Sepak takro—insights from a popular sport in Thailand

DSC03782dFigure 1. Wat Ket, Chiang Mai, about 1986.

Sepak takro—insights from a popular sport in Thailand
©Text and photographs: Sjon Hauser

DSC03753b*This story was published as ‘Takro — Insights from a national sport’ in A Northern Miscallany. Essays from the North of Thailand (Geoffrey Walton, ed.), p.139-160. Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 1989.

Figure 2. Cover of A Northern Miscellany, one of the first books published by Chiang Mai’s Silkworm Books.

Takro ─ Insights from a national sport *
Fighting jet lag and culture shock, my first impressions of Bangkok’s Chinatown shortly after my arrival here in Thailand ten years ago were also blurred by sweat, exhaust fumes and the bedlam of traffic on the roads. One object, however, caught my attention through all this. It was on sale in the shops selling bamboo and rattan handicrafts. Again and again, my eye was drawn to a kind of sphere woven from split rattan and about the size of a large grapefruit. There were lots of them strung up in clusters, like onions hanging in a kitchen. They were hollow, as revealed by the dozen pentagonal holes that pierced them, and I hadn’t the faintest idea what they might be use for. When I pointed at them, a shopkeeper said, “Tako. Twenty baht.”
My list of strange new words was growing; wat, khlong, baht, soi, tuk-tuk, wai, Lipovitan… and now I could add takro (though later I learned it was in fact more commonly rendered as takraw).

The actual function of this strange article was revealed to me only a few days later while I was wandering around Sanam Luang, the large grassy area adjacent to Wat Phra Kaeo, the famous Temple of the Emerald Buddha. An enthusiastic crowd was watching a game being played by two opposing three-man teams who were energetically volleying a takro, which I now realized was a special kind of ball, backwards and forwards over a net. I had never even heard of this sport before but it was an exciting spectacle. The top of the net was about a meter and a half above the ground and the wicker ball evidently combined lightness and elasticity to let it soar freely.
I soon saw that, except for the hands and forearms, any part of the body could be used to propel the takro, though the feet were favored. The players leaped around vigorously, reminding me sometimes of tumblers or gymnasts in their convolutions as they returned the takro across the net. I noticed that the most powerful strokes were delivered by the feet, especially the smashing kicks over the net from the instep. The rapid pace was certainly a striking feature of the game, which seemed an extraordinary cross between football and volleyball, and to play it obviously demanded strength, stamina and suppleness and also acrobatic skills in order to strike or kick the ball while twisting or flipping at the height of a jump, or while virtually doing cartwheels.
I stayed watching till the game was over and then walked on to see Wat Phra Kaeo, my original destination that afternoon. I spent some hours there and while admiring the temple murals depicting episodes from the Thai version of the classic Indian epic the Ramayana, I was delighted to find a tiny section of the enormous painting showing a group of four monkeys ─ troops in the army of the legendary Hanuman, the white, magical King of the Monkeys ─ playing takro. These long-tailed grey creatures were, however, playing a different version of the game from the one I had just seen. They were grouped in a circle and seemed to be kicking the takro among themselves to and fro in high loops around the circle.
Here was immediate proof, before I had had an opportunity to talk to anybody about it, that the game had been played in Thailand at least as long ago as the Bangkok Rattanakosin era, about two centuries back.

sepak-05-870Figure 3. Chiang Rai 1985, National Games. In action xxxxx.

During later visits to the kingdom, I came to realize that this basic version of the game was Thailand’s most popular sport. After finishing their day’s work, construction workers sluice down and change into T-shirts and shorts. They need only a small space in a corner of the building site between the fence and a concrete mixer to be able to enjoy the game until darkness falls. Children play it in backyards or in dead-end lanes. Other youths gather in empty parking lots. The concrete playgrounds of schools and the sandy or beaten-earth compounds of the temples are also suitable. The open grassy spaces of parks such as Bangkok’s Lumphini Park were also a popular venue until the game was forbidden to be played there by a new city governor spurred by the need to present an image of the capital as neat and orderly.
Even elderly men still play. Recently I watched in admiration of their tremendous adroitness as a number of men in their fifties, some perhaps in their sixties, played together in the shade of the trees opposite the entrance to the National Museum on Sanam Luang. Though doubtless the players were not so agile or supple as in their youth, there was no evidence of brittle bones or stiff muscles in their sinuous movements as they wove around patting the takro in the air with a foot, heading it, jabbing it in a high loop with an elbow, catching it and balancing it on an instep before lobbing it aloft once more, keeping the ball from touching the ground for five or even ten minutes at a time. The pleasure they were so obviously deriving from this leasure rehearsal of long-honed skills is probably best expressed by the German word Manipulierfreudigkeit, the joy of manipulation. Their clear enjoyment, accompanied by their own exclamations and the banter of onlookers, was testimony to the image of Thais as fun-loving people.

