Hem Pheakdey drove three hours in the rain from Kampot province to Phnom Penh on Sunday morning with precious cargo on his motorbike. He drove slowly and carefully to ensure no casualties during transport.
“I couldn’t drive fast. I was scared the fish would fall off,” Mr. Pheakdey, 27, said on Sunday at the UP Fish Shop in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district.
Mr. Pheakdey was one of 18 competitors who entered their pet flowerhorn fish—a colorful ornamental species known for a large bump on its head—in what organizers said was Cambodia’s first such competition.
The hybrid fish, which was cross-bred into existence from a Central American freshwater fish species called the cichlid, became popular with fish hobbyists in the late 1990s.
Flowerhorn are known for their vibrant red, orange, yellow and pearly white colors; unique hump on their heads (called a kok); playful, or what some would call aggressive, personalities; and eating habits—they are known to devour live goldfish whole.
“When you see these fish, they look so powerful,” said Mr. Pheakdey, who works at a print shop. “When I feel stressed, I can sit and watch them.”
Mr. Pheakdey said he has bought four flowerhorn from UP shop owner Ung Porseang, including the one he entered in the competition. He bought it four months ago for $15, keeps it in a tank in his bedroom and brought it back to the store in a plastic bag filled with water for Sunday’s contest.
In Cambodia, a flowerhorn can cost anywhere between $15 and $200, but rare hybrids with brighter colors and bigger koks have run into the thousands of dollars internationally. Most flowerhorn sold in Cambodia are imported from breeders in Thailand, Mr. Porseang said.
Hem Sopharak, the competition organizer and a judge, said he hoped to “promote the flowerhorn hobby in Cambodia widely,” and provide a space for fish lovers to share their knowledge and passion.
Six flowerhorn-figurine-topped trophies were awarded for first, second and third place in two categories: best Kamfa and best Zhen Zhu, two flowerhorn hybrid varieties. Judges ranked each fish by its coloring, kok size, body shape and general appearance. Prizes included flowerhorn food and vitamins, which were provided by pet-fish companies sponsoring the event.
Graphic designer Soun Sathya, 28, entered three flowerhorn fish in the contest. His biggest fish, which he bought for $250 from a Thai breeder when it was about 6 cm long, won first prize in the Kamfa category.
“I love fish,” he said. “But the flowerhorn is my favorite fish.”
When a spectator approached a tank, the flowerhorn inside would swim to the front and follow the person’s finger left and right as they dragged it across the glass. Each tank was divided in two since flowerhorn will bite each other when sharing a tank. Many still used their koks to headbutt the dividing glass, in a futile attempt to attack their neighbor.
Em Vandy’s $200 flowerhorn had the biggest kok in the competition, earning the 24-year-old architect first prize for the Zhen Zhu category and the audience favorite award.
Mr. Vandy said his parents prefer their two dogs over the five flowerhorn he keeps at home because they say they can’t play with the fish. He disagrees.
“I can train them to play with me by following my hand,” he said. “The fish are better than dogs and cats because they are calm and gentle.”
Mr. Sopharak, the organizer and judge, said he has 10 flowerhorn of his own at home and uses two for breeding. It took his wife, Sambath Vorleak, some time to share her husband’s enthusiasm for the fish.
“At first I didn’t want to raise the fish,” she said. “But once we started, I started loving them too.”