Thailand’s Favorite Game: Sepak Takraw

When passing by neighborhoods in Bangkok, Thailand, I almost always spot a group of teenagers and adults playing volleyball on the side of the road. But it’s not what you would typically imagine a casual game of volleyball to look like. Rather than setting and spiking the ball with hands, these people play with their feet. It's an unusual yet popular sport native to Southeast Asia, called “Sepak Takraw,” often called Takraw for short.

When passing by neighborhoods in Bangkok, Thailand, I almost always spot a group of teenagers and adults playing volleyball on the side of the road. But it’s not what you would typically imagine a casual game of volleyball to look like. Rather than setting and spiking the ball with hands, these people play with their feet. It's an unusual yet popular sport native to Southeast Asia, called “Sepak Takraw,” often called Takraw for short.

Takraw is similar to a game of volleyball or badminton, but a player can only use his or her feet, chest, knee, or head to control and return the rattan ball, a ball specifically for Takraw crafted out palm trees and similar in texture to a wicker basket. A typical game consists of six players, three on each side. The court looks like a volleyball court, but smaller: a 44 by 20 foot rectangular playing space with a five foot net in the middle separating the two opposing sides. Like volleyball, each team consists of a server who starts off the play with a serve, a feeder who is responsible for setting the ball up, and a striker who spikes the feeder’s ball. Teams aim to score two sets of 21 points in order to win.

Despite being played in the confines of a small court, Takraw showcases world-class athletes with extreme flexibility and ability to move in the air. These players can fluidly get their feet above their heads during a backflip, high enough above the net to spike the ball downwards. In a typical play, a moment after the feeder carefully springs the ball up, the striker flips in the air, thrusting his or her legs above his head and spiking the ball down on the opposing side. The opposing striker attempts to block by leaping into the air synchronously with the other striker, utilizing their back and leg. Each play has a restriction of three touches before returning it over to the other side, which is also seen in volleyball. Unlike in volleyball, players can pass the ball to themselves in those three touches. Hence, the positions are merely labels; feeders can set to themselves to spike for a surprise attack. The positions just dictate starting positions prior to the service. While each of those matches take no longer than 30 minutes, they are intensely action-packed with every point being picture-worthy. Especially for soccer fans, initial reactions to witnessing Takraw plays were just awe. Some even described the sport as “kung fu.”

While Takraw does not make it to the big screens in the United States, Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, where Takraw is a national sport, all have professional leagues. Thailand’s league is often recognized as the most prestigious Takraw league, with a nationwide fan base that attracts more than 170,000 viewers for a TV match. Countries also compete internationally and Takraw is especially popular in the biannual Southeast Asian Games. With 11 participating countries, Takraw is a crowd-pleasing sport, displaying incredible athletic ability.

Moreover, Thai people cherish Takraw for more than just its acrobatic flips and bicycle kicks: the sport’s cultural significance runs deep, with people claiming Takraw originated as far back as 15th century Malaysia. The sport is believed to be rooted in a legend involving the Sultan Muhammed V, but it is disputed because at Bangkok’s famous Phra Kaew temple, an 18th-century mural depicts the Hindu god Hanuman playing Takraw with his clan of monkeys.

Takraw can be seen in professional leagues, people’s backyards, and Thai schools, which often include this sport as a unit in their physical education curriculum. Along with the large professional scene in Thailand, people play the sport leisurely in their communities. After a tiring day of work, friends and strangers alike often come together for a friendly match; when the marked courts are occupied, people find ways, such as using their house gates as nets. And even on makeshift courts, large groups gather to play or watch the sport they all enjoy. Even though people mostly play on the rough concrete pavement that could lead to injuries from slips and falls, they enjoy the game. Nothing really stops the game of Takraw.

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