5 Uniquely “Asian” Sports You’ve Never Heard of

There are all kinds of lists online with examples of “sports” that gain attention either for their quirky (and often hilarious) inventiveness or for being just plain dumb. But for a change of pace, have a look at some of the perhaps more obscure (but no less compelling) sports that have a more substantial basis in the culture of their respective countries.

Panjat Pinang – Greased Pole Climbing in Indonesia

Panjat Pinang is a somewhat controversial sport-like tradition where participants attempt to climb up a very tall greasy pole (a betel nut tree trunk) to retrieve prizes at the top. It is an annual tradition, celebrated on Indonesia’s Independence Day, and requires a substantial amount of teamwork and stamina, as it is virtually impossible for someone to climb to the top on their own. The controversy stems from the game’s origin—during the time of Dutch colonization in the 1700s—where settlers apparently erected poles with items dangling from the top and, to entertain themselves, invited the natives to attempt to climb them.

Bo-Taoshi – An Even Crazier Game Involving Poles

bo_taoshiThis Japanese sport involves huge teams (150 players each), half of whom are either defending or attempting to climb and push over the opponent’s pole. Once signaled to start, attackers rush the defensive formation around the pole and, well, chaos ensues. The goal is to be the first team to pull down the opponent’s pole below 30 degrees (respective to the ground). Noteworthy positions in the game are: “Ninja,” the person hanging on to the top of the pole; and “Scrum Disablers,” those who use teammates’ backs to leap up over defenders towards the pole. The sport is a big tradition at the National Defense Academy of Japan and is thought to have been played as part of military training for cadets in the 1940s.

Sepak Takraw – Martial Arts Meets Soccer and Volleyball

Known by variations of its name—Kataw (Laos) or just Takraw (Thailand and Malaysia)—it is a game popular throughout Southeast Asia, often seen played at parks and on the beach. Players must kick, knee, or head a rattan (palm leaf) ball over the net to the opponent’s side. Each player can only touch the ball once and the use of hands is not allowed. Watching top competitors in this sport is truly impressive.

Kabaddi – An Indian Version of Tag, but with a Twist

Kabaddi is a two-team contact sport that involves speed, breath control, and a touch of wrestling. The sport originated in India and is still popular there as well as in Bangladesh and Nepal. The game’s namesake is a defining element to how it is played, making it very unique in the world of sports. Basically, a “raider” must cross the line and go into the opponent’s side of the court in an attempt to tag a player and make it back to their own side, without being tackled and trapped. The twist is, while attempting this they must constantly chant the word “Kabaddi,” over and over, as a way to prove that they are not inhaling. Easier said than done.

Buzkashi – Fancy a Game of Goat Carcass Polo?

Buzkashi is a centuries old sport which is now enjoyed on a national level in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, among other Central Asian nations. The term means “goat dragging” in Persian, but the sport is also known as Kokpar in Kazakhstan. As you can see here, it is not for the faint of heart, as there are few rules and people do get hurt badly. While there are variations of the game, the goal generally is to carry the goat, while on horseback, and ride to the opposite end of the field to drop it in the marked circle.

  • Sutra

    Great list! I suggest Pacu Jawi for Indonesia’s entry though. pacu jawi is rice farmer cow racing. Its on Sumatra

    • Peter Zhang

      Thanks for the tip- I just looked up some photos on that event. Looks intense, to say the least!

    • Henry Cooper

      Very interesting, Sutra… thanks. I have only been as far west as Bandung (on Java), but I do vaguely recall hearing about this some years back. Never knew the name, though.

      YouTube it to see some pretty crazy races. It’s difficult to make out in the ones that I watched, but apparently “riders” (if that’s the term) are actually biting on the bulls’ tails to get them going and to control them.

      What?? –