sepak-03-870Figure 4. 1. Simple rattan takros in a shop in Bangkok’s Chinatown. 2. Sepak takro at Bangkok’s Sanam Luang, about 1980.

This type of takro, played by a group in a circle without a net, is probably the original version of the game. It is truly ‘sport for sport’s sake’ since no points are scored and there are no losers or winners. The game is played purely for the fun of it.
As for the origins of the game, little is known for sure though there are scattered references in historical, anthropological and other sources. Till recently, men on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific could be seen playing takro with a rough cube woven from the leaves of either the coconut palm of the pandanus tree. In Cambodia, the takro used to be woven from feathers. Any of these could have been the material used to make the first takro. There is also evidence that a game called t’ek k’au was played in the past in China with a feathered ball or shuttlecock. Similarly, references exist to takro being played from the fourteenth century onward by the rajas (princes) in their courts throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Doubtless, the players in these royal contest derived as much pleasure from impressing the ladies of the court with their prowess as they did from the game itself.
There are records of takro being played in old Siam’s glorious capital Ayutthaya since at very least the 16th century. It was popular, it seems, during the reign of Naresuan, the Warrior King (1590-1605). It is also documented that one method of execution for a convicted malefactor was to weave an enormous takro around him thus imprisoning im inside it. Elephants were then directed to kick the ball around an open space until the condemned man died from the mighty buffetings.
Nowadays the sport is still widespread throughout Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. To a lesser extent, is is also common in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. As for Indonesia, the sport appears to have declined in popularity there over the past few decades. The same was true in the Philippines until a visit by a Malaysian team in 1980 sparked renewed interest in the sport.
Up till a very few years ago, the mid-eighties, takros woven from rattan were in use everywhere in the region though even in this there are some national variations. The Burmese takros, in comparison to those in Thailand, are rather angular ─ which makes them more difficult to control ─ as they are made from only seven strips of split rattan rather than the nine that is standard here. In former days in Malaysia, a leather ball was used. When they switched to rattan, their cheaper takros, at least, were woven in an irregular pattern without the geometrically precise pentagonal holes so characteristic of the Thai type.

sepak-04-870Figure 5. Takro ground near Wat Nantharam, Chiang Mai, about 1984.

Whatever the pattern, with constant use, the rattan strips wear through eventually and the ball begins to spring apart, soon disintegrating into an unusable tangle. Thus the introduction in 1984 of plastics takros, which last much better, was an innovation that quickly found favor, especially as the more expensive, superior models reproduced surprisingly well all the qualities of the original that are prized by dedicated players.
Both rattan and plastic takros are sold these days at sports shops all over the country, ranging in price from twenty baht, bought by children, on up to over one hundred baht for tournament quality ─ though only rattan is used in contests at the highest levels.

