One of the quirkiest legacies of French colonial rule is surely petang – a form of boules you’ll see being played in dusty front yards and side streets right around the country.
Like boules, the aim is to throw a small wooden ball, or cochonnet, into the centre of a hard gravel court, and then take it in turns to toss larger metal balls towards it. Players are awarded a point for each time their ball lands nearer to the cochonnet than their opponent’s, and the game ends when one of the players scores thirteen points.
Official rules state petang should be played in teams of two or three, but in practice it’s usually a casual affair, giving people the chance to chat and while away an afternoon.
Team sports aren’t played too often in Laos, simply because equipment is prohibitively expensive. The honourable exception is kataw. Played with a grapefruit-sized woven wicker ball, it‘s thought to have originated in the Malay Archipelago, but is also quite popular in Thailand. Kataw is a hands-free hotchpotch of volleyball, football and tennis, played both with and without a net. Players have to use their feet, legs, chests and heads to keep the ball aloft, and the acrobatics involved are simply astounding. Games are played just about anywhere, but are commonly seen in schoolyards or in monastery grounds.
Another sport you might encounter in Laos is Muay Lao, also known as Lao boxing, which sees fighters striking each other with their fists, knees, elbows and feet. The sport is essentially the same as Muay Thai kickboxing, Thailand’s national sport, but in Laos professional bouts are held fairly infrequently.
As with the rest of Southeast Asia, cockfighting is a celebrated diversion in Laos – no surprise, as the blood sport originated in this region. Betting is, of course, the whole point. Cockfights take place on Sundays and the local cockpit can usually be found by wandering around and listening for the exuberant cheers of the spectators. Unlike in some Southeast Asian countries, knives are not attached to the rooster’s legs in Laos, which means that cockfights last much longer and the birds don’t usually die in the ring.
Another sport that relies on a wager to sharpen excitement is rhinoceros beetle fighting. Although it is difficult to say just how far back the tradition of beetle fighting goes, it is known to be popular among ethnic Tai peoples from the Shan States to northern Vietnam. The walnut-sized beetles hiss alarmingly when angered and it doesn’t require much goading to get them to do battle. Pincer-like horns are used by the beetles to seize and lift an opponent, and the fight is considered finished when one of the two beetles breaks and runs. The fighting season is during the rains when the insects breed. They are sometimes peddled in markets tethered to pieces of sugar cane.