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.