Sadly, our BJJ journey through Myanmar is over but we finally have the time to write about it in our downtime in Vietnam. 18 days in Myanmar saw us well and truly exhausted by the end – we crammed a lot in during that time! Sight-seeing many beautiful places, navigating dusty streets, attempting to communicate with the locals, making several wonderful friends, and teaching BJJ was the best way to experience Myanmar in such a short time. Our trip was only made possible by Tammi Willis, founder of BJJ Myanmar. A friend of Rion’s from their rolling together in Bangkok, he contacted Tammi to let her know we were going to Myanmar and she began planning the ultimate trip for us, asking Rion if he would like to teach at remote garage/start-up gyms around country. Of course, he accepted, and our journey became something worth writing about. Thank you, Tammi, for creating this opportunity for us. We couldn’t have asked for a better trip.
Our first destination was Mandalay, a region with 12 million-ish people situated in central Myanmar, and with a relatively hot climate compared to the other places we visited. Whoever told me that Mandalay has nothing to offer tourists and is supposedly boring, you need to wash your mouth out with soap or something. It was one of the best parts of our trip!
Sai, AKA Tootti/Henry, is the owner of BJJ Mandalay (name of the gym to be confirmed). Sai is a white belt who has had four BJJ coaches come through his place and he’s trained a little in Yangon with BJJ Myanmar. He’s currently converting two floors in his home into what he hopes will be Mandalay’s first MMA gym. When we arrived, he had just purchased new mats and an air cooler, and was overflowing with motivation to create something beneficial for the community. A youth leader in the making, Sai hopes to keep people away from drugs and improve the quality of their lives and dreams of doing this through fitness and martial arts. We can attest for Sai’s quality of character. He has a big heart, was extremely generous, a great sense of humour, and felt like a long lost friend. Sai was the guy to know for everything; he’s the ultimate translator, the finder of mangoes out of mango season, the man who knows everyone from Myanmar’s most popular actress to the guy with the best durian… The list of Sai’s knowledge and connections is seemingly endless. Without him we would have struggled to maintain a vegan diet in Myanmar and our experience in the country would have been far inferior to the phenomenal time we did have. We owe a huge thanks to Sai and we are hoping to see our self-described “Asian Elephant” friend again soon. He’s very keen to host more BJJ Globetrotters so please get in contact with him if you are heading to Myanmar (his name is “Tootti Henry” on Facebook).
Our first BJJ class kicked off shortly after our flight landed and we were initially blown away by the numbers of people who showed up – and they were mostly women! My heart was singing as recruiting women into BJJ and keeping them there is something I’m emotionally invested in. As everyone was either a newbie or had little BJJ experience, Rion began by teaching basic distance management (ie. If you’re flat on your back and your opponent is standing, how to avoid strikes to the head by controlling the distance with your feet) and elementary self defence. The usual giggling from all the new girls was loud, even when I put a lot of pressure on them during side control – just to show them how strong they can be, I swear! Unfortunately many of them were sore the next day and didn’t attend the class, but I attribute that to a smaller frame, lack of BJJ body conditioning, and perhaps being unfamiliar to the pace of martial arts training, rather than my mediocre white belt side control pressure. That night we went out for a meal with some of the guys from the gym who were initially quiet but over our time in Mandalay, opened up to us. We were all paralysed with laughter in many occasions – several jokes are funny no matter what language you speak.
During our downtime between classes, Sai had (of course) organised activities for us to do, such as: exploring the palace; walking the famous teak bridge, visiting the ancient city of Inwa, seeing the beauty of an old teak monastery, and many more activities. Our favourite by far was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I couldn’t talk about Mandalay without writing about it. We drove up Mandalay Hill at night with a few of our friends from the gym and due to the time of year there were monks praying over loud speakers in the pagoda near the summit. To describe this in words and do it justice is impossible, but we had the twinkling lights of Mandalay city all around us, a warm late-night breeze, the serenity caused the prayers, the quiet laughter between all of us, walking in the glittering golden pagoda lit up at night, and the best part – it was all completely empty of tourists and vendors. Rion and I both think that that was a highlight of our entire trip and that we were incredibly lucky to have that opportunity. If there was a particular moment during our holiday that was a spiritual reawakening, that was most definitely it.
Our classes over the next few days are a bit of a blur. Sai had organised split classes due to the numbers of people interested. He certainly can fill his mat space! Rion taught more basics but possibly more exciting techniques for newbies: how to regain posture in, and pass, the closed guard; maintaining side control, and; chokes – the standard RNC and a variant of the same, a triangle from closed guard, and the arm triangle from mount. During this time we were also honoured by the presence of a national judo champion, Selwee. It’s important to note that she was very small, around the 40-45kg mark. After me absolutely dying for a few minutes in her side control, we realised that many of the techniques we were going to teach her, she already had a great amount of knowledge. There was a significant language barrier here, but I found communicating with her non-verbally very easy. Selwee was interested in leg entanglements and submissions, even though she said she could not apply them in competition in judo (I confess I don’t know many rules of judo!). Rion taught her an inside sankaku entry from top mount and top side control, an inside and outside heel hook, and a calf crush counter to the heel hook defence. In return, she taught me a couple of takedowns, which was greatly appreciated. After class, we stayed behind with a few of the lads to answer questions about training and techniques, and then went out together to get the “best [insert food here] in Myanmar” for dinner.
Mandalay was a great welcome to Myanmar and there are several people there who we look forward to seeing again soon. To Sai, Eileen, Selwee, Myo, Kyaw Gyi, Ma Thet, and the other wonderful people we met there – thank you all so much for the experience and good times. We miss you all already and will be back, hopefully soon! Our next gym was in Myitkyina with Da Rock, another youth leader and Kyokushin karate black belt. Keep an eye out for our next post!