreams of fighting "real fight" and experience a traditional gym ("but the trainers should speak english please"). I'm myself a westerner with these kind of fight aspirations and it's probably why this clash of cultures fascinates/disturbs/interests me so. 

Please feel free to edit my post if you have issues with whatever things I wrote (and really did not claim were facts). 🙄

 

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6 minutes ago, LengLeng said:

I don't really comment on politics in countries I work in and I don't really want to either Myanmar politics are way too complex for discussions like these. But I think you misunderstand my point. I couldn't care less about which of these disciplines are more pure, I find these debates stupid. What I do see is similarities in what it means to grow up in Thailand or Myanmar and fight for a living. And how far this is from westerners dreams of fighting "real fight" and experience a traditional gym ("but the trainers should speak english please"). I'm myself a westerner with these kind of fight aspirations and it's probably why this clash of cultures fascinates/disturbs/interests me so. 

These are all beautiful things. I only took issue with the assumed obviousness by which Lethwei claimed superiority and antecedence to Muay Thai. These things don't seem obvious to me at all, and kind of loaded questions. I do seriously appreciate how firmly you are on the ground on this, how close to the sport and training that you are, and that you took the effort to post such a very cool photo and message. It's so cool that you are throwing yourself into Lethwei, and experiencing it first hand.

 

6 minutes ago, LengLeng said:

Please feel free to edit my post if you have issues with whatever things I wrote (and really did not claim were facts).

No need to edit at all! Discussion is good. I find much of the Lethwei messaging problematic on some of the levels I've mentioned, and kind of push back on it when I can, only because nobody seems to be doing so, and it feels important.

*I only edited your title because we try to have titles that capture the main subjects under discussion, it helps people know what's in a post, so I added a few keywords.

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Thanks to both of you for the discussion and background infos! Since I started with Muay Thai, I'm more and more interested in other martial arts out there and so I came across Lethwei, as well. Unfortunately I didn't have the chance to give it a try yet, but I'm looking forward to.

And thank you @LengLeng for sharing your story and motivation! It always helps me to get levelled or modest again.

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  • 1 month later...

A while ago I was trying to research where Muay Thai, Kun Khmer, Lethwei etc. I was trying to write an article on it, because they are all so clearly the same art just interpreted in slightly different ways. I got in touch with Antonio Graceffo (Brooklyn Monk) because he was the guy that really lived with kun khmer and bokator, which was the martial art I initially suspected might be the mother art to them all.

Through talking to him and his articles and research, ultimately we came to the conclusion that there just isn't enough available information to really say either way about anything. He said that kun khmer fighters claim that it is older than muay thai, and that it probably is - but the khmer rogue destroyed so much of Cambodias written history, of which there wasn't much to begin with - that there really isn't a way of knowing. 

When it came to Lethwei - something I did learn was that Lethwei wasn't actually practised in the part of Lethwei that became Thailand. Though it is clearly related.

It's a real challenge to find anything concrete about it - and ultimately I abandoned the article - I just didn't know enough and without actually being in Asia, I had no proper way to learn more because I had no primary sources to go on.  The most I could do was talk to Mr. Graceffo, and while he was very helpful even he admitted that there was a lot he didn't know. 

 

On 2/18/2020 at 6:28 PM, LengLeng said:

First of all, apologies for bringing Myanmar traditional boxing (Lethwei) into this but as far as I understand muay boran (and other fighting styles in the region) originates from Lethwei. I feel there are some people who want to create an impression of animosity between lethwei and muay thai, but I just experience it as two beautiful versions of the same thing. Anyhow, one of my teachers sent me this old photo from his home in Kachin State, northern Myanmar and one of the most active armed conflict zones. And I wanted to share just to remind foreigners who come to fight in Thailand or Cambodia or Myanmar what cultures they are actually interacting with and where your trainers actually come from. 

My teacher in the photo is a sweet, friendly guy in his 20s. He works at three different gyms in Yangon that focus martial arts fitness and he leads his classes with enthusiasm and smiles. He sleeps at the gym where I'm training. Regardless of skill level he'll find and push you beyond your boundaries. He has had about 30-40 fights and is currently recovering from a nasty knee injury and subsequent surgery, waiting to be able to fight again. He's also waiting for an invitation and visa to go teach at a western gym in a western country. To prep for the visa process he goes to English school in his free time. His biggest dream is to become a One Championship fighter. And he keeps his body fit in the meantime.

