What Is The Sport of Sepak Takraw? Thailand’s Acrobatic Volleyball

sepak takraw thailand
Photo copyright dbgg1979, Creative Commons license

Sepak Takraw is one of Southeast Asia’s most popular sports, yet most Westerners have never heard of it.

Imagine a net like in volleyball, then reduce the volleyball to the size of a grapefruit and make it out of rattan, and that’s all the equipment required for a Sepak Takraw game.

But, unlike volleyball where you can use your hands, in Sepak Takraw the players are only allowed to touch the ball with their feet, body or head. This leads to some of the most amazing acrobatics ever seen on a court. In fact, Sepak Takraw is very much like a mix between volleyball, gymnastics, kung fu and circus acrobatics. You’ve got to see it to believe it!

In Thailand, the game is called just Takraw, and is often played by laborers or motor-cycle taxi drivers at the end of the day, when they want to wind down. They will find an empty piece of land where they will park two trucks or cars. Then they will string up a takraw net between the two vehicles and, voila, the game of takraw can begin.

It’s also played at temples, in fairgrounds, in schools and in parks all over Thailand. In fact, anywhere where the players can find a spare piece of flat ground.

Where did Sepak Takraw originate?

The game probably originated in China as the kickball game of cuju then, by traders coming down into Thailand from China it was introduced to the Thais as early as the 1400s.

You can see the game today in paintings on the walls of several temples in Thailand, where gods such as Hanuman play takraw. These paintings are often more than 250 years old.

The sport became incredibly popular in Thailand when, in the early 1800s the Siam Sports Association created the first written rules for takraw. Soon after, it became a popular sport in schools all over the country and remains so today, especially out in the Thai provinces.

How and where is Sepak Takraw played?

Takraw nowadays is played on a court that is similar to a volleyball court, with a net where the top is five feet above the ground. There are two teams, consisting of three players on each team. To start the game, the inside player of the serving team hits the ball to the server (the Tekong) who serves it over the net with a kick.

The game is usually played in two sets with the winning team of the set being the one who reaches 21 points first. If each team wins one set, there is a tiebreaker game that will go up to 15 points unless it ties at 14-14. Then the game will end at 17 points.

Thailand has the world’s best takraw players. Malaysia is Thailand’s main rival, but Malay players, so far, have not managed to consistently get to the unbelievable game playing of the Thais.

However, in countries like Vietnam, Hong Kong, and South Korea, takraw is becoming a popular sport so, in the future, the Thais may have more competition for the title of the world’s best players.

Even in England, Europe and the USA, takraw clubs and associations are cropping up as Westerners see what a revolutionary and challenging game this is. Their level of game play though is years away from being like the Thais.

Where to see Sepak Takraw in Bangkok, Thailand

If you’re in Thailand, you can often see takraw games on local Thai television. In Bangkok, from February to April, there are evening competitions at Sanam Luang, the flat grass area near the Grand Palace. They start at about 5:30pm.

Some of the most amazing takraw games I have seen have been at Lumphini Park in Bangkok, which is near the Sala Daeng sky train station and the Lumphini underground station.

Here locals will show up for a ‘pick-up’ game most days, and even there you can see some phenomenal game play, acrobatics and martial arts moves. It’s well worth visiting the park to see.

For even higher level games, the professional sepak takraw events begin in April and you’ll find these all over Thailand.

If you have a chance, don’t miss the opportunity to see a takraw game. The skill the players have and the unbelievable twists, turns and downright contortionistic moves you will see will leave you stunned.

If you’re lucky, the game will also eventually become part of the Olympic Games as takraw associations all over the world are lobbying for inclusion. It’s currently played every two years at the South East Asian Games (SEA Games), Asia’s version of the Olympics, where the Thai team are usually the defending champions.

To see what a game looks like, watch the video below of the Thailand-Korea 2014 ASEAN Gold Medal match. And, yes, of course Thailand won.