Visitors to Asian countries will undoubtedly recognize a few unique versions of well-known sports as they travel around the region, and with hospitable people to play them with in almost every Asian nation it can be a real pleasure to join in with a few local sporting activities.
Many popular global games and sports originated in Asia, and plenty more were made popular in the region hundreds of years ago by foreigners, but still thrive today.
Below are a few of the more active cultural experiences to look out for next time you travel in Asia.
Petanque, also known “boules”, is played worldwide, and over the last decade or so the sport has enjoyed a rise in popularity in countries like the United States. In Asia, the game is particularly loved in Laos, where it was introduced during French colonial days. Gallic military forces originally brought the game to the Southeast Asian nation, but when the 17-year-old Laotian Soulasith Khamvongsa won a gold medal in petanque at the 2001 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, its popularity enjoyed a resurgence of national proportions.
A combination of bowling, horseshoe tossing and a tee-sized bit of golf, petanque can be played almost anywhere. Public parks and areas of grass in Laos are often the preferred location of play, but sandy areas also work, so you might see the game being played anywhere.
I once played petanque on a building top “court” in the capital Vientiane, but was sworn to keep the game a secret. The building owner didn’t know about the manager’s love of the game, so he and his friends held clandestine competitions whenever they could. I also once challenged a couple of locals to a match in the small southern city of Salavan, although it was a challenge to play on an asphalt tennis court, and needless to say, I lost.
Local people say the game is particularly popular in Laos because anyone can play it – young vs old, women against men, “newbie” players versus seasoned hot-shots. You also often see teams of up to three players taking turns trying to toss a ball closest to the jack (also called the “cochonnet” – which means little pig in French) to win points. The team or player first gaining 13 points wins, and tossing the ball underhand gives backspin and allows pinpoint placement for more skilled players.
Hotels and villas across Laos often set-aside areas for petanque, so it’s easy to enjoy a game or two if you ask or look around.
Badminton has long been an Asian favourite, with countries like Malaysia and India leading the field. The people of both these proud nations hold competitions that range from fun on the beach and in backyards to fierce world-ranking tournaments with corporate sponsorship and widespread media coverage.
Like tennis, Badminton can be played as either a singles or doubles sport, and I’ve seen the game played everywhere from car parks in Kuala Lumpur to the shallow waters off Penang and Kota Baru in Malaysia, as well as in alleyways and school yard grounds in Goa and Mumbai.
India’s fascination with badminton has existed since British colonial days when soldiers adapted a game called battledore, replacing the ball with a shuttlecock.
Often referred to as “ball badminton,” the sport is now aired on Indo-Asian cable TV channels as frequently as most other major sports, and leading players such as India’s Saina Nehwal have achieved celebrity status. China has also begun to dominate the game recently, but Malaysian, Indian, Indonesian and South Korean players still make the world rankings.
The Indian government now funds several badminton academies, and on a recent trip to the sub-continent I was stunned by the quality of the nine-court Vadodara facility in Gujarat, which even boasts grade-A quarters for players and a 50 metre indoor swimming pool.
Similarly in Malaysia, the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) has steadily improved its support for the sport. In fact 2014 the Axiata Cup in Cheras was hailed “the world’s richest badminton competition,” with a USD1 Million prize.
A version of the mallet and ball game of croquet, Gateball was invented in Japan in 1947 by Suzuki Kazunobu. Played with great precision, the game uses croquet-like mallets and red and white balls with teams of up to five playing on a rectangular court, securing points by hitting a ball through one of the three gates (1 point), or by hitting the end goal pole (2 points).
With only a half-hour to play and a win, it’s a fast-paced sport, and the game has become so popular that a World Gateball Union has been established to oversee the rules.
Asian nationalities that play Gateball today include Japanese, Chinese and Singaporeans, as well as people in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia and Macao. Senior citizens in particular tend to love the game for its relaxed but stimulating challenges, and many regional Asian governments support the sport for young and old alike.
In Singapore, I saw congenial groups of players rapidly rotating courts to keep games of Gateball moving in several large public parks. Their laughs and skilled moves to get good “touch” shots and make tricky long shots inspired me to give it a go, and I must say it’s an inspiring competitive activity that tests the body and the brain.
This modest compendium of popular Asian sports is intended to inspire you to “get out there” to watch, play and support great backyard games at their best. If you need more convincing, read on.
- The Japan Gateball Union claims that roughly 2 million Japanese people play the sport today.
- Most serious badminton players use feather shuttlecocks, whereas most casual players use plastic ones. The plastic ones drop with a bit of an arc, while the feather versions drop straight down.
- Gentle games and sports, say therapists, build strength, mobility, flexibility, memory and self-worth in older folk. They can also provide opportunities to increase social interaction and communication, while fighting or delaying the effects of Dementia or Alzheimer’s.
- Petanque or Boules is a descendant of Bocce (pronounced “boh-chay”). You can learn more about the sport in Mario Pagnoni’s book, “The Joy of Bocce”.