This photo simply got to me. It's just such a harsh reminder of what it means to really want it. The endless hours you put in that no one is there to see. And it, as so many times before, painfully reminded me of how spoiled I am as a foreigner when trying to choose the most suitable gym for me, or complaining about pad holders style, or not getting fights, or the whatever. 

And the caption I was given with the photo also summarizes the attitude so well: "Now ok before ok you know?"

Screenshot_20200219-004844_Messenger.jpg

To reply to the actual story you've posted though... 

I love how hard he works, especially using chains as battle ropes. He sounds like a very inspiring man! I hope he gets to One.

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20 hours ago, AndyMaBobs said:

A while ago I was trying to research where Muay Thai, Kun Khmer, Lethwei etc. I was trying to write an article on it, because they are all so clearly the same art just interpreted in slightly different ways. I got in touch with Antonio Graceffo (Brooklyn Monk) because he was the guy that really lived with kun khmer and bokator, which was the martial art I initially suspected might be the mother art to them all.

 

This is really interesting, thanks for sharing. The dynamics between Thailand and Myanmar are very interesting due to the history. In general I feel Thai muay thai people don't like Myanmar at all whereas middle class Thais will not be too influenced by history.  I got a lot of "oooh I am so worried for you Myanmar no good Myanmar very bad" from gym people when I said I was moving. And whenever I post footage from my training on facebook muay thai trainers from Thailand will message me and be upset because "this is not good this is not muay thai etc. etc." From Myanmar people, well when talking to friends who are Bama (Burmese) they feel that Thai people don't like them ("they are afraid of us") but they don't really mind Thais, but they hate being looked down upon. But then other people from Kachin and Karen or other etnic groups (Myanmar has so many ethnicities and active civil wars and there are many areas not controlled by government) it is a bit of beggars can't be losers mentality. To be able to fight in Thailand means money. And many will have relatives who work in Thailand. 

Regarding the relationship between muay thai and lethwei it is really hard to find out much more than that lethwei is really old. Once lockdown is over (we have some lockdown light here) I plan to visit thut ti lethwei gym and talk to their owner who apparently is an advocate for pure lethwei and speaks english very well. 

Oh and back to the topic, yeah he works hard. Apparently when he was younger he worked in the mine with his dad and then came home and did pushups and pullupsand all the work and watched videos with his hero van Damme and eventually found his way to Yangon where he started fighting until a knee injury stopped him. He is one of the trainers at LeDuc's lethwei camp in November this year, hoping it will still actually happen. 

 

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On 4/15/2020 at 4:59 PM, AndyMaBobs said:

 

Through talking to him and his articles and research, ultimately we came to the conclusion that there just isn't enough available information to really say either way about anything. He said that kun khmer fighters claim that it is older than muay thai, and that it probably is - but the khmer rogue destroyed so much of Cambodias written history, of which there wasn't much to begin with - that there really isn't a way of knowing. 

 

The Khmers didn't leave any written history behind, only what was carved on the temples of Ankor. Some foreigners who lived there at Ankor's height left detailed writings of their time there, which is how historians are able to have some understanding of what life was like there.

Back to regional fighting styles - Thailand, Cambodia, Burma and Laos have all been fighting each other and occupying each others territory for centuries. There definitely will have been cross over between styles at various points in history.

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  • 2 weeks later...

