LOOK: On the streets of Myanmar’s last royal capital

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Mandalay is Myanmar's last royal capital and second-largest city after Yangon. In photo: The Mandalay Royal Palace was home to the Konbaung Dynasty, the last independent Burmese kingdom. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

I arrived in Myanmar on a dry and humid afternoon in February 2019.

I was there to cover the burgeoning lethwei fight scene, a particularly brutal species of kickboxing indigenous to the Burmese. Practiced with legal headbutts, it was dubbed “the sport of kings.” Its ancient version fought on sandpits was the gladiatorial hobby of choice, watched by the Irrawaddy River monarchs as far back as 2,000 years ago.

Such intense violence in their sport is in sharp contrast to the warm and phlegmatic mien I found among the Burmese and in Mandalay itself. Despite being the country's last royal capital, as well as the second-largest city after the commercial capital of Yangon, the city had the pace and feel of a busy provincial metro.

Since early February, growing civil protests against the coup of Myanmar's armed forces have filled the avenues and headlines despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The three-finger salute from the “Hunger Games,” the movement’s symbol of resistance displayed by pro-democracy activists has been raised against some of the most breathtaking sights I’d photographed here.

Back in 2019, I snapped daily life and sights on the streets of Mandalay, largely unseen since the country came out of military rule in 2010. I’d snuck out of the junket back to explore the city on my own.

Here are people flocking to golden pagodas where the Buddhist population still go to worship, busy bazaars full of the influx of worldwide goods and tourists from the open borders, and street parades full of music and solemnity. Now, Mandalay's streets are a site of resistance as people protest against the military takeover. 

Mandalay Bay, the casino in Las Vegas, is named after this city. Mandalay City sits on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River and was the royal capital of King Thibaw, the last monarch of Burma. The Taungme Mountain in the back is the highest and most prominent peak in the region. Photo by KARL DE MESA

Buddhist holidays abound in Myanmar, where the primary religion for the 48 million population is Theravada Buddhism. Parades like the festival of Kathina draw crowds to the streets. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

A stripped down traditional Burmese orchestra or saing waing usually accompanies local parades, festivals, rituals, and even pre-fight ceremonies playing folk music to match the performances. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

A detail of a parade float. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

Myanmar traffic and transport aren’t for the faint of heart. As in the most populated cities like Mandalay, the traffic lights and signs are more like suggestions rather than rules. As cheap motor bikes from China and Japan have made their way into the country’s markets, it’s become much easier for this mode of transport to dominate the streets. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

The gold mining industry is one of the biggest attractions for investors to Myanmar. With around 500-600 golden pagodas in Mandalay alone, these women putting gold flakes to lucky stamps and jewelry are just one of hundreds in the city’s souvenir shops and bazaars. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

Touring the city, I took off my rubber shoes and donned slippers instead since most of the places I wanted to visit were holy sites, thus the need to go barefoot. The devoted still flock with their family to Buddhist shrines like this one at Kuthodaw Pagoda. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

As a combat sports journalist, I’ve seen my fair share of blood and aggression, but lethwei’s style of mayhem of legal headbutts and without gloves is on another level. Little wonder then that the sport was blowing up in the prizefighting world, ripe for the kind of tourism push that neighboring Thailand did with muay thai, something successfully packaged to farangs as both culture and competition. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

A common way out of poverty for young boys, some as early as nine years old, is to fight in bareknuckle lethwei matches. As war between the nations dwindled, matches became entertainment and spectator sport, popular as part of holidays, festivals, and funerals. Teen boys like this lethwei fighter hope to make it big as prizefighting superstars to provide a stable income for their family. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

Thanaka makeup is a yellowish-white paste worn by Burmese women and girls on their cheeks and arms, the tradition going back thousands of years. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

The Mahamuni Buddha is one of the major pilgrimage sites for Theravada Buddhism in southwest Mandalay. The bazaar and the temple’s whole compound is a holy place and thus you must lose thy shoe and walk barefoot. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

A couple croon over their baby at the Kuthodaw Pagoda. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA