Cross soccer with volleyball and mix in a bit of gymnastics and kung fu, and you’ve got the ingredients for one of Southeast Asia’s favourite and most spectacular pastimes: sepak takraw.
Countless variations of takraw are played throughout the region, but the basic objective of each is to keep the hollow, grapefruit-sized ball from touching the ground by keeping it airborne with the feet, knees, head, shoulders, elbows — or nearly every part of the body except the hands.
In Thailand, takraw is played by people of all ages in school yards, parks, fairgrounds, city streets, beaches, or anywhere with just a few feet of open space. All that is required is a rattan or plastic ball. The dazzling spectacle of the sepak takraw variety also features a net and requires a remarkable combination of flexibility, speed, power, mental alertness and acrobatic skill.
Whether its sipa in the Philippines, sepak raga in Malaysia, da cau in Vietnam, kator in Laos or takraw in Thailand — the sport is distinctly a Southeast Asian tradition.
Origins and Shared Heritage
Where takraw originated is still a matter of intense dispute in Southeast Asia. Several countries proudly claim it as their own invention rather than as an activity borrowed from elsewhere. While it may never be satisfactorily determined where takraw began, there is some agreement that the sport was introduced to Southeast Asia through commercial contact with China.
In the Middle Kingdom some two thousand years ago, several variations of the game evolved from an ancient military exercise, where Chinese soldiers would try to keep a feathered shuttlecock airborne by kicking it back and forth between two people. As the sport developed throughout the region, the animal hide and chicken feathers used to make the original objects eventually gave way to balls made of woven strips of rattan, which grew abundantly in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
The first versions of takraw were not so much competitive contests but cooperative displays of skill designed to exercise the body, to improve dexterity and loosen the limbs after long periods of sitting, standing or working.
Evolution of takraw
In Thailand, murals at Wat Phra Kaeow, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, in Bangkok depict the Hindu god Hanuman playing takraw in a ring with a troop of monkeys. Other historical accounts mention the game earlier during the reign of King Naresuan (1590-1605 AD ) of Ayutthaya.
The modern version of sepak takraw (sepak means ‘kick’ in Malay and takraw means ‘ball’ or ‘basket’ in Thai), however, is fiercely competitive and began taking shape in Thailand almost 200 years ago.
In 1829 (B.E. 2372), the Siam Sports Association drafted the first rules for takraw competition. Four years later, the association introduced the volleyball-style net and held the first public contest. Within just a few years, takraw was introduced to the curriculum in Siamese schools.
The game became such a cherished local custom that another exhibition of volleyball-style takraw was staged to celebrate the kingdom’s first constitution in 1933, the year after Thailand abolished absolute monarchy.
Sepak takraw is today played on a modified badminton doubles court, with the net standing five feet above the ground. Each team, or regu, consists of three players: left inside, right inside and back server. To put the ball into play, the inside player lobs the ball to the server, or takong, who launches the ball over the net with a roundhouse windmill kick. Basic rules and scoring are similar to volleyball, with each team allowed a maximum of three touches of the ball to get it back over the net to the other side without letting it touch the ground. The first team to score either 15 or 21 points, depending on the rules in play, wins the set. The team that prevails in two sets wins the match.
Spectators marvel as players, and opposing blockers, hurl themselves parallel to the ground as they spike the ball over the net with high-flying scissor kicks — only to land on the same foot. The most breathtaking of these feats are known as the roll spike, where the player leaps in the air to kick the ball over the opposite shoulder, and the sunback or stingray spike, a similar scissors kick but over the same shoulder. Perhaps the most devastating kick of all, however, is the horse-kick serve, made famous by Thailand’s Suebsak Phunsueb, who is widely regarded as the best sepak takraw player in the world. Suebsak has been confounding opponents for a decade by serving the ball to opponents at a blistering pace using the sole of his shoe.
Less acrobatic but more impressively skilful variants of the game include circle takraw, where about five to seven players stand in a ring and try to keep the ball airborne as long as possible. Points are awarded according to the difficulty of the kicks.
Hoop takraw, known locally as lawd buang or lawd huang, is similar to circle takraw, especially in its ballet-like moves and the emphasis on creativity, but the goal is to put the ball into a basket-shaped net with three hoop openings in a triangular formation suspended some five to six metres above ground. Each team is given an allotted time, usually 20 or 30 minutes, to put the ball in the basket as many times and as gracefully as they can. Like circle takraw, points are awarded for difficulty, so players break out their full repertoires of such expert manoeuvres as cross-legged jump kicks and other artistic kicks behind the back or with the sole of the foot as well as strikes with the elbows, shoulders and forehead.
In Thailand, lawd huang is a popular activity at festivals and temple fairs — the fancy footwork often distracting the attention of onlookers from other proceedings. Unlike sepak takraw, where youngsters dominate the sport, the true masters of hoop takraw and circle takraw are usually the elders.