The original Khmer style is lost.  What we see now, I believe (especially with this "Bokator" AKA Hapkido/Muay Boran/Tony Jaa mixed stuff) is a modern recreation, with obvious influence from Muay Boran and the Tony Jaa fictional style he created for the movies. The creator was a Hapkido teacher primarily, and in the U.S. at that, after living in Thai refugee camps. The Khmer (not all Cambodians are Khmer) had their greatness 1000 years ago. But then Thailand was in control of the region and their country for 100's of years until modern times, after Western intervention. A lot of Thai culture was transferred to Cambodia during this time (and the other way around), and Muay Kadcheuk or BKB was in fashion. The entire region is influenced by Indian Kick-boxing (Malla-Yudh) so they are all similar anyway. There was also some exchange between Thailand and Myanmar. The stories mention Thai fighters beating champions in Myanmar (and the other way around), and both adapting their own styles. But how much? Muay Boran also includes head butting and used to be a lot rougher before the sport rules. Again, the entire region is similar. Even in Thailand alone, there are many different styles, especially with the Muay Boran and Jeurng. From my own research (I live, study and train in SE Asia and have been to many temples with martial art images in each of these countries) the older style of Cambodia was most similar to the Tamil style Varma. Varman was a title for a martial expert. ("Varman or its variants, Varma, Verma, Varman, Burman or Barman, are surnames that are used in India & South-East Asia. According to Radhakanta Deb, the surname is derived from the Sanskrit word for "Shield, Defensive armour". (Wiki) There are Tamil websites discussing this in great detail. And you can see this title in many of Cambodian Kings names. There is quite a lot of Tamil influence in Cambodia during the Khmer time of greatness. There are also many similarities when you compare the Tamil and Cambodian temple images especially. And most of it is grappling, not kick-boxing. There are even Cambodian teachers in YouTube videos showing the grappling interpretations of the images, but not kickboxing. Cambodia has preserved its traditional wrestling, but the kickboxing seems to be more modern, with some Thai influence. At least, this is what I have noticed so far. Doesn't matter. There was a lot of influence back and forth for a long time. Consider, All of SE Asia is smaller than the U.S. Not so difficult for fashions and styles to spread in such an area. And also we can find people playing guitar all around the world. Similar instrument, but each region has their own way of playing too. Now the entire regions kickboxing is similar. But there are many local kick-boxing traditions that are similar, but still unique to each local area.

Edited by Roaming Bear
forgot to add an important detail, for the sake of non bias
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  • 1 month later...

Hi all! Hobbyist Lethwei firang here. That’s a disclaimer to say my opinion doesn’t matter or count...not that I’ll refrain from giving it 🙂

So that said, “pure?” Well, what about looking at what it “does” rather than how it is narrated? Punching w/o gloves is more like a streetfight, and you break more hands this way. Affects (if you’re smart) how you handle your power when you throw. Also means—like street—closed and tight guard is practical. 

Kicking can get high but... at least at my former club, we did a lot of “stick kicks,” and low straight kicks, especially inside leg and forward sweeps. Sweeps are kinda dirty (shin on ankle, coming in straight ahead). 

I’ve had my clock cleaned by MT and Lethwei boxers 😉 do being on the receiving end, I’d personally characterize MT as more of a kick-heavy fight with pacing to last through 5 rounds (I am not discounting the fantastic clinch and elbow and knee hunters in MT), whereas the Lethwei folks I experienced are more hand-heavy with kicks looking to end the fight ASAP. 

Both are beautiful, brutal, have their DB’s, and both have their heroes (of which Sylvie is one!).

Btw, thank you and respect to Sylvie for creating this forum for us all.

 

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On 6/11/2020 at 7:15 PM, Isaac said:

 

I’ve had my clock cleaned by MT and Lethwei boxers 😉 do being on the receiving end, I’d personally characterize MT as more of a kick-heavy fight with pacing to last through 5 rounds (I am not discounting the fantastic clinch and elbow and knee hunters in MT), whereas the Lethwei folks I experienced are more hand-heavy with kicks looking to end the fight ASAP. 

Exactly my experience as well. And the more I learn, the more interesting it gets. I've given up on getting back to Thailand to fight and considering lethwei fight in Myanmar (scares the shit out of me). But realized I know way too less abt this art and it's technique. Started training at Phoe Taw's gym and getting excellent technique advice. Especially how the "no gloves" and only win by KO affects training style. Way more forward as well messes up my stance. How was your fight experience? 

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    • Earlier this year I wrote a couple of sociology essays that dealt directly with Muay Thai, drawing on Sylvie's journalism and discussions on the podcast to do so. I thought I'd put them up here in case they were of any interest, rather than locking them away with the intention to perfectly rewrite them 'some day'. There's not really many novel insights of my own, rather it's more just pulling together existing literature with some of the von Duuglus-Ittu's work, which I think is criminally underutilised in academic discussions of MT. The first, 'Some meanings of muay' was written for an ideology/sosciology of knowledge paper, and is an overly long, somewhat grindy attempt to give a combined historical, institutional, and situated study of major cultural meanings of Muay Thai as a form of strength. The second paper, 'the fighter's heart' was written for a qualitative analysis course, and makes extensive use of interviews and podcast discussions to talk about some ways in which the gendered/sexed body is described/deployed within Muay Thai. There's plenty of issues with both, and they're not what I'd write today, and I'm learning to realise that's fine! some meanings of muay.docx The fighter's heart.docx
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