Before I left for Indonesia I had read about an ancient sport, called Peresean. Essentially, a stick fight. The tournaments are held in villages and are a local tradition, not tourist entertainment, so I thought that it would be impossible to find one and hadn’t included it in my plans. However, а lucky coincidence put us face-to-face with the unimaginable display that is Peresean.

Opponents in the Peresean fight

The night before we were set to leave for the volcano Rinjani, on the island of Lombok, we slept in the base village Senaru. On our way back from the waterfalls, we were drawn in by music that announced the fight. We just couldn’t miss this opportunity!

Musicians at a Peresean fight, Indonesia, Lombok

In the middle of the village, makeshift walls are erected, from greasy slabs of fabric. The so-called walls fail to keep out curious, empty-pocketed villagers, who look in from the hoods of cars, tables, and treetops.

Kids looking in on the fight, from tree branches

Boy looking in on the fight from a tree

We knew that the ticket should cost about 15,000 rupiahs (€2) but at the entrance they insisted that we buy tourist seats (30,000 rupiahs). Those were plastic chairs, away from the local audience and shielded from the action. We didn’t cave and argued our way into local tickets.

Behind the cloth walls, the audience has jumbled together, in several thick layers. If you are not completely stuck to the people around, some Indonesian dude always finds a way to squeeze himself in the gap in front of you. In the middle is the dirt-ring.

After a short ceremony, where the presenters imitate the fight, in the form of a dance, the action begins.

Peresean traditional fight, Indonesia, Lombok
The presenter, who is also a spiritual leader and selects fighters from the audience.

In contrast with most similar sports, the contenders in the Persean fight are not professionals. Instead, the presenter, who is also a spiritual leader, selects people form the audience. Some come into the ring with puffed chest, arrogant and certain of their victory. Others, pail and shaky, step in reluctantly. But nobody refuses to fight. The rivals are cheered on by the audience and some of its member come to the ring to bet money, while demonstrating dance moves.

Traditional stick fight, betting money
A member of the audience who is coming to the ring to bet money

Then the spectacle begins.  

Boxing and MMA matches have nothing on what follows! The fighters, armed with hard rattan sticks and tiny shields, deliver wild blows to each other’s bodies, while avoiding the legs and genitals.

I’ve always thought that fights like that are just for show but the hissing of sticks and the fiery scars they left were all too real. So real, in fact, that one elderly gentleman left the ring with his finger broken, white bone poking out through the flesh. He didn’t make a sound.

The fact that we managed to avoid the dull comfort of the tourist seats was incredibly lucky. The audience, comprised of local people, included just 2-3 women and no foreigners. In most village areas in Indonesia, if foreigners (called Bule) appear among the locals, they become the main attraction. But here the fight was just too interesting and we blended in with the crowd.

All stares and hearts were captivated by the arena. Every time the sticks tore through the air, the audience jumped and ducked, as if the rattan would scar their skins. And when the fight would become too heated and get near us, everyone went running back, shoving and staggering, only to return even closer to the action, seconds later. The audience had become a live organism that in screamed terror and joy, аs a response to the fight.

Every fight lasts for no longer than 5 rounds, or until someone gives up. Whoever has less red marks on the face and arms is the winner. Both fighters receive money accordingly.

Peresean is an ancient tradition on the island of Lombok and is carried out right before the beginning of the rainy season. According to legend, the more blood is spilled, the more life-giving rain there would be. Judging by the Peresean we witnessed, this rainy season should be profuse. Yet the fighters hold no grudges. In fact, they hug each other, with a brotherly embrace, when the fight is over.

That is exactly what makes Peresean so hypnotic – it’s a wild and rough game but it’s goal is to satisfy tradition, not to hurt or spite. 

After around 20 couples had their turn, the fair got packed up, the wounds were patched up and everyone proceeded to go home, where the day’s excitement would be discussed for weeks to come.

Peresean stick fight
A man looking at his scar, after the fight.

To me, this was one of the most exciting and authentic Indonesian experiences. Here, side by side with local boys and men, there was no sign of touristy nonsense – just hard, heroic tradition, of which we were lucky to become part.