During the 1930s, several variations on the basic ‘sport for sport’s sake’ version of takro were devised to make it a competitive game like other international sports. Of these, basket takro is closest to the original since it is played by one team at a time grouped in a circle as in the original game. But a new component is introduced: three metal hoops each about the size of a basketball hoop, but which are welded together in the form of a three-sided truncated pyramid with, again as in basketball, a short, open-bottomed net suspended below. This contrivance is hung six meters above the ground, often from a branch of a tall tree, so that the game takes place in its shade. In a match, each team has seven players and they play against the clock for forty minutes. Points are scored not only for placing the takro through one of the hoops but also for the difficulty of the shot. For example, to head the takro through a hoop is counted as an easy score, but to loft the ball into the basket by striking it a backward kick with the sole of the foot as it drops behind the player’s back, thus making it soar back up over his head, is recognized as a far more difficult stroke , and it gains higher points accordingly. Any number of teams can play in sequence and the winners are the ones with the highest combined score.
Without a doubt, the most popular contemporary version of the sport is sepak takro, the game I had first seen being played at Sanam Luang, and it is clearly influenced both by badminton and volleyball. Since the late forties, this kind of takro has been promoted by the Ministry of Education. In school grounds throughout the country, once classes are over for the day, groups of teenagers can be seen warming up, first by kicking the ball around their circles and then doing exercises to stretch their leg muscles, an important precaution to prevent injuring themselves during the more explosive movements of the game. The more advanced players even practice doing splits, like ballet dancers.
Soon, though, the nets come out and are fixed to the poles cemented into the playground. Teams form up and play begins.
This is not the place to go into the rules in detail, but as compared with volleyball, they are minimal and their very flexibility speaks volumes of their origins.
Briefly then, each player has an allotted position. For the serving team, they are the server, the setter-up, and the volleyer. As for the defenders, either of the latter two players cover the rest of the court between them. An importance difference in the rules as compared with volleyball is that a team can swap these positions around among themselves at will. So, for instance, if the server is off form, or the opponents have no difficulty in coping with his service, one of his team mates can replace him at any time. Especially when top teams are competing, a skillful swerver can dominate the play and ensure a high score. Another way the sport differs from volleyball is that the ball is still in play if it touches on the top edge of the net.
Indeed, it is considered particularly adept to have the serve clip the net’s rim and topple down on the other side as this shot is practically unreturnable.
Once again, the rules of sepak takro and volleyball diverge over the number of times each player may touch the ball. In the latter, any player may only strike the ball once and for a maximum of three times for the whole team in order to deliver the return. In takro, also, the team may only strike the ball three times for delivery, but any of the players can touch the ball twice or even three times in succession. This gives more scope for guile in dummying the opposition. As an example, the receiving team may anticipate a high looping pass to the volleyer but one of his team mates, having mimed his attention to do this, may simply tap the ball in the air before driving it over the net himself.
Both the fluidity of the game, present even in the rules themselves, and the Manipulierfreudigkeit aspect fit strikingly well with the theories of Thailand as a “loosely structured society” and Thais as “fun-loving individualists”. Such concepts at one time dominated western anthropological and sociological studies of Thai behavior and society for two decades. They are ideas which have since, however, been challenged; a point to return later. As a curious matter of fact, the origins of these concepts are connected with the game of takro.

sepak-06-870Figure 6. 1. Wat Ket, Chiang Mai, about 1986. 2-3: Ring takro, Suan Buat Hat, Chiang Mai, about 1989.

Until the 1950s, relatively little had been written on Thailand, as compared with the rest of Asia, by farang (persons European descent) scholars. In the forties, The American anthropologist John Embree, who had previously done research in Japan, spent some months in Thailand. He found the structure of society here in striking contract to the tightly-knit Japanese one he was already familiar with. Thais society he classified as “loosely structured”. and he perceived the Thai people to operate as true individualists within this framework.
Embree’s somewhat sketchy analysis was published in the 1950 volume of the prestigious American Anthropologist under the title ‘Thailand ─ A loosely Structured Social System’, which became the most quoted and influential paper on Thai society for decades.(1)
“The longer one resides in Thailand, the more one is struck by the almost determined lack of regularity, discipline and regimentation in Thai life.” stated Embree. To substantiate his theory, he noted that when two or three Thais walk along the road together, no attempt is made to keep in step or to swing the arms in rhythm. He also observed what he believed was a loose sense of obligation to the family and that an adjustment of family relations to the desires of individuals in it was not uncommon. Even the behavior of the “taxi dance girls” (a dated euphemism) in Bangkok, when contrasted to those in Singapore, found a place in Embree’s theories.

