here's an old story from a few years ago, before we started birding...
i don't condone the fighting of any animals for sport but wanted to share a true story from when we were actively breeding betta splendens (plakat) for show.
bangkok fighting fish ring story
having found myself unexpectantly in bangkok thailand recently i took the time to get in touch with precha (of www.plakatthai.com) and he agreed to take me to a fighting ring.
9:30am tuesday morning my wife (translator) and i found ourselves just across the street from the children's museum on the far outskirts of jatujak outdoor market. wholesale fish sellers set up shop on this stretch of road and sell from early evening till late morning, here you can find everything, in a plastic bag. hundreds of plastic bags with fish lined up on the sidewalk, plakat, koi, chiclids, goldfish, turtles etc etc. big or small.
we met up with precha and he rushed off to see a vendor and came back with a plastic bag filled with smaller bags wrapped in newspaper. these were fighters the seller wanted precha to test. today though they would stay in the bag as precha had something else in store - 4 glass whiskey bottles wrapped in cloth, numbered and fragile. they were put at my feet and as the truck started up were almost knocked over "hey, make sure those don't fall over, they are my fighters", woops, i didn't even realize at the time, they became precious cargo after that point. magazines were handed to me and i flipped through articles and stories about plakat fighting and precha's involvement in some way. very impressive, very cool.
i didn't know precha was bringing fish today, that makes things even more interesting..
the truck flew fast along the freeway and we found ourselves heading out of bangkok and into the rural areas. about 30 minutes later we pulled down a dusty street after a few wrong turns (it was precha's first time at this arena) and i could feel the heat and the nervous excitement as we found the location. at the side of the road, just down the street from a temple was a roadside food stall, behind it was a house, the surrounding area was dust, a jackfruit tree, a big bus and a few vehicles parked wherever. an old man was standing outside and precha asked him something, he looked at my wife and i and pointed to the back. we had found the arena. a couple of fighting cocks were cockadoodledoing and we navigated past them and found ourselves in front of the arena. a big tin roof covered a dusty open area setup with narrow wooden tables and benches, sitting and congregating at these tables were about 30 thai men of various ages watching the goings on inside tall "squarish" glass jars that flared bigger at the top. wow, there were like 10 battles going on at the same time, excitement, some good natured yelling and comotion, suddenly 30 pairs of eyes spotted us, a farang and a girl? "what are they doing here precha"? precha explained something to them and we were soon right at home as they warmed to us and offered us ringside seats, curious for sure but friendly. my wife later told me she was scared at first to go as she had never done something like this or been in such an environment. precha made us feel at ease right from the start though and proved himself an honest and gracious host. he asked me if i had ever been at an arena before, i shook my head no and all he said was "just make sure you don't bump anything or disturb the fish". no problem. precha pulled out his fighters then and people crowded around to see what he had brought. precha introduced some of the people surrounding us, most were what he called "hardcore players" who travelled from arena to arena, they all knew each other. one in particular did nothing but fight plakat and gamble on the outcome. that was his only job and he made good money at it. one by one the bottles would be held up, fighters would be sized and compared. i was told this was an artform all of itself as every aspect of the fighter would be scrutanized. finally a few matches were made. precha told us he prefered to sit back and let competitors come up to him and challenge as he made a better return on his money this way when challenged.
ok, time to battle, but first..to wager.
in general, from what i saw, 500 baht was the standard wager, the sum would be agreed on and the bottle would be covered with a top with the wager written on it. this cover would stay on the jar until the fight was over. an old gentleman looked at my way at one point and motioned to me with 5 fingers, 500 baht? are you in? if i was more daring..or had more disposable income i would have taken him up on the offer, today, i was just there to observe. the fighters all looked prime, one of the bottles i watched intently had one of precha's black / red boys up against a black / green combatant. most of the fish were evenly matched as far as size although i was told size wasn't as important as analyzing the opponent for any weaknesses that could be exploited further down the match. precha will look closely to see any scale deficiancy or will watch the fighter swim for some clue to the mental condition. precha's fighters came with numbers so he would know which batch they came from. all four of his fighters this day were matched and it was hard to decide which bottle to focus on. players woud try and notice the fish from above as this would give an indication of their size better than from the side. precha joked to the other guys that he was testing some "canadian import fighters", a few guys took him seriously i think, especially after his first fish won, i kept hearing the word "canadian" muttered and i had to laugh and shake my head "no" when asked if they were my fish.
i noticed that mouth locks were the norm with all the fighters, they would clasp their mouths and tug-of-war in the beginning, neither giving way until breath was short. precha's black / red seemed to favor tail bites as well as hitting the neck area hard, right from the beginning it seemed the black / green was outmatched. suddenly a man handed me a green leaf and told me to chew it up, precha smiled and said it was a narcotic, a stimulant, i wanted to eat it all but my wife freaked and said it was like "acid". i knew it wasn't too harmful and took a bite but politely put the rest of the leaf down, it tasted bitter by the way, still, it was nice of him to offer it though.. another man offered me a cigarette, if only he knew i quit 3 weeks ago, i declined.
i noticed that none of the men were drinking alcohol, no drunken bravado that i could see, with money of the line everyone was a pro. the referee would walk around with his watch, observing the goings on in case he was called suddenly. i assume he was the owner of the arena and it was his job as host. every now and then precha would talk to me about some fine point of the plakat and when asked about people advertising "unbeatable 100% winners" he laughed and said there was no such thing as every situation was different, one week the fighter from the batch would be good, the next week? after about two hours and after eating a delicious spicy meal ringside the first of precha's fighters was closing in on a win. in fact, the owner of the other fighter threw in the towl as it had become obvious early on that his fish just coudn't match. the fish both looked battered at this point, fins were torn up, flesh wounds were open and blood was trickling, "ok, that's it".
the fish are seperated and money is exchanged. at one point precha had written some wagers on a piece of paper, he looked at me and smiled - "i could go to jail for having this paper". this truly was a "betta underworld".
the second fish match was closer but in the end again precha's fish was victorious. things were looking good on the money front and i wished i had taken that old man up on his wager after all. still, the reality of fish fighting was that it wasn't a sure thing as precha's next two fish came up short in the end. it would seem that both fish would just give up after about 2 1/2 hours and "downgrade". the referee was called in. the fighting jar was surrounded side by side with two new jars with fresh fighters, whichever of the fish still had energy to flare it's gills convincingly would be the victor. so, after all was said and done, precha won some, and lost some. we drank some excellent coffee and i left the arena with firsthand knowledge and experienced something authentic that few tourists will ever witness. i brought my camera fully expecting to shoot some footage but when i was there i just couldn't pull my camera out and disturb everything. i wanted to observe and be as polite as could be since i was in their home.
we drove back to bangkok afterwards and my mind was full of thoughts of what i had just witnessed, i thanked precha and i hope he realizes how special it was for me, definately the highlight of my trip.