Nothing But Net
Badminton? Check. Soccer? Absolutely. Kataw? (A game where players kick a rattan ball over a net like volleyball with the feet.) You got it. The most popular sports in Laos seem to involve getting an object into or over a net. I have never heard so many young people talk about their love of badminton before I came here. An honestly, I’d never heard of Kataw, which goes by Sepak in Thailand and Malaysia, but it’s super amazing to watch young men bounce a wicker ball off every conceivable part of their body. In a country not known for it’s height, one might assume volleyball is out of the question. One would be wrong.
My roommate Corey stands 6’1” and was a Division 1 setter in college. I stand 5’3” and am more the beach rec league drink-a-beer-on-the-sand type of player. We set out on our bikes one rainy evening to find the Vientiane Volleyball players we’d seen on Facebook at the Vientiane International School.
The outdoor court has lines for volleyball and basketball and has a covered roof but open sides. The “bleachers” are big concrete steps each painted with colorful sayings in languages ranging from English and Lao to Spanish and Chinese. Covered fans cool the sports fans during high school events and the open sides meant that half the court was flooded from the rain.
While we were warming up, Corey and I were the only women. Another American woman who has worked at a Lao-English school for the past 11 years played on our team; and a Filipina woman who played on on of the two other teams joined. We warmed up with some bumps and sets and finally did a drill to work on our spikes. I brushed up on my middle school P.E. vocabulary and got a crash course in volleyball offensive set ups from Corey. After the warm up we divided into three teams seemingly by Language ability, possibly by race.
Corey and I were on the English speaking/white team with a French man studying mosquito born illness, the American woman, JC, our next door neighbor from our apartment complex, and another Asian man. We also had a Lao student sub in, who very well could have spoken English but didn’t say much. The other two teams seemed to be predominantly Lao and Filipino respectively.
People gathered around the Administrator of the Facebook group who was collecting money for the 12-week “season.” We were told first timers are free, which was a pleasant surprise and that we should come back. We were also encouraged to stick around and go out with the crew for food and drink.
We played two games and sat out one regardless if we won or lost. Each game ended with the obligatory high fine line of “good job,” and “nice game.” Good sportsmanship transcends language barriers. I served underhand but with consistency and mostly in bounds. I missed my share of balls that were in my area, but after all was said and done, Corey said she was proud of my efforts and that I surpassed her expectations (which were, I’m sure, understandably low.) The group rented the space until 9 p.m. or so, but we ducked out for the last game opting to find the fabled KFC, or Kouvieng Fried Chicken joint that my favorite off-line Maps.Me app told us was in the vicinity.
Wet with sweat and rain, we found the KFC of Laos. Around $2 USD got us a pice of delicious golden battered chicken, steak cut fries and a bottle of soda. I opted for orange. Corey wanted a second piece and we don’t know enough Lao to say “hold the fries” so she ended up with a whole other dinner, piping hot from the vat of hot oil in the front of the open air restaurant.
Biking home in the pitch black rain I had a few thoughts. 1. “Damn, it’s dark and rainy I should invest in some bike lights.” 2. “I think that chicken was better than any fast food joint in the states hands down.” And “How the heck did anyone find out what was going on before social media?” Will I be back? To KFC fo sho. To volleyball? I’d go with Corey again. Maybe I’ll even work on my overhand serve.