“Each girl comes or does not come on a particular evening as she pleases; she may or may not require a guest to buy a ticket; and if she goes home with him afterwards, she may or may not be mercenary about it, depending on how she feels.”
The ways Thais dressed at that time, forty years ago, was also adduced to indicate individualism and loose social structure.
“A less regular form of dress than the loosely draped phanung [a long sarong gathered between the legs and tucked into the waist in the small of the back] would be difficult to find. Officials now wear Western-style uniforms, but their garments are seldom very neat.”
Clearly from the above, there have been dramatic changes, at least in dress codes, over the intervening years.
It is rather surprising that such a theory, based on an almost arbitrary selection of “characteristics” of Thai behavior, was able to influence to such a marked degree the way Western social scientists interpreted Thai society over several decades. Perhaps to some extent these concepts, individualism and loose social structure, were being projected from outside in an attempt, whether conscious or unconscious, to make the nation seem predisposed towards free and easy ways and therefore naturally unsuited to the inflexible disciplines of communism which had a stronger foothold in neighboring countries than here.
Whatever the case, anthropological studies in Thailand, from the date of the publication of Embree’s piece, were dominated for quite some years by the work of scholars from Cornell University, which in turn may have contributed to the continuing unchallenged acceptance of Embree’s concepts since they chose as the site of a major field study a small village near Bangkok called Bang Chan. There they found a ‘lack of structure’ which seemed to reinforce Embree’s theories. However, subsequent research by other scholars has shown that, for various reasons, Bang Chan is in no way a typical Thai village of the central plains, or of any other region. Furthermore, other anthropologists assert that, due to their initial preconceptions, the Cornell researchers overlooked structures that were actually present in the social life of the village.
By the sixties, then, Embree’s work had come under heavy fire (2), and Potter’s study of life in a village near Chiang Mai gave a conclusive blow tot the theory of Thai society being “loosely structured” and of Thais being extreme “individualists”.(3) In fact the pendulum swung back so far that a few years later a Dutch sociologist, Han ten Brummelhuis, came up with a startling theory. Part of his research involved observing the interaction between psychiatrists and the patients they were treating for a wide range of mental disorders. Ten Brummelhuis noted a significant fact. Whatever psychic affliction the patients were suffering from, they all described their problems with a limited range of stocj phrases.(4) This led him to coin the phrase ‘negative individualism’ to describe the phenomenon. With this, in a sense, farang interpretation of the Thai character had turned full circle.(5)
Embree’sd analysis has been based on his experiences during a number a visits he had paid to Thailand between 1926 and 1948. One of his early and little known papers entitled ‘Kickball and some other Parallels between Siam and Micronesia’ was published in the Journal of the Siam Society (JSS) in 1948.(6)

sepak-07-870Figure 7. Chiang Rai, 1985: National Games.

In this article the popularity of takro in Thailand was emphasized, albeit based on a very limited number of personal observations. At least three-quarters of the information in this short piece consists of quotations from other sources on the topic, along with the comments of the eminent Thai scholar Phya Anuman Rajadhon, to whom Embree had sent his manuscript. Embree noted that the game appeared to be an informal evening recreation and that it was non-competitive in character. Unlike in certain other countries, Embree remarked that in Siam the players were not limited to using only their feet while keeping the ball in the air.
He also claimed that there were significant parallels between Siamese culture and certain others in Oceania, as for instance the way an inferior hands something to a social superior. “Like kickball, this manner of giving respect is a remarkably specific trait. Of a more general nature are other cultural traits common to Micronesia and Southeast Asia such as the way men walk down a pathway hand in hand, or the general taboo on touching another person’s head.”
Fortunately, he refrained from farfetched speculation, based on these ‘specific’ and more ‘general’ traits, on the movements of peoples and cultures from Southeast Asia to the Pacific, and their subsequent distribution.

However, Embree’s sketchy notes on the game of takro contain in embryonic form the theories which were later to be expanded in his renowned contribution to the American Anthropologist. The earlier short piece in the JSS well illustrates his methods of analysis by comparison, which when employed in his later essay were to have such deleterious affect on studies of Thai behavior and society as to result in two decades of studies based on faulty hypotheses.
Although sepak takro is now very popular in the north of Thailand, the khon mueang (northerners) were probably not familiar with takro until the beginning of this century. Phya Anuman Rajadhon suggests this in a comment on Embree’s paper in the JSS: “(The Northern Thai) so far as I know, have no indigenous takro game unless it is introduced from the Siamese. The word takro itself does not exist in their dialects of the Thais language”.
This would appear to be confirmed by a number of accounts by Europeans who traveled through Northern Thailand in the late nineteenth century.(7) They are very rich sources of information about daily life and cultural habits of the period but takro is not once mentioned in any of them.

sepak-08-870Figure 8. King Cup, Bangkok, 1984.

