Finding Asia’s most well-loved sport would be a tough contest: the continent’s passion for cricket keeps it at the top of the game, Asian countries dominate in table tennis, and Sumo wrestling remains an iconic symbol of Japanese culture. However, alongside these popular giants are a few lesser-known Asian sports which deserve a higher profile.
Bo-Taoshi is a bit like a supersized version of ‘capture the flag’, with giant poles instead of handheld pennants, and teams of 150 players. Each set of 75 attackers is trying to be the first to get past the opposing team’s 75 defenders and knock over their pole which, at 15ft tall, is more like a tree-trunk. Given that 300 people are needed for a game, and there’s a high chance of injury, it’s not surprising that this sport is mostly played by military cadets. At the bell, the attackers charge at their opponent’s poles, and from the outside it looks like chaos! Fun chaos, though.
The mild-mannered pastime of petanque, or boules, might not be the first sport you’d expect to see played in the heat of a Laotian evening, but it has gripped the national imagination. Introduced during French Colonial rule, this measured game of skill and precision involves aiming large metal ‘boules’ at a smaller ‘jack’, the winner being the player who gets their boule closest. Several players can compete at once and it can be enjoyed by absolutely anyone, which is certainly part of its appeal. Find out more about having a go at petanque in Laos and perhaps plan a game or two into your next trip.
Sepak Takraw (a cross between keepy-uppy and volleyball) is played throughout South-East Asia, but can trace its origins to 15th century Malaysia, where it was a pastime of royalty. Originally devised as more of a demonstration of skill than a competitive game, players avoid touching the ball with their arms or hands, instead using their feet, chest and head for control. Today it’s played by two teams volleying a light ball over a high net, points being lost by the team who lets it fall to the floor. The ball must, however, always be moving – no holding it under your chin!
Chinlone, the Burmese version of sepak takraw, shares its basic premise but is different enough to be considered a separate sport. Like the US game of hacky sack, chinlone is played by up to six people who pass a woven, rattan ball between each other without letting it touch the ground. In this non-competitive version, the game itself is the ‘opponent’ and victory is achieved when all players work together. Kudos is gained for creative moves and slick passes, and there is a sense of team achievement in keeping the ball in the air. Just don’t be the one who drops it.
Like all the myriad martial arts practised throughout Asia, Vovinam (or Viet Vo Dao) has its own unique philosophy, origin and set of movements. Unlike some martial arts, however, vovinam doesn’t base itself within either ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ physicality, but rather focuses on the contrast between the two extremes and learning when to use each to your advantage. Practised both with and without weapons, the moves are a series of kicks, hand, elbow and levering which all centre around the philosophy of ‘iron hand over benevolent heart’, or using one’s skills to help and protect others. It can be both beautiful and hypnotic to watch.
If asked to think of a sport that was invented by boarding school students who were tired of playing ‘ordinary’ soccer, rugby might spring to mind. However, there is another: sepak bola api is a sport unique to Indonesia which is played to mark the start of Ramadan. Just like in traditional football, 11 players per team kick a ball towards the opposing team’s goal. So, what makes it so different? Why is it sometimes described more like an endurance ritual than a sport? Well - it is traditionally played barefoot, with a toughened coconut as a ball. And the coconut is on fire.
There’s no substitute for the excitement of watching live sport, so chat to one of our Destination Specialists about incorporating a match into your next trip. In the meantime, perhaps get a few friends together and try playing one? Maybe without the fire, though.