Sumdu Mung Ban was a scrawny kid, but while watching Jean-Claude Van Damme action films at the local video hall in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State capital Myitkyina, he vowed that one day, he too would be ripped like the Belgian martial arts actor.
During his elementary school years, he would wake up before sunrise, eat some leftover rice, and clean the local martial arts gym in exchange for lessons.
He next set his eyes on his high school’s bodybuilding competition. He showed up at the government gym, where contestants were required to train, but was told that he had to pay a membership fee.
“I was desperate to compete, so I just stood against the wall, watching the other trainees,” Mung Ban, now 36 years old, recalled in an interview with VICE. “I decided I wouldn’t go home unless the trainer let me work out.”
As dusk set in, the trainer approached. Mung Ban removed his shirt and longyi (a sarong traditionally worn in Myanmar), and showed off his muscles.
“It was awkward because my underwear had holes, but I just did it,” he said. His martial arts workouts paid off because he went home that night with a free membership. He won first prize at his high school competition and eventually topped the state-level contest, too.
“They liked my poses — I did splits exactly like Van Damme,” he said.
In 2011, Myanmar began its transition to democracy after nearly a half-century under oppressive military rule. Kachin, Myanmar’s northernmost state, has seen conflict between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar military since 1961, in a struggle for federal autonomy.
Intermittent conflict since a ceasefire broke down in 2011 has displaced more than 100,000 people. Bordering China’s Yunnan Province, the state that is rich in jade, timber, and amber, has also struggled with corrupt and often illegal resource extraction — with devastating environmental impacts and profits remaining in the hands of a few. Myanmar is also a leading producer of opium poppies and methamphetamine, particularly in its northern border regions. With limited job and educational opportunities, many of Kachin’s youth have fallen victim to drugs.
Mung Ban working out at his gym. Photo by Sana Seng Lat Awng.
Mung Ban knows firsthand about these struggles. Upon graduating high school, he moved to the jade mining town of Hpakant, picking through stones on slopes notorious for deadly landslides while carefully stowing away his earnings. In the face of hardships, he turned most of his focus to his physique. While his friends ordered sweet milky tea during evenings at the local tea shop, he earned a reputation as “the soft-boiled egg guy” for opting for that instead. In 2007, hearing about a new statewide open bodybuilding competition, Mung Ban stepped up his game by eating beef and 15 eggs a day. He won the title three years consecutively.
Next, he decided to open a gym. Though his friends doubted its potential, Mung Ban persevered.
“I knew that gyms play a vital role in our fitness. Gym culture was not popular, but I believed the trend would be towards hitting the gym in the future,” he said. “I prayed to God that one day I would open a great gym with many pieces of equipment.”
So he convinced a friend to pool savings. Coming up short, they opened a backyard workout club instead, naming it Ning Gawn or “The King.” After their first two months, they only had three members.
His funds dried up, Mung Ban began working as a bodyguard for tree loggers on the China border. Though his bosses treated him poorly, the job enabled him to peek into Chinese gyms for market research.
In April 2011, he opened Myitkyina’s first modern-equipment gym, naming it Hammer, the English translation of his family name. As the country was just opening after decades of military rule, social media was not yet prevalent. He advertised Hammer by riding his motorbike shirtless through town, flexing his six-pack.
Outside Hammer Gym. Photo by Emily Fishbein.
“Now that Facebook is popular, I don’t need to do that anymore,” said Mung Ban, who now posts photos of his six-pack on the gym’s Facebook page. He turned out to be ahead of the curve. His first customers, from the town’s Sikh minority, started arriving en masse at 4 a.m. and he stayed open until 10 p.m. to serve the night crowd.
However, political unrest challenged his passion shortly after. In June of 2011, two months after opening his gym, civil war resumed in Kachin, all but halting after-dark activities and slowing businesses across the state. Today, the town remains quiet after dark. Hammer still closes at night, but now earlier at around 8 p.m.
Mung Ban has come a long way from being that scrawny kid, paving the way for the gym trend in his community that caters to many young men looking to be built like him. Myitkyina now has approximately 20 gyms, many owned by Mung Ban’s trainees.
With incongruously large biceps and a wide, open smile, his trainee Lahpai Zau Awng, 29, opened Kalos Gym in 2017. Like Mung Ban, he did not face an easy path. His parents could not support him, so he lived with his uncle, who once beat him with a bamboo rod upon catching him training. After high school, Zau Awng worked as a labourer, hauling bricks for less than $1 a day to fund his training and diet. His family convinced him to share his hard-earned beef and eggs with them and he struggled to gain weight.
Zau Awng preparing to go onstage at a bodybuilding contest. Photo courtesy of Lahpai Zau Awng.
Zau Awng opened Kalos to encourage local youth to adopt a healthy lifestyle. He promotes exercise as an alternative to the drugs that have plagued his community.
“I could have been hooked on drugs because I am from a broken family,” he told VICE. “I could have strayed, but because of working out, I didn’t.”
Kalos’ walls are plastered with vinyl blowups of Zau Awng and other bodybuilders, and dietary advice including: “To lose weight, avoid eating lots of rice, animal skin and internal organs.”
On Saturdays, he offers a two-egg prize to those with a week of perfect attendance. Though treadmill sessions come to a standstill during the town’s frequent power cuts, he keeps trainees energized by pulling out his guitar, Kachin classics reverberating through the dark.
Mung Ban does not see Kalos and the other gyms his trainees opened as competition, but rather as a sign of his success.
“I’ll be proud of my trainees if they achieve more than me,” he told VICE. “A person should be fruitful; I wish that my business can benefit many people.”
When Mung Ban opened Hammer eight years ago, “people considered those who worked out as stupid; nothing but buff dudes,” he said.
But times have changed. Government trainer Zing Myint Zaw, who has trained around 500 bodybuilders in his 27-year career, including Mung Ban and Zau Awng, said: “Doctors [in Kachin] are telling people to work out. Diabetes is becoming more common, and obesity too. People want to have a fit body like in the movies.”
Mung Ban (third from left) and other bodybuilders at the Kachin National Manau Park in front of Hammer Gym. Photo by Sana Seng Lat Awng.
Despite his successes, Mung Ban said he has a long way to go.
“I am not yet satisfied…I feel like I am halfway to my dream,” he said. “Someday, I want my gym to reach an international standard.”
For his next goal, he plans to host his own bodybuilding competition. To fund it, he returned to the jade industry — this time, as a trader. Considering all his accomplishments, Mung Ban said he is most proud of his body.
“Most of my peers have flabby stomachs, but at 36, I still have my six-pack.”