Myanmar Traditional Boxing By Nikko Karki

Myanmar Traditional Boxing

By Nikko Karki  – – –


Fighting once a month with nothing but wraps covering their hands, young Burmese men continue their country’s traditional sport, perhaps one of the most brutal in the world. In the olden days, there were no rounds, no points, the only way to win was by a total knockout or concession by the opponent. The men I met had no sort of ego or bravado. Their quiet disposition and positive outlook on training, fighting and life, is unlike a traditional mindset.

Training with broken hands or other seemingly debilitating injuries is not dismissed with any sense of martyrdom, but sincere dedication and selflessness. It was a privilege to witness their humble approach to life, living happily and compassionately as they dedicate themselves to their training.

 Canon 5D mk III – Carl Zeiss ZE 35mm f/1.4 Distagon – Carl Zeiss ZE 100mm f/2.0 Makro planar

Photographer’s note:

I made this film in a day and a half, after spending about a week training and getting to know the fighters. It was truly an honor and privilege to get to know them and I greatly look forward to returning to learn more about Lethwei, Myanmar traditional boxing.

First, a couple of pics of me training with the guys:




Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 1

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 2

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 3

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 4

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 5

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 6

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 7

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 8

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 10

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 11

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 12

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 13

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 14

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 15

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 16

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 17

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 18

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 19

Nikko Karki © 2013 Lethwei 20


  1. Nice captures. My favorite is probably the 10th one down from the top where you see one of the fighters gets a good knee to the chest/ribs! I think I feel the impact on that one.

  2. Well, hard to believe we would see images from a lowly Canon 5D 😉 But it just goes to show, it’s not the equipment… The images were visually arresting and told such a compelling story. They are testimony to value of really getting close to your subject and developing a level of trust that let’s you make the image. Well done.

    • Thanks very much, Max!

      I use the Zeiss ZE manual focus lenses because they have a huge focus throw in terms of degrees and lock out at their extremes. This makes it a lot easier to control focus when shooting video as opposed to the Canon L-series lenses.

      There’s definitely a trade-off because for stills, you lose the autofocus, but then again, you get a buttery focus, that’s tack sharp for your video work, which can make a difference, and is just a real pleasure to use when doing manual focus work.

      I also think that working with just a few primes as opposed to zoom lenses gives you a stronger framing and when putting a video together helps with how your piece flows. Using a zoom you might be tempted to ‘cheat’ by going wide to get the frame but that actually distorts a bit and when you lace everything together you’re ‘speaking’ in pretty random focal lengths. I am sure people might disagree about this, but for me it works to keep it simple using just a few focal lengths.

      Also having the 35mm f/1.4 in the bag is great for low light situations.

  3. Traditional boxes of Southeast Asia are neither more nor less than macho military artifacts practices. Most boxers are poor people from the countryside to local mafias that dangle bonuses game to feed their families remained in the village. This is pure exploitation of human misery, denounced by non-governmental human rights organizations, which unfortunately have no power as they go against the cultural image that dresses these practices. Your report looks like so many others, which just show the beauty of the body outside the reality of internal traumas. The video is technically nice, but for the photos, I thought it was a joke. I visited your site: you do beautiful and professionnal works, so much so I wonder if you have not been sick with dengue or jetlag when you travel to Myanmar.

    • Haha! Thanks for the comments, Frederic.

      The boxers I met were pretty happy and far from destitute circumstances. If I go back, I will definitely stay with them and train.

      Outside of these images, I did witness some forms of questionable management practices in the professional fighting world, but I guess that is the same in Europe or the US as well.

      It’s great to hear feedback from different sources through posting on this blog.

      Definitely opinions vary and for me, it’s cool to see how differently some pictures can be received.

      I’d say that context is everything. How a viewer frames or references a series definitely contributes to how it’s received.



      • I don’t think we could compare situations in Southeast Asia and Europe. Total lack of Welfare state, systemic corruption and weight of traditions are not minor differences. Fighting, a really free choice?
        For example, the duty to assist parents is the first task of any child. Before his personal development, and even sometimes to the detriment of his own health.
        In Myanmar, as in Thailand or some others neighbouring countries, many children dream of these champions and come early into practice (obviously, the trainings and fights are suitable). You may not know, but after the fighting, children’s metabolisms are so disturbed that coaches give them laxatives. A truly romantic tradition?

    • Thanks Gonzalo! I checked out your work and really liked the cityscapes. Awesome stuff. I followed you on Vimeo, looking forward to more short films!

      Awesome Muay Thai frames as well!

  4. In my opinion your photos tell a story but your technique has this story told in an ubrupt, jerky way. The narration stops as the depth of field of your frames takes away the magic of the scene that goes along the mystique of the heritage of the martial arts. I believe that using MF lenses to shoot such kind of action did not prove a wise choice. Canon 5D MkIII is a very capable camera but difficult to focus manually. The Canon 135/2 or any other AF lens between 85 and 135mm FD would had been of great service at max f4. They would help for the “characters” to show better and the spirit of this kind of heritage to be communicated in a more expressive and substantial way. Please remember, going manual is demanding and it takes a lot of practice to master the art of staying in focus at shallow depths of field needed.
    That is of course from my point of view. If it was of some help or food for thought so much the better.
    All the best,
    Dimitris V. Georgopoulos
    Photographer at Large
    Athens, Greece

    • I happen to like his style and technique. I like his use of lens and focus. The best tools are the one you have. Beautiful images and beautiful video work. I enjoyed this immensely as well as the work on your site Nikko.

    • My sense was the opposite. I thought the focus was handled very effectively and the cutting was interesting. Perhaps a little more on the preparatory stretching exercises would have give a better sense of what these guys go through, and then an excerpt from an actual fight would have rounded the film off well.

      Nevertheless, well done!

    • Thanks for the comments, Dimitris!

      Yeah, I would have definitely liked to have a 70 – 200mm f/2.8 II USM with me for the boxing stills.

      Part of this trip was an exercise in traveling with the bare minimum, which could be a blog post, or story in itself and would definitely help better explain the choice of equipment. Basically, sometimes you just have to use what you have!

      I was on the road in Thailand and Myanmar for about a month. With me, I had one backpack carrying a 13″ MacBook Pro, Lacie rugged hard drive, 5D MK III, 35mm f/1.4 Zeiss ZE, 100mm f/2 Zeiss ZE, Hasselblad with 120mm f/4, tripod, film, training shorts, one pair of jeans, walking shoes that doubled as running shoes and two tee-shirts. I was basically a one man crew for everything I did on that trip, with everything fully mobile in my pack.

      Basically I was planning on shooting video at the boxing venue but was denied permission to shoot video last minute. Instead of playing around and shooting without permission, I just shot the stills with the manual focus lenses at less than optimum focal lengths, the best I could.

      Sometimes, you just have to use what you have and make the best of it. I kept on getting ‘too close’ the the action and was eventually asked to leave ringside..

      Thanks Pete and Robert for the positive feedback!

      All in all, I’m just glad to share. I had an awesome experience and am stoked to post on Steve’s blog to get a larger audience.

      Good vibes!



  5. Very nice, the frist group photo looks a little out of focus. But all the rest very nice, tells a story. Gives viewer a sense place. Canon color to is very good. I like the tones.

  6. Hi Nikko,

    I watched your documentary (abiet with no sound) but what my eyes were able to see the word… ‘compelling’ comes to mind! I think that the images combined with the short documentary is a excellent piece of work. Best wishes for the future. God bless.


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