1. Sepak takraw (Malaysia)
If there’s one truly Southeast Asian sport, it would be sepak takraw, which is played in almost every country in the region.
Even its name is a mash-up of two Southeast Asian languages – sepak, Malay for “kick”, and the Thai takraw, referring to the woven rattan ball used in the game.
Sepak takraw resembles volleyball and is played on a similar court with a net. Unlike volleyball, however, players are not allowed to touch the ball with their hands, only their feet, knees, chest and head.
Because the net is 1.52 metres high, there’s a fair bit of athleticism required to spike the ball. It’s like watching volleyball and football rolled into one, with acrobatics thrown in for good measure.
Each Southeast Asian country has its own sepak takraw traditions, but all agreed to an official set of rules when the sport became a medal sport at the South East Asian Peninsular Games – the predecessor to the Southeast Asian Games – back in 1965.
Sepak takraw has also been included in the Asian Games since the 1990 edition in Beijing, China. Who knows, maybe someday sepak takraw will be an Olympic sport!
While the sport is thought to have originated in Malaysia, it is Thailand that has won the most medals in the history of both the Southeast Asian and Asian Games.
2. Chinlone (Myanmar)
Chinlone is basically a non-competitive form of sepak takraw, and it’s easy to see it as a combination of both a sport and a dance.
There’s no opposing team in chinlone, just five to seven players standing in a circle, trying to keep the ball airborne for as long as possible by bouncing it off any part of the body except the hands and arms.
That’s where creativity comes in, with players trying to impress the others with acrobatic movements. Catching the ball with your back is a particularly popular trick.
The ball is passed between one player to another, creating a dance circle of some sort. Coordination is important to create a rhythm between the players.
This game is known as takraw wong (circle takraw) in Thai, a game is popular all over the country as it doesn’t require a lot of space and can be played by just about anyone. Children and the elderly in one team? No problem.
Chinlone is seen as a part of the national identity in Myanmar and believed to have been created 1,500 ago as entertainment for Burmese royalty.
Chinlone is also used to hone focus and concentration, and a zen-like focus called jhana in Burmese is believed to be the key to a successful performance.
Myanmar, the host of the 2013 Southeast Asian Games in Naypyidaw, introduced chinlone as a medal sport, but it was relegated to an event under sepak takraw in subsequent editions.
3. Traditional longboat race (Thailand)
The distinctive profile of Thailand’s longboat (ruea hang yao) makes it an icon that is almost synonymous with the kingdom’s image.
But the slender boats are not just about looks, as they were used to train soldiers during the Ayutthaya era some 600 years ago.
But the fun, competitive elements of this training were not lost on the Thais, and it soon turned into a sporting event that survives to this day.
Thailand hosts many regional boat races throughout the year, but major competitions are held in September and October when the rivers are at their highest level.
This is also around the time when locals welcome the end of Vassa, or Buddhist Lent, so boat races are often held in conjunction with celebrations.
The boats are 30 metres long, made entirely from wood and with a distinctively high prow, while the race distance is typically between 500 and 600 metres.
There’s a similar boat race tradition in Cambodia, held during the Bon Om Touk festival to welcome the reversed flow of the Mekong River into Tonle Sap, usually in November.
Around the same time, ethnic Khmers in Vietnam hold the Ghe Ngo Boat Race in the Mekong Delta.
In Indonesia’s Riau province, there’s pacu jalur, a boat race that historically took place between the months of September and November, but now can be held around Islamic festivals or national holidays.
Seeing as how boat racing is a popular sport around the region, it’s no wonder traditional long boat racing has been made a Southeast Asian Games medal sport since 1993.
4. Seated archery (Indonesia)
There are various forms of archery around the world, but jemparingan stands out from the rest as it requires archers to take aim while sitting cross-legged.
This style of archery is unique to the former Sultanate of Mataram, which includes present-day Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo).
Archers loose their arrows at a cylindrical pendulum 30-35 centimetres in length and 5 centimetres in diameter while seated at least 35 metres away.
Traditionally, jemparingan is seen as a way to cultivate the knightly characteristics of sawiji, greget, sengguh, and ora mingkuh (concentration, gusto, self-confidence and a sense of responsibility).
The cross-legged position is chosen as it is the position of meditation. Indeed, just like kyudo or traditional Japanese archery, jemparingan is seen as a form of meditation in action.
Jemparingan was once a medal sport in National Sports Week (PON), Indonesia’s national multi-sport event, but it was dropped in 2012 and can now only be seen at regional level competitions.
5. Khmer wrestling (Cambodia)
We don’t typically see much dancing in wrestling rings, but in Khmer wrestling or boak cham bab, dancing is seen as an integral part of wrestling.
Dance and music are what make Khmer wrestling unique, as the music dictates the flow of a match while post-match dancing symbolises sportsmanship and friendship.
The sounds of skor ngey and chhmol (female and male drums) adds to the rhythm of the match and also motivates wrestlers.
The rules are simple. Each wrestler must pin their opponent’s back to the ground, and the wrestler who wins the best of three rounds is declared the victor.
Khmer wrestling is an ancient art intertwined with the country’s long history. Bas-reliefs on 10th to 11th century temples like Banteay Srei and Baphuon depict wrestlers, including female ones, grappling with each other.
Traditionally held to celebrate the harvest, these days matches are commonly organised around the Khmer New Year, Pchum Ben and other Cambodian holidays.
According to airasia.com