A small Buddhist country with smokey hills speckled with gold-leaf stupas and humming jungles, Myanmar lies between Bangladesh to the west, Thailand to the east and China to the north. In the summer, women wash clothes in the Ayeyarwady River while fishermen entrap dinner in wooden baskets. Limestone cliffs cast shadows across vast rice fields that stretch on and wrap the land like ribbons.
Not far from the river and into the jungle, the voices of climbers ring out.
“Take,” hollers 30-year-old Andrew Riley from high up on Royal-D (5.10a), at the Karaweik Wall, part of the Bayin Nyi crag. His wife, Katie, lowers him slowly, past lichen-coated shelves and concave features. In the distance, there’s the buzz of wildlife and a river chatters.
To Riley’s left, part of an old monastery juts from the rock. Chipped pink and green paint encases a small holy tower. The historic edifice blends casually into the rock as a fossilized sidenote.
“It’s a wild country,” Riley tells Gym Climber. “It’s no Kalymnos or Thailand and it’s not type-one fun,” he says. It’s bizarre bush climbing.
When he touches down on the forest floor, Riley and Katie pack up their gear and head for a nearby natural hot spring.
Three years earlier, the Myanmar climbing community was virtually nonexistent. For the past half century, Myanmar has been ravaged by political and social conflict. Due to the ongoing genocide against the minority Rohingya ethnic group, the nation continues to be relatively isolated from the rest of the world.
In 2015, Myanmar voted in its first democratically elected government since the 1950s. With over 135 distinct ethnic groups in the country, tensions remain high. The country’s development is a work in progress. Major cities such as Yangon and Mandalay are bustling with trade and the installment of cell coverage, internet and other conveniences. Like many people around the world, villagers have started to migrate to urbanized areas.
Riley, originally from Indiana, arrived in the country in 2014 to work on mental-health and human-rights research. Then, there was one crag with 25 routes and one local climbing club. The club had a dinky, unkempt wall that went mostly unused and unadvertised. Riley started itching for action. He built a home wall in his apartment, the first homewall in Yangon. The woodie sat in a nine- by 15-foot room and was decorated with a handful of holds from home and a line of campus rungs. An old foam mattress with printed pink carnations was the pad.
Riley started a Facebook group, Myanmar Rock Community, and hosted “Crank nights” at his place. People came with beer and snacks to session on boulder problems and be social.
Attendance on any given night rose to 25 locals and expats from Asia, Europe, Australia and the Americas. Most of the crew was new to the sport—they just wanted a healthy place to hang out and escape.
“Our apartment was tiny,” says Riley. “Most of the time you were just sweaty and hanging out … There was only standing room.”
“Crank nights are the one evening that all climbers look forward to in a normal Yangon week,” says Florian von Fischer, an avid Crank Night attendee. “It’s meeting good friends and having good chats over some nice boulders … almost feels like some extended family.”
The flood gates opened. Four locals, including von Fischer, built walls of their own. People took turns hosting events developed. While Myanmar continued to establish itself in the modern world, a swarming community of climbers assembled in steaming basements and on dusty rooftops.
After several years of Crank Nights, a small bouldering gym, Climb O’ Clock, opened its doors. Climb O’ Clock only had 25 feet of wall, but the community was over the moon to climb. The gym owner, Nyi Nyi Aung, hosted his own Crank Nights for the community, and the place slowly became the new focal-point.
While indoor life is slowly blooming in Myanmar, there’s still a lot of tension surrounding crag development. Getting the right permissions has proven tricky.
“We’re further along and we’re the closest we’ve ever been, but I wouldn’t say it’s getting easier,” says Riley. “Especially if you don’t want to pay people bribes. I think the key thing is that it would be impossible without a psyched group of Myanmar climbers that are working on it proactively. They’re the reason we’ve gotten this far.”
The crags that do exist are thriving. The 27 routes in the main area, Hpa An—about 100 miles east of Yangon as the crow flies—get lapped. Routes go from 5.7 to mid 5.13 and are mostly vertical and techy on bullet proof limestone.
“Of the climbing destination next to a monastery,” says Riley, “the climbing is good, but there’s still so little of it that’s been developed.”
The stoke is high as the community continues to grow and some of Myanmar’s first climbers are getting strong. Hopes remain that permits will be settled and more limestone cliffs will be developed.
To visiting climbers, von Fischer offers some advice: “Contact the Myanmar Rock Community on Facebook and post in the group that you’re interested to get on some rock. If anyone in the group is going they’ll definitely respond. Otherwise join a Crank Night (announced on the Facebook page). Also, it’s good to bring a bolt or two, or donate some money to the group so that the current sport routes can be maintained.”
Feature image: A regular rooftop Crank Night in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Andrew Riley