Since coming to live in Chiang Mai myself about five years ago, I’ve made an attempt to learn to play the game. As a keen and reasonably competent soccer player, I had been frustrated by the lack of opportunity to get a good game here so I decided I would give takro a go. Given my experience and abilities at football, I was astonished to find just how difficult the takro was to control.
I started off by buying a cheap ball and then cycled over to the Chiang Mai Sports Stadium. There I tucked myself away in an obscure corner of the complex of plying fields and set to alone in my experiments at taming the whimsical takro. t was ta take me a year before I could claim to have any kind of control, however minimal, as the rhythms of the movements are so different from soccer, as are some of the techniques, too; the kick with the inside of the foot, for instance, is rarely used in football but is common in takro. And if it hadn’t been for Joe’s insistence and encouragement, I might never have made it onto a takro court at all.
Joe happened to be passing one day at the stadium where I was flailing around as usual. Smiling, he stopped for a while to watch what I was about. The he stepped forward to offer some advice and show me how it was done. I was both stunned and humbled by his superbly nonchalant control of the ball.
The next day he dropped by at my guesthouse with some gifts for me: better footwear, special bandages and even a playing shirt of the national team! He suggested that wrapping a bandage around the arch of each foot would enlarge and smooth the surfaces and so make it easier to achieve control at this early stage of training. Then, if bandaged my wrists and elbows, as he proceeded to demonstrate, I would be less likely to injure myself during the play. I was a bit puzzled by this and even more so when he insisted on taking me for a drive. We ended up at a sepak takro court near a temple on Nantharam Road. A game was in progress and the standard of play was very high indeed. As soon as it was over, I found myself propelled into the court by Joe.
What followed was traumatic. The other players all thought this was a splendid practical joke on his part and as the game went on, they continually fed me the ball with enthusiastic shouts of “You! You!”. My volleys went everywhere ─ into the net, off at a wild tangent, way up into the lamyai trees ─ anywhere except into the opponents’ half of the court. I lumbered around the court swathed in trailing bandages feeling ridiculously like a cross between an Egyptian mummy and the Michelin man let loose among these slim, supple virtuosos. For me, it was a nightmare of embarrassment but for the other players and the spectators who came drifting over, it was sanuk, fun, and obviously a story that would grow in the telling.
That evening back at the guesthouse, I was in a foul mood, thinking I had simply been made the butt of Joe’s sense of humor. But the next afternoon, there he was once more, as full of smiles as ever, and urging me to come off on out for another game. And so it went on. Without Joe’s authority among the other players, I soon discovered he really was one of the members of the national team, I would never have had all opportunities I did to play in so many games. I must have been a severe trial on the patience of the other players with my clumsy ineptitude once the novelty of this sanuk wore off. But four years later, thanks to Joe, I’m accepted as one of the regulars, even though still one of the weakest.
Sepak takro tournaments are often organized in Chiang Mai and other cities and they offer lucky tourists, and other visitors with local contacts, a vivid introduction to the sport. Such first time spectators are almost unanimously enthusiastic about the event and full of admiration for the acrobatic vim of the teams.
It is therefore what surprising that this spectacular ‘national’ sport has never been used in official tourist promotion campaigns. In fact, on the contrary, in Chiang Mai, some of the more public locations where the game was commonly played have been ‘developed’ out of sight, or out of bounds. For example, there used to be a small but pleasant park beside the the old Tha Phae Gate which was a popular playing ground. Even the most apathetic of backpack travelers emerging, replete with muesli and papaya, from the old Daret Restaurant would pause for a while, intrigued by the sight of a game in progress. Since then, the park has been replaced by a characterless tiled plaza where takro is not encouraged, though early in the morning nearby residents are blasted out of bed by the over-amplified blare of the music accompanying aerobic dance classes. Another old favorite playing field near the Night Bazaar has been fenced in to be used as a busy parking lot.
Nowadays, probably the best chance the visitor has of seeing the game is at Metta School near the enormous gum tree in the Chedi Luang Temple in the center of the old walled town. During the tournament, which may last for two or three weeks, play goes on from 7 to 11 o’clock every evening. Even when no tournament is on, many of the most promising young players train there, on occasion being supervised by Somsak Duangmuang (my mentor Joe) or Surat Na Chiang Mai, bot of whom are khon mueang , and frequent members of the national teams.
In Thailand, sepak takro is typically played in tournaments, though these are not organized on any fixed or regular schedule. There is no national league, nor is there a specific season for the game.

