Aug 24 2013

Bangkok street sports

Published by at 12:58 am under Art & culture


In Bangkok, life happens on the streets. Kids and dogs play in alleyways. Uncles and aunties gossip in front of shophouses. Clothing boutiques, restaurants and pubs pop up on footpaths. Under overpasses, in empty lots and inner city temples and schools, residents gather for a more competitive purpose — street sports.

Vespa racing is not one of them.

Vespa racing is not one of them.

According to a 2012 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Bangkok has only three square metres of public park space per person. Compare that to 44 square metres per person in Kuala Lumpur and 66 in Singapore, and Bangkok feels like a veritable can of sardines.

But Bangkokians make the most of what they have. Aerobics classes work it out to “Gangnam Style” in front of shopping centres, alleyway badminton matches don’t bother to pause for passing motorbikes, and we’ve even seen muay Thai fighters having it out with punching bags on the footpaths. While these and other activities keep neighbourhoods exercising, the most popular Bangkok street sports can be boiled down to three.

Leafy hoops -- somewhere in Din Daeng.

Leafy hoops — somewhere in Din Daeng.

Judging by the countless old, faded and largely unused hoops found in schoolyards throughout the country, it seems that basketball was once enthusiastically pushed on the population by some or other Thai ministry. Although most sit neglected, some of Bangkok’s basketball courts draw a mix of Thai and expat hoopsters in the late afternoons and evenings. Defense is almost always zone, rather than man-to-man, and the Thai game incorporates a run-and-gun offense that seems to work off strategies learned in football (soccer).

Both Lumpini Park and Benchasiri Park are known for nightly pick-up games under the lights, but basketball courts on the west side of the river — in the shadows of Saphan Taksin bridge and Rama IV bridge — offer a street ball experience that will make New Yorkers feel at home.

Nightly football action under Saphan Taksin.

Nightly football action under Saphan Taksin.

Many of those typically dark and creepy areas beneath the city’s highway overpasses come to life each afternoon with pick-up football (soccer). Pitches and goals are scaled down to fit their surroundings; some are suited to no more than three or four players per squad. While the hard surfaces make slide tackling out of the question for all but the most insane players, competition can be fierce. After a couple of hours, though, games often digress into exhausted comedic spectacles that can be more entertaining than the serious action.

Practically every neighbourhood in Bangkok has a hard surface football court or two — just keep an ear out for the hoots and hollers around 16:00 every day. Games take place under the overpass at the corner of Rama I and Rama VI roads near National Stadium BTS station, and the riverside spread under Saphan Taksin bridge (across the river from the same-named BTS station) offers “luxury seats” from a high stairwell. Foreigners often join in the action and are typically welcomed.

Takraw in an undeveloped Thonburi lot -- the loin cloth sure is intimidating.

Takraw in an undeveloped Thonburi lot — the loin cloth sure is intimidating.

Though muay Thai is considered Thailand’s national sport and football might be its most popular, takraw gives both of these a run. It looks like any old game of volleyball — until you realize that hands are not allowed. Two teams of three use their legs, feet and heads to volley a cantaloupe-sized woven rattan or plastic ball over a high net that divides a badminton sized court. Like volleyball, points are awarded when one of the teams is unable to stop the ball from hitting the ground or going out of bounds. The first squad to score 21 points wins a set, and the winner of two sets takes the match. Skilled players are exciting to watch — especially when they spike the ball by way of 360 degree bicycle spin kicks.

The most competitive regular takraw game we’ve noticed takes place every late afternoon in the northeastern corner of Lumpini Park, where rotating teams play out makeshift tournaments that draw a good number of spectators. If you’re not quite ready for that level, a few outdoor courts in the National Stadium complex offer a more relaxed vibe that draws younger people and beginners. If you want to see an exceptional player in action, a wiry and incredibly sure-footed man often single-footedly takes on teams of three players at the centre of Phraeng Phuthon Square in Bangkok’s historical district. If takraw were an Olympic sport, he’d probably bring Thailand a gold.

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