Just for Kicks

The future stars of sepak takraw—a competitive sport that dominates Southeast Asia—get their start in the streets of Bangkok.

The shadow of a sepak takraw player practicing at a court in central Bangkok.

A really killer spike—the powerful bicycle kick that somersaults a sepak takraw player into the air and slams the hollow, pomelo-sized rattan ball at an opponent’s feet at 90 miles an hour—can land you flat on your back, air knocked out of your lungs. But then you’ll be up on your feet again for the return, kicking, spinning, and bouncing the ball from foot to head to chest, in a fast-paced game that resembles a hybrid of soccer and volleyball.

Sepak is Malay for “kick,” and takraw is Thai for “ball,” in particular the traditional rattan ball that is often destroyed during play. (A synthetic version is now used in most professional games.) Each side has three players; as in soccer, players can make use of all their body parts except their hands and arms, and, as in volleyball, they score points by launching the ball over a net and past their opponents, slamming it to the ground.

Sepak takraw is an ancient sport—there are murals of the monkey god Hanuman playing the game in Bangkok’s Temple of the Emerald Buddha—that’s played in countries across Southeast Asia. Players from Thailand dominate most international competitions, winning 22 gold medals since the sport was introduced at the Asian Games in 1990. (It hasn’t made the Olympics yet; a sport needs to be recognized in at least 50 countries in order to be considered for inclusion in the Games.)

Though a talented few will make their way into regional competitions and tournaments, street games are where the money is. Anyone gathered around can bet on games, and winning teams take a cut of the earnings. “I earn 500 to 600 baht [$15 to $19] from my job,” says one Thai player, who works as the driver of a bicycle taxi. “But from takraw, I can earn around 4,000 or 5,000 [$130 to $160] baht per week. The most money I can earn from takraw is 20,000 to 30,000 baht [$630 to $950].”

We traveled to Thailand to watch sepak takraw in action on the streets of Bangkok, where many players begin their training. The players are young, but most of them have been playing for years, even decades; a few have traveled from distant towns just to play on the city’s makeshift courts.

Nuttadeh Jaichana began playing when he was 13, when someone passed a ball to him in the street. Now 18, he plays at the youth level and is studying to get a scholarship for college.
Aekkachai Wanrojee, 25, is a player from Bangkok. He learned the sport by following his father to the courts whenever he used to play.
A player stretches before a game on a court under a highway overpass.
Street sepak takraw players during a game on a court under an overpass in central Bangkok.
Players affiliated with the Bangkok Sports School practice kick jumps during an early morning training.
Playing on a court under an overpass in central Bangkok.
Min, 23, a street takraw player from Myanmar, poses for a portrait under a mural depicting the late Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej near Chalerm La Park in central Bangkok.
Dusit Karin, 45, is one of the older street takraw players in a group that gathers every evening to play in a makeshift court under an expressway in central Bangkok.
A player jumps to kick a ball during a game on the outskirts of Bangkok.
Players can hit the ball over the net with their feet or their heads.
Spectators gather around a game.
A player jumps by the net during a game of sepak takraw on the outskirts of the city.
Players celebrate after winning a game.
Daw, a migrant laborer from Myanmar, after a game on a makeshift court in central Bangkok.
Min, a migrant laborer from Myanmar and sepak takraw player.
Migrant laborers from Myanmar gather on a makeshift court for a game of sepak takraw in central Bangkok. The sport is popular all across Southeast Asia.
Games are played all day at the makeshift court.

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