The millennia-old cultures of the Mekong may have adapted to modern-day sports culture (Messi is as big around here as anywhere), but they’ve also preserved their own, thriving traditional sports. Many have remained unchanged for millennia, and therein lies their charm: they’re more than just a good time for everyone, they’re also a window into the local culture, or at least the parts where old ways remain just as relevant today.
In Yunnan, China, the Lisu ethnic community treasures its traditional crossbow. Once popular as a hunting implement and the occasional defensive weapon, the Lisu have hung on to their crossbow culture even as stricter regulations have banned hunting throughout the nearby forests.
Today, the Lisu hold regular community crossbow competitions, the biggest ones being held at Lisu festivals like the Kuoshi Festival.
Many of the best crossbow competitors come from Nujiang, the Lisu-majority autonomous prefecture on the border with Myanmar. Lisu boys start with the crossbow young, taking it on at the age of five and going on to compete in the sport across China.
In Myanmar, the Southeast Asian game of Sepak Takraw takes on its own competitive spin through Chinlone. It’s a variety of volleyball that uses a cane ball, using every part of the body except hands and arms.
Chinlone can look more like a dance performance than a competition, with the players taking turns to keep the ball in the air using the feet, head, knees, and chest. It feels more cooperative and less competitive, with players getting pleasure from passing the ball from one to another.
You can find Chinlone games almost everywhere in Myanmar – you’re likely to see a street game in progress in big cities like Yangon and Mandalay, though the sport has also made its way into the Asian Games.
Finally, the Lao PDR offers a traditional sport called “Tikhee”, with its biggest competition usually held during the That Luang Festival in Vientiane. Tikhee is similar to hockey – players use hooked bamboo sticks to send a rattan ball into the goal.
The Tikhee match is usually held between separate teams of townsfolk and civil servants. After a procession around That Luang Stupa, the match begins in earnest. If the government team wins, it traditionally means that the people will be managed fairly; if the public team wins, it means that there will be no danger of hunger for the coming year.