Marie Starr travels to the 88th Waso Chinlone Festival in Mandalay to discover an ancient sport of rhythmic elegance, attracting a growing number of foreign competitors.

Team members emerge from the sidelines wearing matching jerseys and shorts. They walk on muscular legs and many are tattooed with chinlone balls above each knee. The circular roofed arena is formed of packed earth and surrounded by some simple tiered rows for the audience, a raised platform for the musicians and their instruments and a high chair for the commentator. Standing in a circle, the players turn outwards and bow to the spectators. After a few minutes of practice, that raw, pealing Myanmar music strikes up from the sideline. The players are engulfed by the rhythmic bong of traditional melodies, their eyes wholly focused on that rattan ball.

The 88th Waso Chinlone Festival is taking place in a small arena located behind the eastern wing of the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay. Chinlone – or cane ball in English – is said to have been played in Myanmar for over 1,500 years and was once performed as entertainment for Burmese royalty. The ball is light, made of woven cane and usually measures about six inches in diameter.

There are three types of chinlone – baikyaw chin, where opposing teams play over a net, chin wine with players positioned in a circle and tapindaing which is performed solo and usually by females. The Waso Chinlone Festival focuses on chin wine and though it is certainly a team sport, there is no opposing team. The festival is more of a display of talent and a form of entertainment for the public. The most impressive players are awarded by the spectators with money which is pinned to the back of their jersey.



The six members of the team currently performing in the ring appear to be aged between their early 20’s and late 60’s. They pace around in a fluid circular movement, so graceful it is like a dance. One by one, a player moves to the centre of the oscillating group and performs their best moves. Keeping the ball in the air for as long as they can, they perform high-kicks, back-flips, spins and twists, catching it between their knees, balancing it on the back of their necks or effortlessly tossing it from shoulder to knee to toe and back again.

“There are six parts of the foot and leg you can use to hit the ball,” Thein San (48) explains with enthusiasm, jumping off his seat and hitching his longyi to point them out to us. He has been playing chinlone for 30 years and is participating in a number of teams at the festival this year.

His hometown is 82 miles away, but as he claims, the Waso Chinlone Festival brings together people from all over the country and from every class.

Players can use any part of their body to keep the ball in play except their arms and hands. When it falls to the ground or goes outside the ring it is quickly passed onto the next player who takes his place in the centre. The aim is not only to keep the ball in play for as long as possible but also to perform one’s most impressive moves while holding a graceful form.

A new team has taken their places in the ring. The team’s most remarkable player is also the oldest and scrawniest of the group, with long hair and alert eyes. He performs immaculately – most of his moves start with a quick spin of his nimble body before kicking the ball high above him from behind his back.

With pure concentration etched on their faces and sweat dripping down their necks, the chinlone players seem to hear or see nothing around them. Their entire mental and physical focus is centred on the game – all they see is this ball of cane and all they hear is the clicking sound it makes as it connects with a limb.

The play is set to traditional Burmese music- sometimes crashing symbols, sometimes low rumbling beats, always raw and rhythmic. This is teamed with a running commentary on the game: observations of the players’ moves as well as comments on the nature of the game as a whole.

U Kyaw Thein has been a Waso Chinlone Festival organizer of 13 years and participant of 40. Once he is called from a nearby teashop, we speak to him in the office behind where the action is going on. It’s dusty and it takes some time to find chairs but once he gets going he talks and talks and talks. His passion for the game is admirable.

“Chinlone is very important for Myanmar. It is not only healthy for the players but also helps promote the traditions and culture of our country.”

There are two fresh wounds on U Kyaw Thein’s left elbow and knee which he got in a motorbike accident three days ago. Yet he insists on continuing to participate in the festival and has played two games since the accident.

U Kyaw Thein looks into the distance and calculates, “I have been playing since I was 11. Until I was about 21 years old it wasn’t very popular. It became more popular among all classes because everyone encouraged their children to join.”



This year there are players from China, the US, Japan, Germany and Thailand – the biggest foreign competitor. He believes that in the future there will be increasing foreign competition.

Chinlone’s growing popularity is evidenced in its inclusion in the SEA Games since 2013. When asked whether chinlone faces competition from more fashionable sports such as football, U Kyaw Thein says, “Both sports can exist side by side. People can be interested in both football and chinlone. But around here, chinlone is the most popular.”

“Chinlone improves our unity,” U Kyaw Thein explains. “When players are playing there is total cooperation because in chinlone, nothing works by yourself – it is all about your team.

Everyone’s attitude and inner mind comes out during play. So it is very good for the mind.”

With performances taking place from 9am till midnight every day for almost two months, over 1,000 teams will participate at this year’s Waso Chinlone Festival. Support comes from donors who sometimes give up to $5,000 when they have a special interest in chinlone. The chinlone teams are invited by these donors. The people attending the festival also make donations to the pagoda hosting the festival.

Myint Win Zwe is 34 years old and one of the few female players at this festival. She plays on her team with five male teammates and comes from a long line of chinlone players.

“When I was young, my father and brothers, and even my grandfather were always playing chinlone around me. Therefore, it felt natural for me to join them. They encouraged me to play.”

She’s been playing chinlone since she was a young girl and enjoys it because it keeps her fit and is good for her mind.

In the ring Myint Win Zwe performs with dexterity and her teammates call out encouragements and clap when she is performing her greatest solo moves. Her black jersey distinguishes her from her teammates’ gold jerseys.

As the end of a performance nears, the music gains in speed and ferocity. The commentator’s voice reaches its highest level of excitement and with a final rap of the drums the game is over. The players, sweating and breathing heavily, bow to the audience and leave the ring to applause and cheers.


Waso Chinlone Festival is an annual festival celebrating the unique game of chinlone, or cane ball, in which over 1,000 participating teams perform for crowds .


Mahamuni Pagoda, 82nd Street, Mandalay, in a small stadium behind the Eastern entrance to the pagoda.


An annual festival which takes place around the full moon of Waso (July) and continues this year until the end of July.

Teams play from daily from 9:00am till midnight for 30 minutes at a time. The best teams and the greatest atmosphere can be found on Sundays when there are big numbers of locals swinging by while visiting the pagoda.


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