Best places to play the locals at their own game

Card games have long been good friends to the traveller whether on long train trips or waiting for transport connections. In hostels across the world people are playing chess right now or, more realistically, a nice game of shithead.

However, even better friends to travellers are the national pastimes. Engaging in the local passion will break the ice and give a deeper understanding of a culture. Here are nine games worth trying in their local setting.

Kátâw, Laos


Image by Mark Broadhead

Remember the hacky sack? Essentially a juggling ball in need of a square meal, it was designed for keepy-uppy with feet, shoulder and head. If that description evokes nostalgia, head for the monastery courtyards of Luang Prabang, where nimble boy monks perform extraordinary feats with small rattan balls. The game of kátâw has several variations; a volleyball-like incarnation is played in international competition. But the quintessential kátâw experience is best demonstrated by barefoot, orange-robed, shaven-headed novices leaping acrobatically to keep the ball off the floor for what seems like hours at a time. Try it – and prepare to be humiliated. (The game is played throughout Southeast Asia and India under various names.)

Mahjong, China


Image by Alexander Savin

Head to any major beauty spot in China and you’ll find a tea house. Inside, there will be dozens of people clustered around small tables slurping cups of green tea, probably chain-smoking, and slapping down ivory-coloured tiles. You want in? Should you be expecting a simple game of dominoes, let’s clarify: three suits of nine tiles, four wind and three dragon honour pieces, four seasonal or flower tiles, three dice. Take your place according to the prevailing wind, and pick up and discard cards to collect a meld. Mah-jong is complex, addictive and incredibly competitive.

Bagh chal (tigers and goats), Nepal


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Placing stones on a five-by-five spaced board in order to block your opponent’s moves doesn’t sound like a roller-coaster ride of an evening. But if it’s plotting some (big) cat-and-mouse action – four tigers stalking a herd of goats – now that’s a bit more like it. Nepal’s national game, bagh chal, takes the predatory route. Pick up a handsome set with eye-catching bronze pieces in Patan or Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, but the best place to stimulate your strategy gland is in a tea house on the Annapurna Circuit. It’s ideal for winding down with a sticky cake after a hard day’s trekking.

Beach soccer, Brazil


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In 2004, FIFA president Sepp Blatter declared China the birthplace of football. That may be, but nobody could deny that its spiritual home is Brazil. In a country blessed with such extraordinary talent (Pelé, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, for starters) and stretches of sand, the creation of beach soccer was inevitable. Head to Leme, north of Rio’s Copacabana, and join in the action where it first evolved. This five-a-side game is thrilling, skilful and packed with goals – usually more than 10 per game. Warm up with the locals taking their morning stroll along Copacabana beach from 6am; if you prefer a trendier vibe head to Ipanema beach.

Bao, Malawi


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You don’t need much to play bao – the wooden boards sold to tourists at Lilongwe market are eschewed by many Malawians. Instead, pause outside a village hut where women will likely be pounding maize while too many kids to count run about with the chickens, and you’ll see 32 round holes (arranged four by eight) scooped out of the earth. A gaggle of men will be hovering, two of them whisking kernels of corn in and out of the grooves in an incomprehensible fashion. Once they’ve invited you to join in, try your best to keep up. Lilongwe market is in Lilongwe Old Town in the city centre; the best time to visit is during the cooler months (May to October).

Tâb, Egypt

Tâb is a modern incarnation of the ancient game of Senet, probably the oldest recorded board game in the world, dating back over 5000 years. However, like many of the best board games, tâb doesn’t really require a board. Show up at any ahwa (coffee house) in a small Egyptian country town and you might find men playing the game on rows of spaces scratched into the earth. Toss the four sticks – these act as a die – to move your kelb (‘dogs’ – playing pieces, usually stones) around the game, knocking your opponent’s pieces off as you go. Last one home buys the hookah pipes.

Chess, Budapest


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Knight to king’s bishop three. Rook to queen’s five. Middle-aged guy to the whirlpool while he waits for the next move…  Seeing ranks of scantily clad folks pondering chess moves while belly-button deep in steaming outdoor pools at Budapest’s opulent Széchenyi Baths is certainly surreal. But playing in these circumstances is an immersive experience – literally: soaking in 38°C water does wonders for the concentration. And you’ll need it: after years of practice, these guys are Kasparov sharp. Wait your turn at the rows of boards jutting into the pool for your Speedo chess experience. The thermal pools at Széchenyi Baths are open daily between 6am–9pm; for admission prices and directions visit www.szechenyibath.com.

Carrom, India


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At any given moment 37% of the world’s male population is sitting at a street-side cafe table, sipping tea or coffee and relaxing with a game of dominoes, cards or mancala. OK, so we completely made that statistic up, but we reckon it’s probably not far wrong. In India, the game being played will be carrom. Using a square, chalk-dusted board with holes at each corner, carrom is somewhat like playing snooker with checkers pieces and using your finger for a cue. Ask to try it yourself and you’ll soon attract a big audience; it’s harder than it looks, and a whole lot more fun. The All India Carrom Federation is based in New Delhi; for rules and tips on how to play visit its official website.

Pétanque, Southwest France


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It’s a thirsty afternoon in a small provincial town, and not a whisper of a breeze stirs the leaves of the plane trees that border the dusty square. A cluster of old men sporting tattered flat caps unpack shiny metal balls from little cases. Don’t be fooled by appearances – these are merciless individuals. The aim of pétanque is to toss your boules closest to the cochonnet (jack), aiming to smack your opponents’ balls out of the gravel court. It all looks sedate, and the gentle chinking of balls sounds soothing, but underestimate your competitors’ skill, strategy and single-mindedness at your peril. The game is explained in detail at www.petanque.org; to really savour the skills head to the region between Tours and Nantes, where it has been played since the 1830s.

Also read our article on the world's best slow travel.