Competing with Modernity
In Thailand, interest in takraw has been eclipsed somewhat by the growing popularity of European football and other modern influences, but it retains its special place in Thai culture. Thai schools and universities continue to teach takraw in physical education classes, and it is still almost ubiquitous throughout the kingdom. As Thailand is the unrivalled innovator of the modern sport and its undisputed world champion over the past decade or two, there is good reason to believe that takraw will continue to be synonymous with Thailand in the years to come.
Takraw in Southeast Asia Today
In Malaysia, Thailand’s chief takraw rival, sepak raga is its national game. The country also has a takraw history rich with characters and milestone events. Hamid Maidin, Malaysia’s “Father of Modern Takraw”, is credited with introducing the volleyball-style net and rules during World War Two, about the same time as similar developments in Thailand.
The spiritual aspect to the game can perhaps best be seen in Myanmar (Burma). The annual Waso Chinlon Festival, or Cane-ball Festival is held near the revered Maha Myat Muni Pagoda in Mandalay every year. Hundreds of chinlon teams take part with the players making offerings of flowers, lights and robes to the temple’s sacred Buddha image in a show of respect. The games are accompanied by a traditional orchestra, and the tempo and melody of the music change according to the pace of the action.
Takraw Goes International
In 1960, representatives from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Lao PDR and Thailand met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to standardize the rules and regulations for the game. They reached a compromise and officially named the sport sepak takraw. They also formed the Asian Sepak Takraw Federation, or ASTAF, and translated the rules into English, setting the stage for the first international competition, held in Malaysia in 1965, at the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games, or SEAP Games, the predecessor to today’s Southeast Asian Games, or SEA Games.
This chain of events set the stage for the international growth of takraw. But it was the replacement of the natural rattan ball, which tended to splinter and warp, with the more standardized synthetic plastic ball that really kicked the game’s popularity into high gear.
In 1990, sepak takraw was included a sport at the Asian Games in Beijing. Women got in on the action with the first women’s championships in Thailand in 1997. At the SEA Games in Manila last December, medal sports also included hoop takraw, men’s doubles and circle takraw.
Today, more than 20 countries have national takraw associations with representatives on the board of the global governing body, the International Sepak Takraw Federation, or ISTAF.
Asian Takraw Looks to the Future
For most of the past decade, Thailand has dominated international competitions, winning nearly every major event. Malaysia turned the tide at the 2005 Manila SEA Games. Thailand and Malaysia will remain the teams to beat for the foreseeable future, but other takraw powerhouses such as Myanmar, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam are closing in quickly.
Takraw is one of the fastest growing sports in Asia and all over the globe among both men and women. The gravity-defying kicks, contorted aerial twists, turns of the body and the blinding speed of play will continue to astound spectators worldwide. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before Southeast Asia’s beloved pastime takes its rightful place among other sports at the Olympic Games.
WHERE TO SEE AMATEUR SEPAKTAKRAW
Sukhumvit Road, between Soi 22 and 24
(next to Emporium shopping mall, Phrom Phong BTS station)
Khlong Tan sub-district, Khlong Toei district, Bangkok 10110
Played every evening, beginning at about 5.00 pm until 9.00 pm, when the park closes.
Wachirabenchatat Park (Rotfai Park)
Kampaengphet 3 Road, Ladyao, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900
(Just past Chatuchak weekend market, Mo Chit BTS station, or Kampaengphet MRTA station).
Ratchadamnoern Road, Banglamphu (near Wat Phra Kaeow)
Every Saturday and Sunday morning, until about 10.00 am.
*Hoop takraw (lawd huang) competitions are held at Sanam Luang, in the evenings, from around 5.30 pm onwards. The best time is from February to April.
Rama I Road, Patumwan, Bangkok 10330
Played every evening from around 5.00 pm. - 8.00 pm.
Tel: + 66 (0) 2214-0120, Fax: + 66 (0) 2215-5942
Hua Mak Stadium
2088 Ramkamheang Rd, Huamark, Bangkapi, Bangkok 10240
Played every evening from around 5.00 pm. - 9.00 pm.
Tel: + 66 (0) 2318-0940-4
Ratchaburi takraw tournament
Ratchaburi from March 9-15, 2006
WHERE TO SEE PROFESSIONAL TAKRAW
Beginning in April, Professional sepaktakraw competitions will be held in provinces throughout the country. For more information about where to see it played, or for information on takraw, please call the Thailand Takraw Association (TTA)
+66 (0) 2282-6771, + 66 (0) 2281-1045. Please note that officials here speak little English, so it is best to have someone from your hotel or guesthouse contact the TTA.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shawn Kelley has lived and worked in Thailand for ten years. He has written articles and research papers on development issues in the Mekong region at Chiang Mai University and for several publications in Asia, and has also written frequently on topics related to Thai music, culture and society. He spent his early years in Gallup, New Mexico and Cleveland, Ohio before attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he was awarded a Masters of Arts in Political Science with an emphasis on Southeast Asian Studies.