Under the overpass at the Hledan junction – notorious for the traffic that builds up there – three nights a week you’ll find Pius Nassee, the best skater in Myanmar.
It’s not a title he proclaims but one bestowed upon him by his friends and those he teaches, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that disagrees. He didn’t compete at a recent competition held in Mandalay. Instead, alongside two international skaters, he was a judge.
Pius, who’s absurdly muscular, started skateboarding when he was a teenager, his first skateboard was “more like a surfboard” than the freestyle boards the skaters use today and had five wheels.
The men he refers to as the ‘senior skaters’ – the ones who taught him – have mostly stopped skating.
“They all got jobs, they don’t skate anymore,” he says, “Now I have to learn by myself.”
Instead Pius learns new tricks from watching YouTube. When he’s not skating at Hledan he can be found at the much smaller skate park he built himself near his house.
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On any given night the skate park at Hledan is filled with people on wheels performing tricks. Skateboarders grind along poles alongside inline roller bladers jumping ramps. On the odd occasion BMX bikers join in also.
Neon blue strip lights glow from the ceiling, providing much needed illumination at night. White light would have been preferable, Pius says but they’re paid for by the advertisers who use the billboards along the pillars to associate themselves with extreme sport. Fiz Cola have that privilege at the moment, until recently it was Red Bull. The skaters though have no actual association with either company; they welded the metal ramps and boxes themselves, paying for the materials out of their own pockets.
It’s the only thing in Yangon that even resembles a skate park.
“We can only skate here,” Pius tells me, “We had to set it up by ourselves so we’re slow to improve.”
The halfpipe, made of metal sheets is slightly warped at the line where two sheets meet, the whole structure clangs and shakes as skaters shift from one side to the other. It’s far from an ideal to practice on.
Last year Pius had his first taste of international competition: a tournament in Thailand. For Pius the trip to Thailand was “amazing”, the skaters “very nice”. The Myanmar skaters however were outclassed, they came home empty handed but happy.
Ko Lwin, the founder of the Myanmar Skate Association – or MSA for short – joined the trip to Thailand last year along with the competitors. He didn’t expect anyone from Myanmar to win but believes the experience was valuable.
“We’d never seen a professional skate park before,” he says.
He didn’t compete but wanted to learn how such competitions were organised and judged, how they were marketed.
In the last few years inline rollerblading and skateboarding have begun to spread across the country. The Myanmar Skate Association, now two years old, has divisions in Ayarwaddy, Saigang, Bago, Mandalay, Dawei and Yangon and represents all forms of extreme skate sports: skateboarding, BMX and inline.
Membership, and use of Yangon’s skate park, is free of charge but it comes with rules. Smoking and drinking are not allowed in the skate park’s confines, Ko Lwin says.
“If I see anyone smoking, I charge them 2000 kyat,” he tells me proudly.
On Friday nights the MSA holds a meeting at Hledan. At the meeting I attended future plans are discussed and everyone’s treated to two separate lectures: the first on the dangers of drinking, the second on the dangers of smoking.
On my second visit Ko Lwin hands me a list of the official rules, in English. “Avoid bad activities which promote a negative image of our association” reads rule number four of seven. Both rules five and seven emphasise respecting and acting within the law.
To those who’ve skated elsewhere the strictness is a bit alien. Alex, a foreigner comes to the park to skate a few times a week.
“It’s not in the spirit of skateboarding,” he declares when I ask him about the strict guidelines, “Skateboarding is much more like ‘F… the rules’.”
“When I was growing up it was much more about beers and joints and skate boarding.”
While Pius chooses not to smoke or drink, he was drawn to skateboarding for similar reasons.
“It’s free, I like free, no rules.”
Another novelty, to the stranger’s eye, is the way the different styles of skater can be found in the same spot, without getting into fights (talking problems out, not fighting is rule number two on Ko Lwin’s list.)
“In other countries you don’t see inline skaters and boarders hanging out together,” Alex points out.
“Here they’re close, they all clap when someone does a good trick.”
It’s not only the way different styles interact that distinguishes Yangon’s skate scene to anywhere else in the world, the age range is huge. Men in their thirties can be seen launching themselves off ramps next to five and six year olds who take turns jumping over a pole a foot high. A two year old sporting a baseball cap doesn’t skate but poses as if on a skateboard whenever an obstacle is free. His father, wearing a longyi, explains that it’s his son who brings him, not the other way around.
Unlike some of the younger skaters thirteen year old Te Myn Naing’s parents don’t come to keep an eye on him as he skates.
“First they were worried,” he says of his parents, “Now they’re not. My Grandma is still though.” His dream is to become a pro-skater.
Te Myn Naing took second place in the competition the Myanmar Skate Association organised in Mandalay – sponsored by German plaster company Hanserplast. His prize: a new set of bearings for his board’s wheels. Organising competitions is one of the ways Ko Lwin believes skaters can be pushed to achieve more.
‘They think: ‘I want to get a real deck so I’ll try hard.’”
Despite the increasing popularity of all forms of skating, Ko Lwin and the Myanmar Skate Association have struggled to achieve some of their ambitions (also handed to me on a typed sheet of paper).
For starters, they’re not recognised as an official association by the government – a major goal of Ko Lwin’s. In 2013 he sent his first request to the Ministry of Sport to be recognised as an official association.
He’s still waiting for a reply.
