Aficionados Say Big Money is Spoiling the Sport of Cockfighting
kandal stung district, Kandal province – In this weekend fight club even small men can become legends, and perhaps Khat Thy, an unassuming factory owner from Takeo province, is more of a legend than most. He and his bird are given a wide berth, and on most Sundays he has no opponents.
“When I bring a cock from my house I always win,” he says quietly, standing at the edge of a group of about 80 people, mostly men and boys, crowding around a rough fighting ring made of cloth tied to stakes driven into the ground under a corrugated tin roof. It is raining and the heat rises from the crush of bodies pressing for shelter—sweaty faces straining over shoulders for a glimpse inside the ring.
By the standards of the sport, this has been a good fight. One of the large fighting birds has caught itself under the wing of the other, and both stagger around the hard-packed dirt in a manic, lopsided dance. Overhead a piece of cardboard torn from a Bayon Beer box covers a slow-burning incense stick to mark the fight’s three-minute rounds. Rapidly changing odds are called out as the birds unlock, and for a brief moment there is quiet, the watchers caught mid-breath while the cocks lower themselves toward each other. In seconds the fight has finished, as one cock refuses the other’s challenge, running instead to the far end of the ring. Money changes hands. The two owners rise out of their squats at the ring’s edge to collect their exhausted birds and see how badly they are hurt.
While cock fighting has long been part of Cambodia’s cultural fabric, its recent evolution into a money sport has some questioning not only the legality of the fights, but more importantly its impact on the Khmer character.
“Now the game has become only gambling, and this betting destroys the Khmer customs. It lacks value. It does not serve society,” says Hang Soth, general director of the Ministry of Culture’s technical department.
Later in the day Khat Thy, still without a fight as the spectators begin to drift off mid-afternoon, would find a mark. A group of men he does not know from An Snuol district have brought a bird, and they agree to a match. They begin the long process of weighing their birds and carefully tying to their legs the long sickle-shaped spurs—made from bone—that are a cock’s primary weapon during a fight.
Less than two minutes after the cocks first attack each other, Khat Thy is richer by almost $32. One of his challengers is heard saying they should have known where Khat Thy’s bird came from. As in most animal sports, pedigree is important, but Cambodian cockfighters place almost mythical importance on their bird’s origins—often attributing specific fighting styles to different regions of the country. The first question asked before agreeing to a fight is, “Where is your cock from?”
The Takeo province-Vietnam border, says Khat Thy, when asked about his bird—a medium-sized black-and-gold cock graced with powerful legs. Unlike many cocks, which attack with a potentially devastating but unfocused flurry of short jabs to the body of their opponents, Khat Thy claims his cock battered its challengers with a few well-placed kicks to the head.
“He hit the other bird three times in the head,” he says after his match. “It runs. It gets hurt very much.”
Fights are often brutal and leave birds with deep gashes or missing eyes. But death in the ring is rare and seldom encouraged by bird owners who have spent many hours training their cocks. They regard them more as a long-term investment than a means to a short, fatal end, and the birds are often carried around between fights with the care one takes with a pet.
Fights appear weekly in back yards and open lots—often taking on the atmosphere of an impromptu fair with food vendors and sometimes karaoke television. They’re frequented by farmers and low-level civil servants with a few thousand riel to wager. But fights, particularly in Takmau town, where high-ranking military officers and businessmen gather on Thursdays and Fridays, can bring several hundred dollars to a victor.
Unfortunately, according to some fighting afficianados, the elevation of cock-fighting to a big money event is taking away from its place in Cambodia’s cultural history.
Seventy-five-year-old Chat Tes is watching one of several Sunday fights at a Dangkau district ring. He says he has watched the fights nearly his entire life and remarks at how different today‘s matches are from those of his youth in the 1940s and 1950s, when cock-fighting was a friendly diversion for farmers during the dry season.
“Right now the only people who do this are the ones who want to make money,” he says. He himself has never wagered on a fight. But the betting has changed the sport, he says. It has become more brutal; the higher stakes seemingly encourage more violent matches.
Chat Tes, while saying he is saddened by this, tries to see the good in this trend.
“Maybe it means people are getting more prosperous,” he says.
But for Hang Soth, this trend is a troubling indicator for Khmer society in general. The points out that cock-fighting is prominently displayed on the walls of temples at Angkor Wat and was an important part of the country’s social life even before the temple complex was built.
“Before we also had dog fighting, pig fighting—it strengthened the intelligence of the people,” Hang Soth explains.
“We would like to look into restoring this part of our culture, but as it has become only gambling maybe the old people could warn their children not to play this game and it would disappear,” he says.
While the fights themselves are not illegal, gambling of any kind is forbidden for Cambodians, though the government has not actively tried to discourage cock-fighting.
Despite the decidedly abstract argument that it is bad for Cambodians, cock-fighting’s popularity doesn’t appear to waning, even as more of its participants face the consequences of a series of weekend losses.
Hun Kosal, a 28-year-old soldier from Kandal province, has lost one match already and is facing another defeat as his second cock is battered around the ring.
In between rounds the ring is crowded. Hun Kosal’s bird is held up, its feathers picked through looking for injuries, prayed over and whispered to. “Fight, fight…go on,” one man says gently before taking a mouthful of water and spitting a fine spray over the cock’s backside. None of this appears to work. The shocked bird stumbles around the ring in retreat and the fight is called off.
“Bad luck…bad luck. I did not have a good eye to study the fights today,” he says to himself, still in a sweat-soaked squat in the ring as the fight ends. Onlookers crowd the ring to look at the birds’ injuries but Hun Kosal stands up and leaves, shaking his head. In the space of a few hours he has lost almost $16—nearly a month’s pay.
“Bad luck. Not a good day,” he says.