Playing games and sport is very popular in Laos. A popular misconception in richer countries is that people in poorer countries, such as Laos, don’t have the time, energy or inclination to play games and sport. This assumption is, however, very far from the truth. In fact the exact opposite is true in Laos. In a country where many people don’t have the money for expensive consumer products, in particular they don’t have constant access to TV or cinemas, making your own entertainment through sport and games becomes even more important. And this is true for the poorest groups in Laos, including the people who live off-grid in highland areas for whom games have important role to play in their culture.
Popular sports and games in Laos
The four main sports are that are played in Laos are:
- Muay Lao (much the same as Muay Thai)
- Te Ka Tor (the Lao name for Sepak Takraw, which is like volleyball but played with the feet and a rattan ball)
- Petanque (a French team game where large balls are thrown so as to end up closest to a small wooden ball)
Of these four main sports, football is the most popular. The Lao Football Federation was formed in 1951 and achieved FIFA accreditation in 1952. Lao has two national leagues, each with 5 teams. The most successful team since the creation of League 1 in 1990 is Lao Army FC. Internationally Lao’s national football team has performed relatively poorly. They have never qualified for the World Cup, Asian Cup or Asian Games.
The poor performance of the national football team has been mirrored by the lack of success of its Olympic team which has failed to gain any medals in the 8 games it has attended. Clearly when it comes to professional sport the lack of resources available to Lao sportsmen and sportswomen has had a detrimental effect.
In much of Laos, however, formal sports aren’t the most popular types of games. Cock-fighting, whilst illegal, is immensely popular, as is American style bowling in Vientiane, where the bowling is often combined with consuming large amounts of rice whiskey. Pool is also popular with most bars, and many adult educational facilities and common rooms in factories, having pool tables.
Games as part of Hmong Culture
The Hmong are the third largest ethnic group in Laos and generally they live a tough existence in the highland areas of Laos subsistence farming with little time for leisure. The one time of year Hmong people in Laos do get a chance for some rest and recreation is the Hmong New Year which is celebrated in a 3 day festival in early December. This is timed to take place just after the harvest. As well as drinking, eating and dancing, Hmong people traditionally play games and these games are an important part of their culture.
This is a ball tossing game with a difference: it’s a dating game, or more precisely a way for mostly young people to find a husband or wife and it takes place every year during the New Year Festival. What happens is that two lines of people face other and balls are thrown by the participants. If the ball is caught it is a sign of affection on the part of the person catching the ball towards the person who threw it. In traditional Hmong culture people aren’t allowed to marry within their own clan so the game is an ice-breaker between people who don’t know each other very well because they are from different villages.
Hmong girls and women wear elaborate traditional costumes for this annual mating ritual, and once they have selected a potential partner they leave the game for some intensive discussions with their prospective future husband. If a match is found then it is traditionally announced three days after the festival has ended and they will be married when the next new moon occurs, which is generally three weeks after the Hmong New Year.
This is a spinning tops games played by men and boys. The top is made from dense wood and attached to a 3 to 4 metre long piece of string. The game normally involves two teams. The first team will launch their tops, yanking on the string after to make them rotate. The second team launches their tops straight after with the objective of striking the spinning tops of the first team. Points are awarded for each strike.
As the game progresses the team which starts spins their tops further down the field from the starting line from which the second team launches their tops. This bizarre and unique game is an impressive spectacle and is one of the major highlights of a Lao Hmong New Years Festival.