“They’re probably busy” he suggests, shrugging.
The rules he’s set in place for the MSA are partly to do with achieving this coveted official status.
“If we don’t have rules we’ll get a negative reflection,” he explains. His end-goal though is to not only develop skating in Myanmar but to develop the civic mindedness of the MSA’s members. All Myanmar people should do good things, he believes.
During Thingan, Myanmar’s New Year’s festival of water, the MSA got together, cooked and handed out food to passers-by. On the MSA’s second anniversary a troupe of skaters went to a school for the deaf and donated food and supplies, getting some of the kids skating.
To Ko Lwin serving the wider community is as important as developing the skate community, something that’s emphasises in each of our conversations.
“I am teaching more than skating, I’m teaching it’s important to do good things,” Ko Lwin he tells me at one point.
“Most young people drink, they go to clubs and they fight. This association is about changing that.”
The second and arguably greater problem is the lack of a proper place to skate. There are five real skate parks in Mandalay but only the DIY endeavour at Hledan in Yangon and that was only built not too long ago.
“When I was thirteen I used to skate on the road,” Pius says “I’d have to wake up very early, before the cars. Nowadays I don’t want to skate on the road.”
The answer to the MSA’s prayers may have come in the form of the lanky, curly haired Ali Drummond, a Burmese translator and avid skater. Back in 2009 Ali, who studied Burmese language at SOAS in the UK, made a documentary about the nascent skateboarding scene in Yangon, following up with a second in 2013.
Now living in Yangon, he’s seen big changes in how skating’s perceived.
“A couple of years ago you woudn’t have dreamed of parents here letting their kids skate.”
“The reason they can get that trust is because of the way Ko Lwin promotes a clean image.”
He sees the biggest setback to the development of skateboarders in Yangon is the lack of a skate park and has been working with an organisation called Make Life Skate Life to create a professionally constructed skate park in Yangon.
With the Yangon City District Council on board and Mayor having agreed to Make Life Skate Life’s proposal, the park seems set to go ahead. The only obstacles left ahead are getting the YCDC to agree to donate a space and raising the required funds. A similar park in Jordan cost US$25,000 and Ali’s confident all the money can be raised through crowdfunding.
“The more we get the bigger the skate park can be.”
Ko Lwin, however, isn’t entirely on board. He sees the skateboard first focus of Make Life Skate Life as trying to split up the skaters in Myanmar.
“We all believe in extreme sport” Ko Lwin tells me, explaining why he’s so adamantly trying to keep all skaters under one umbrella, in one place.
“We share sadness, happiness, food. It’s Myanmar custom. It’s better for Myanmar skaters to be united.
“I don’t like the way they want to help. I feel like they don’t respect our culture. This isn’t Europe or America, you can’t export that culture.”
Ali readily admits that the park is designed primarily for skateboarders but is insistent that it’s going to be open to all who want to use it.
“It’s not really got rollerbladers in mind but that doesn’t mean they can’t skate there.”
To him the park in Hledan is far from the ideal set-up. “I find the space quite claustrophobic,” he says, “The skating population has outgrown that space. I want to skate without bumping into small kids.”
Whilst he’s quick to praise Ko Lwin’s work – “What he’s doing, the competitions and the prizes, is amazing” – he finds the rules set up by the MSA as claustrophobic as the space they skate in.
“The reason I started skating is because it’s anti-establishment. I grew up where people looked down on skaters and you kind of relish that.”
Ko Lwin disagrees. Having rules, he believes, like no drinking and no smoking, is good for the Myanmar community.
“Myanmar culture is totally different,” he argues.
“If we’re not united and don’t obey rules we can’t get anything from the government: the right to compete internationally, the right to talk freely about extreme sport.”
“If they build a skate park for boarders then I’ll stay here, with my kids.”
Make Life Skate Life are hoping to break ground in November this year. Once the skate park has been finished it’ll be placed in the public hands, under the protection of the YCDC. Make Life Skate Life, Ali says, aren’t in the business of exporting culture.
The organisation, he argues, builds professionally designed skate parks where skate cultures already exist, they don’t influence anything, just provide an opportunity.
“The younger generation are really good. They’ve got a lot of potential”
Not everyone inside MSA is sure that united is the way forward. When I ask Pius’s opinion he doesn’t answer straight away.
“As skateboarding is growing we’ll soon have to separate. I think it’s better to split up – have two skate parks” he says slowly.
It’s not that inline roller bladers and skateboarders don’t get on but they often can get in the way of each other. On more than one occasion I watched as an inline skater taking a run up for a jump had to swerve to avoid a boarder and boarders do the same to avoid crashing into an inline skater.
“We don’t fight, but we don’t think alike.” Pius explains.
“Skateboarders have the same mind,” he points at a border grinding his way over a rail.
“I know what he’s going to do and he knows how I move.”
Pius’s dream trip would be to the United Status to meet Torey Pudwill the professional street skater also known as “T-Puds”.
“I practice his tricks, they’re awesome.” But for now he’s set on competing regionally, though he’s not setting his sights at the top right yet.
“I want to go back to Bangkok and win prizes, maybe 4th place or 7th or 8th. They’re a lot better than we are, we’re just beginners.”
In the long run though his place is in Yangon.
“I want to open up Myanmar, open Myanmar’s first skate shop, I don’t want another job, that’s my dream.”