Games and play made ordinary days more enjoyable for Khmers living in the countryside during ancient times. During festivals, holidays, or after a long rice harvest, people in the countryside especially would unpack their games to release the stress of daily living. Before its great political instability throughout the last several decades, Cambodia had been known as a civilized country, a cultural center full of tradition and entertainment.
Cock fighting, still popular in rural communities today, has been a favorite pastime for centuries. Sculpture of men and their angry cocks are carved into the stone of the Bayon temple, bearing witness to the timelessness of this tradition. Men in particular love the flying feathers, and women who turn their eyes away from a fowl game are said to commit a sin against the cocks.
The elephant terrace at Angkor Thom also has been decorated with carvings of elephant fighting, indicating that the crowing cock was not alone. Duels between beasts like buffalos, elephants and pigs have fallen from popularity, dying with the men that incited them.
But cockfighting has proven popular throughout the passage of time. No written documentation clearly describes the origins or this tradition, but it is believed that its roots stem from the Angkorian period. Contemporary historians have refrained from publicizing the sport, for fear of creating a culture of gambling.
"We do not publish books about this tradition because it might encourage people to get involved more and bet a lot of money," said Ourng Von, Director of the National Patrimony Department. "The police used to catch people betting a lot of money on cock fights during the 1970s."
As is often the case with animal extortion, a debate has erupted over the tradition's morality. Some like 20 year-old Say Sambath, a Kampong Cham resident, feel cockfighting is cruel and contradicts Buddhist teachings.
"I don't like it because humans are committing sins against cocks," he said. "Our lord Buddha does not lecture us to harm others, including animals."
Since cockfighting is a pastime of the ages, Sambath's statement boldly suggests that Cambodia's history is ridded with sinners. He quickly expressed that cockfighting is a minor offense, and there are far worse sinners that should be punished with severity. "So, I can say cockfighting is not a big problem, because our ancestors also did this in the past," he concluded.
Ourng Von defended the game, calling it a stress reliever. "It is a good tradition from our ancestors that was used to release bad feelings, but now things are changing," he said. Presently, some gamblers take advantage of cockfighting's betting opportunities, laying down more money than they can often afford. This has prompted some observers to criticize the depraved nature of the sport. Cockfighting was not always centered on gambling, however. In ancient times, participants used the tradition as a kind of warm exchange, bestowing winners with a small bottle of rice wine. After the duel, opponents would cheerfully share the wine as a sign of camaraderie. This sportsmanship has faded with time, and presently more people turn to the sport not for friendship but for money. Still, others simply love the prestige and respect that accompanies a solid victory.
For love or money, this tradition is practiced in other Asian countries like China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Cockfighting specialists have identified the Vietnamese cock as a stronger breed than its Khmer counterpart. Within out borders, cocks from Battambang province have proved to be the toughest fighters in the game. These feisty fowl have been so powerful in the past that their reputation precedes them, preventing some would-be opponents from entering the arena. Cock specialists have found that the most powerful bird is produced from a crossbreed between Battambang and Vietnamese or Thai cocks.
A cock's appearance does not always testify to its strength. The prowess of a bird is judged by its style of fighting. Some consider cocks with a thin face surface and strong wings to be hard-hitters. Game cocks are fed on special diets, often including anabolic steroids to improve muscle mass and aggression. To prepare the cocks for a fight, the birds need to be cleaned daily with water and are fed intermittently with beef or pork. Some enthusiasts believe that soaking the two legs in water for a few minutes just before a fight would help strengthen the tired limbs during a fight.
Once the cock is prepared for battle, it enters a circular arena created on the clean ground and surrounded by high borders. As the fight ensues, a defeated cock is one that fearfully runs away from its opponent. Fleeing is a sign of weakness, looked down upon by cock specialists. Once a bird has shown weakness, it will not be used again. A cock that is defeated by being knocked unconsciousness may be used to fight again, however. There are five rounds in a competition; each period is the length of time it takes to burn a stick of incense.
While the actual fighting rarely lasts five rounds, the tradition will last for years to come. Cockfighting's earning potential, coupled with the debate surrounding the sport's religious sanctity, draws spectators from all walks of life. The game may be surrounded by controversy, but it is irrefutable that this historic tradition can energize even the dullest parties.