sepak-09-870Figure 9. 2-3: Somsak Duangmuang (Joe)

A few weeks before the start of an announced upcoming competition, an increase in the number of players and the intensity of their practice can be noticed at all the scattered popular playing sites. As for team formation, sometimes no formal choices are made as teams appear simply to coalesce. Once a team has formed, an approach is made to a potential sponsor. On the other hand, a local entrepreneur or government official may decide to sponsor a team for purposes of advertising or asserting status, in which case such individual may take the initiative in asking outstanding players to join a team under his patronage. Either way, the sponsor’s first obligation is to provide the shirts for the team and to fork out the registration fee.
It is a remarkable feature of these tournaments that there is no continuity from one to the next in the composition of the teams. Even outstandingly successful teams dissolve once the contest is over, and the next time round each team will be a fresh coalition of players. Given all this, it is not hard to imagine Embree’s ghost roaming the takro playgrounds chuckling to himself.
The rules governing qualifications for playing in a particular team are not exigent, or at any rate not strictly enforced. For instance, during the National Student Championship held at Chiang Mai University in 1988, few of the best teams consisted solely of players from the present student bodies. One star player on the national team was prominent in the selection fielded by his old alma mater. Other players taking part had connections to institutes of tertiary education so tenuous as to be invisible. None of this raised any eyebrows. The game was the thing.
Another example of this can be seen with the two northern players mentioned earlier. Surat na Chiang Mai works for a local branch of the Bangkok Bank, while his close friend Somsak Duangmuang is an employee of the Telephone Organization of Thailand (TOT). Both the bank and TOT provide extensive sports facilities as fringe benefits to their staff, and both their sepak takro teams are strong contenders at the national level. It has happened on occasion that the bank has been competing in a tournament in which TOT hasn’t entered and then Somsak, with the permission of his employer, has played with his friend’s team for the bank. Nobody is fazed by this as it is accepted that, in the absence of an organized league, ways must be found to encourage and support keen top-class players to gain experience and to attain international standards.
Obviously, this fluidity in the formation of teams, and the flexibility in the way the tournaments are organized, would seem to reinforce Embree’s theory that Thais society is ‘loosely structured’. But set against this, one should also be aware of an opposing trait within takro. At training sessions, one of the features is a series of traditional exercises. They consist of protracted repetition of certain movements whose purpose is to develop skills of precise control. For any serious player, they are an essential self-discipline. But they are rigidly formal and so monotonous, therefore demanding a great deal of dedication in order to master them.

