Anthropology and History

The Weirdest Competition on Earth

Image via riaupos No, cycling on top of a pole is not a new extreme sport. But we’ve got just the thing for a cold and dreary winter day: watching Indonesia’s Independence Day celeb

posted on 12/22/2009
Simone Preuss
Scribol Staff

Panjat PinangPhoto:
Image via riaupos

No, cycling on top of a pole is not a new extreme sport. But we’ve got just the thing for a cold and dreary winter day: watching Indonesia’s Independence Day celebrations, which include climbing up a greased palm tree trunk. Sound difficult? It is, so much so in fact that it requires a team of four, determination and months of strategising. So now, just eight months away, might actually be the time to start practising.

A contestant has reached the top:
Reached the topPhoto:
Image: Yue Yuewei/Xinhua

So close, yet so far…
ItPhoto:
Image: maskoen

Indonesia’s Independence Day falls on August 17 and includes many traditions like the hoisting of the flag, decorating houses and offices in red and white, fireworks and other celebrations. Games are a big part of the day; for example, shrimp cakes eating contests, bike decorating competitions (Lomba Sepeda Hias), Tumpeng making competitions (a rice-based dish) and Panjat Pinang, the palm tree trunk climbing, are some of the most popular.

Children playing Panjat Pinang:
Children playing Panjat PinangPhoto:
Image: Yan Arief

In Panjat Pinang, four people make up a team that has to devise the best strategy to help one person up the greased pole. Some form human ladders, climbing on each other’s shoulders, with the last one trying to find a foothold wherever he or she can.

Women gearing up for the big day:
WomenPhoto:
Image: Andri Suprihadi

At the top of the pole are the prizes – anything from towels, clothes and practical items to mountain bikes and money vouchers. According to the no pain, no gain principle, the higher the pole and therefore the gift, the higher its value. Oh, and should a team make it unexpectedly fast close to the top, the team members, spectators and the pole might just get hosed down with water so that they have to start again.

A muddy affair:
Muddy affairPhoto:
Image via travbuddy

The task is so difficult that opposing teams are known to cooperate to make it. And still, the competition can take anywhere between one and two hours or longer. This video shows how difficult it really is:

In recent years, opposition to Panjat Pinang has become stronger. One obvious reason is safety because the palm tree trunks are high and falls and injuries frequent. But many object to the game’s roots: During Dutch colonial times, the game was played at parties and weddings for the amusement of the colonisers, who watched indigenous people struggling up palm trees to reach essentials at the top like food and clothes.

Many point to these roots and object to the game on the basis of human rights violations. Not to mention bad taste when celebrating independence from colonial rule. Others, however, cite the competition as a good example for inculcating positive values like team building, strategising and determination.

Softer landing on the beach?
Panjat Pinang on the beachPhoto:
Image via rogebon

Others think of the environment and object to playing Panjat Pinang. Because if every village and every town district holds this competition, that’s a whole lot of felled palm trees. Reminds us of a tradition we know that involves chopping trees and chucking them after a few days…

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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Simone Preuss
Scribol Staff