The Beautiful Game – Burma Style

Chinlone in action.
Chinlone in action

Author of our Insight Guide to Burma, David Abram develops a love of Burma's eccentric national sport.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of travelling in modern Myanmar (and there are many) is the frequency with which you encounter things you just don’t come across anywhere else in the world. I mean, in what other country does the entire female population, and most of the children, smear their faces with paste made from ground-up aromatic wood (of the thanaka tree)? Where but Burma do people snack on fermented tea leaves? Or row on water by wrapping a single leg around an oar while standing on the other atop a tail of a flat-bottomed boat?


One uniquely Burmese custom, however, out-quirks all others: the national game, ‘chinlone’. A form of 'keepy uppy' played by teams of five players with a ball made from woven bamboo strips, it’s utterly compelling to watch despite being, in essence – and fittingly for this most devoutly Buddhist of countries – non-competitive.


Take a look at chinlone in this YouTube video.


Whether you are a posse of off-duty waiters playing in a car park between shifts, a gang of red-robed monks whiling away a hot afternoon after prayers, or even a team of schoolgirls bidding for national-league honours, the idea is to keep that ball off the ground for as long as possible using just your legs and feet, and in the process pull off as many fancy moves as you can. It’s all about speed, agility and, crucially, style.


The first time I had the pleasure of watching a properly impressive chinlone team in action – as opposed to a knock-about game, such as you see almost anywhere, at any time of day in Burma – was a couple of weeks ago in Mandalay. I was weaving through the late-evening traffic on a rented Chinese motorcycle, covered in dust after a day of driving around ruined stupas and monasteries on sandy tracks, and was desperately looking forward to cool shower and blast of air-con back at my hotel. Waiting at a junction, however, I noticed a crowd had gathered under an awning on the roadside and decided to investigate. Coming from the fringes of a flood-lit ring inside were wafts of spicy barbeque smoke and incense, periodic eruptions of applause and an intense soundtrack of gongs, cymbals, bells and drums. It could only be a chinlone match.


Sure enough, a game was in full swing, and judging by the reaction of the onlookers, these guys were the real deal. In fact, they were nothing short of astonishing. Not that you’d have known it on first inspection. The kit was hardly likely to set any pulses racing: standard tight white T shirts, small shorts, knee supports and flat-soled slippers. But the devil with chinlone is most definitely in the detail, which is to say, what they do with their feet.


For the benefit of those too far back in the crowd to have a 20-20 view, a commentator was calling out what I presumed to be the names of each move as it happened on an ear-splitting PA. One that seemed to get both him and the audience particularly exercised was a neat kick which the player makes behind his back, with the outstep or sole of a trailing foot, while looking forward. Very cool indeed. And likely to send the fans into a frenzy if performed repeatedly, which often was the case here.

Players take it in turns to stand in the centre of the circle as their team mates revolve around them, retrieving any wayward balls with fancy foot jabs. This minute or so in the spotlight provides a chance let rip with your most dazzling moves, which tend to involve un-necessarily athletic twists and leaps into the air. All the while, the band of cheroot-smoking temple musicians clanged out an accompaniment which swelled and emptied with the action, peaking to the peels of applause that followed especially impressive sequences.


'You like?' A smiling elderly man wearing a woollen bobble hat (it must still have been only a little shy of 40 degrees in the shade), had sidled up to me.


'Yes I do', I replied. 'Very much. But I’m not sure I understand.'


The man had cupped his hand over his ear, and his eyes were sparkling under all the flashing fairy lights.


'Ah yes. So we give points for how good looking. Fast kicks. Nice action. Style!'


Then, as abruptly as it had started, the game drew to a close. The players bowed and waved to the audience, and then everyone piled over to the bbq stalls for some spicy fish kebabs, samosas and cold beer. Another crew was limbering up.


'This team, ball bearing company. Number One Mandalay!' the elderly gentleman explained – though whether the quality of their engineering or deft footwork was the source of their pre-eminence wasn’t entirely clear. Either way, it was obvious chinlone in Myanmar occupies a different spiritual dimension to the Premier League. As much like circus performance or a martial art as a ball game, it’s beautifully, quintessentially Buddhist. No one loses, or gets hurt. There’s no aggression or lairy behaviour from the players or fans; just lots of etiquette, politeness and – this being Burma – delicious, delicately spiced and grilled snacks between plays.


Think it might catch on in London, Rome or New York? Probably as likely as a sudden demand in Starbucks for fermented tea leaves. 


Plan your trip to Burma

Insight Guides Burma 

To read the full lowdown on where to go and what to do in Burma, buy our brand-new Insight Guide to Burma.

And for practical advice on building a trip to the country, you can also visit our trip planner page

Other great Burma features include the best Buddhist monuments; unique cuisine, including breakfast Burmese style; and Longyi, the national costume...

This April we're exploring Burma as our destination of the month. For more updates keep following the Insight blog, or check us out on Twitter @InsightGuides or on our Insight Facebook page, or why not look at some lovely travel photography on Pinterest

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