The determination to excel, the best players have spent hours daily in their youth in practice of these and other types of takro exercises, pays off at tournament time. They are knock-out tournaments but one slightly unusual feature is that two “finals” are both held on the same night.The first match on the program is played to decide who will rank third and fourth and the last match is, of course, to settle which team will reign as champions.
On the last evening of a local competition, lively crowds of supporters turn out to cheer on their friends and it is an occasion for raucous fun and rambunctious humor, as well as the thrill-packed drama of the games themselves. Each group of fans bring along at least one traditional drum, made from a meter length of hollowed out tree trunk, that tapers in graceful curves and flanges to a narrow foot.
At every break in the play, the sponsors are there on the sidelines handing out cold drinks and urging on their sweat-drenched proteges with paternalistic words of advice, support and encouragement.
Bottles of Mae Khong, the local rice whisky, are passed around among the spectators, some of whom are rigged out in bizarre costumes. And although gambling is theoretically illegal in Thailand, wagers are bellowed out and accepted during the matches. Drumming, singing and the calling out of caustic or witty comments goes on throughout, even the players joining in by teasing and taunting their opponents, but such psychological ploys are an accepted part of the game and they never degenerate into real arguments between the teams.
When one side scores a point or wins the service, a wild flurry of joy breaks out among their fans and the team’s mascot, sometimes a real ‘village fool’ or perhaps just the group’s wag, bounces out onto the court in an outrageous costume for a brief swirl of dance; mocking, boastful or celebratory.
The game is played in sets. If one side wins two in a row, the match is over. But when two teams are evenly matched, as in these tournaments, a deciding set must often be played and in these games, where every point is fiercely contested, a three or even five point extension is frequently needed to decide the championship.
Victory brings an explosion of applause, but within minutes, most of the spectators have scattered into the night. Only the closest friends and some family members stay on to listen to the pompous speech-making that accompanies the presentation of the trophies.
Sepak takro is now so established in popularity that a local tournament is often included as part of the festivities at temple fairs, which are held during religious and other seasonal festivals throughout the year.
At the national level, tournaments are organized on an ad hoc basis by groups such as universities, the police, the army, major banks and various government ministries and so forth. There are also the annual inter-regional games organized by the government in which the country is divided into ten ket, or provincial groupings, with each ket in turn hosting the games, which include soccer and athletics as well as sepak takro.
Internationally, sepak takro takes its place as one of the sports in the Southeast Asia Games, held in alternate years, and the annual and highly prestigious King’s Cup Tournament in Bangkok (Mae Khong Whisky), in co-operation with the Sepak Takro Association of Thailand. Until the mid-eighties, Malaysia generally emerged as champion at both of these, but over the past few years they have had to cede this honor to the Thais. Singapore usually fields a strong team, though success has so far eluded them. Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines usually feature as also-runs. This familiar scenario is often repeated at the popular international sepak takro tournament hosted annually by Kuala Lumpur.
In 1988, Thailand once more won the gold medal for sepak takro in Kuala Lumpur, and Surat na Chiang Mai was awarded the prize for the outstanding player in the tournament.
Despite its popularity nationwide, and the Thai players’ brilliant record at the inter-Asian games, surprisingly little has been done to support or to promote the sport as a facet of the kingdom’s cultural heritage. Even during the long tenure of Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond, known to be a keen fan of the sport, little official attention was given to sepak takro, although while in office the P.M. presided over the biggest-ever campaign, The Year of Tourism, to boost the trade as an increasingly important industry and a leading source of foreign exchange.
Perhaps, this will soon change as nest year (1990), for the first time, sepak takro is to be one of the sports at the Asian Games in China. Besides the traditional contenders, several new countries will be sending teams to compete at the international level: India, Sri Lanka, Korea, China and Japan. With the Thai team the leading favorites, the Tourist Authority of Thailand may well at last take note.

Foot notes

1. John F. Embree, 1950. Thailand ─ a loosely structured social system. American Anthropologist, 52: 181-193.

2.e.g. Hans-Dieter Evers (ed.), 1969. Loosely structured social systems: Thailand in comparative perspective. Yale University Press, New Haven.

3. Jack M. Potter, 1976. Thai peasant social structure. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

4. Han ten Brummelhuis, 1980. Psychiatry in Thailand: A sociologist’s view. Journal of the Siam Society, 68(2): 57-59.

5. Han ten Brummelhuis, 1984. Abundance and avoidance: An interpretation of Thai individualism. In: Strategies and structures in Thai society (Han ten Brummelhuis and Jeremy H. Kemp, eds.), p. 39-54. Antropologisch – Sociologisch Centrum, Amsterdam.

6. John F. Embree, 1948. Kickball and some other parallels between Siam and Micronesia. Journal of the Siam Society, 37(1): 33-38.

7. e.g.Carl Bock, 1884. Temples and Elephants. The Narrative of a Journey through Upper Siam and Lao. Sampson Low, Marston Searle and Ravington, London. Holt S. Hallet, 1890. A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States. William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh.