Myanmar stunt bikers dazzle on Yangon's streets

Skidding and screeching across the concrete the young bikers perform a carefully choreographed dance of gravity-defying stunts, a dazzling display of Myanmar's thriving youth culture on the streets of its biggest city.

Every week dozens of them gather near Yangon's golden Shwedagon pagoda to practise tricks under the night sky, one of many sports gaining popularity as the country opens up after decades of junta rule.

Kabyar Oo, who set up the group two years ago, said there are more than 100 riders around the country, around half of them in Yangon and the rest in the central city of Mandalay.

Some are in their 20s, but most are school students who dream of going pro.

"There are no (formal) competitions here," Kabyar Oo told AFP on a recent steamy night as other riders took turns to jump over upside down bikes -- and each other.

"If we had the chance, we would all want to compete. That's the dream of all the riders."

Many save for months to afford a BMX bike, which can cost between $250 and $2,500 -- an astronomical sum in a country where the daily minimum wage is 3,600 kyat ($2.65).

Others spend all their cash keeping their ride in good condition or adding extra features.

"When I get my salary at the end of the month, all my money goes into it," said Htet Aung, 24, who works in a currency exchange office. "I feel like that is my savings."

The group, known as Myanmar BMX Riders, are now in talks with Yangon authorities to get their own space to practise with proper ramps and props.

But despite their dedication, many face pressure from relatives to stop.

"They forbid me after I had an accident which left a bad wound on my face, but I went to practise without telling them," said 14-year-old student Sai Aung Zaw Myint, grinning.

Htet Wai Yan Oo, 23, who came from Mandalay to ride with the group, added: "My parents are not supportive. I had to save my school allowance for six months to buy my first (bike)."

But others say the sport helps keep bored young people away from crime and drugs at a time when youth unemployment is triple the broader population.

Drug addiction rates have soared in recent years as more and more of the caffeine-laced meth tablets known as "yaba" churned out in Myanmar's lawless borderlands are being sold inside the country.

"I help the young people as much as I can to keep them interested in sport and to stop them from going in the wrong direction in life," said Phone Myat Tun, who sells the riders gear at cost from his shop.

"The challenge for them is social pressure."