Panjat Pinang, Indonesian Independence Day Tradition, Offers Prizes For Those Who Scale Slippery Pole

Slippery Pool

First Posted: 08/18/11 09:10 AM ET Updated: 10/18/11 06:12 AM ET

In order to make it to the top, you need to stand on the shoulders -- or the faces -- of those who come before you.

At least that's the strategy in Panjat Pinang, a traditional celebration of Indonesia's Independence Day.

Held on Aug. 17, the national custom challenges residents of towns across the country to scale slippery betel nut trees (also known as the Areca palm) in hopes of grabbing prizes that have been placed at the top.

The greased timber is so difficult to climb that the only way to make it to the top is to work as a team, according to Oddity Central.

Participants form human towers, serving as scaffolding so the smallest and lightest climbers can reach the prizes. Afterward, the teams share the bounty, which can include bicycles, plastic buckets, clothing and food, among other goodies.


Slippery Pole Festival
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People attempt to climb a greased and slippery pole in search of prizes while celebrating Indonesian Independence Day in Jakarta on Aug. 17, 2011. Indonesia marked the 66th anniversary of its freedom from Dutch rule.
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Dating back to the Dutch colonial era, the practice of Panjat Pinang is not uncontroversial.

In 2008, writer Bramantyo Prijosusilo opined in The Jakarta Post that the traditional "trunk climbing competition quintessentially captures the spirit of Indonesian independence."

The struggle for independence is similar to the struggle to reach the top of the slippery pinang pole. Circumstance and necessity obliged people to team up and organize and the majority of the people happily let a small minority stand on their shoulders to reach for the prizes of independence. Moreover, those who reach the pinnacle must throw down the prizes to share with everyone on the ground.

The tradition might be popular around Indonesia today, however it comes from "a very inauspicious beginning," blogger Gordon Atkinson wrote last year in a post titled "Deconstructing Panjat Pinang."

Dutch colonists in the 1700s were fond of erecting greased poles in the villages, putting trinkets at the top, and laughing at the “natives” as they attempted to retrieve the beads and baubles. It was terribly demeaning and cruel. We might think of it as the 18th century equivalent of Jerry Springer.