We wrote this for the legends at Intrepid Travel.
I first encountered chinlone in one of Yangon’s back alleys. It was after seven pm, the working day was well and truly over, and a gang of middle-aged men had gathered for a quick pre-dinner kick around.
It was a particularly humid evening and their bare backs were glistening with a sheen of sticky sweat, longyi tucked up between their legs in make-shift shorts, swirls of dust rising up around their ankles.
I was mesmerized. It read like a spirited dance; every player contributing to a whirl of limbs as they endeavored to keep a tiny rattan ball from touching the ground. A task easier said than done.
Pronounced ‘chin-low’, Burma’s national sport is founded upon artistry. In professional competitions teams are judged according to the proficiency of their ‘tricks’ above all else.
This appreciation for the beautiful makes chinlone a pleasure for the spectator. You can’t help but “oooh!” at the headers, “aaah!” for the back kicks, groan when the ball hits the dirt and “tsk” when a player accidentally uses their hands.
According to Tun Tun, my local leader, chinlone is a “game for everyone”.
“There are over 40 different tricks and techniques to learn, some people master many but it takes a true professional to master them all, “ he says.
He tells me about a young girl who is famous for standing atop a two-metre high stack of boxes and kicking the ball above her head. “What is most amazing is that she does it all on one leg!”
When I asked (a little cheekily) if he was any good at the game, he turned to me with a wink and said “I would like to say I am better than normal”.
“I am better than normal, but I still cannot bounce the ball over my head and catch it on the foot behind me. That is too hard! I need to be able to see the ball,” he laughed.
And I had to agree with Tun Tun. Because after the evening game I just happened to buy myself a rattan ball, and I just happened to give the old over-the-head kick a go, and I just happened to flick said ball into the hooves of an oncoming horse cart.
Like I said, chinlone is an artist’s game. It just turns out I’m no artist.