Cockfight – Timeless Gambling in Cambodia

Living in Mexico and studying Spanish/Latino culture has sparked a secret desire in me that I dare not reveal to any of my gringo friends.  I want to see a bullfight.  I can’t deny that it’s cruel to animals.  But it’s also human culture, and I’m curious to see it.

I did see a cockfight once. I had a hired a driver to cart me around on his motorbike in the Battamban area of Cambodia.  Orange dust flew everywhere.  Palm trees protruded up from brilliant green fields of rice.  Suddenly around a bend a cluster of motorbikes appeared parked on the side of the dirt road.  Sensing my curiosity the driver looked back.  “Cockfight,” he said.  “You want to see?”  I said yes.  It was not from some sick longing to see chickens peck each other to death.  I wanted to see the people.

There were four rings, each surrounded by dozens and dozens of men. (I was the only woman present.) They squatted in the dust, watching the fights with unabashed enthusiasm.

A line from a Bob Dylan song had been playing in my head for a while, “Old men with broken teeth, stranded without love.”  Looking across the fighting ring I saw him, an old man in a country whose conspicuous lack of old people serves as a continuous reminder of its tragic history.  His skin was stretched and baked-brown by the sun, his teeth missing, his body thin and battered.  Was he lucky or unlucky to have survived to old age, witness to war, genocide, and famine? How many loved ones had he lost?

Yet his eyes were alive as he watched the fight, placed his bets, eagerly anticipated the outcome.

“Do they fight to the death?” I asked the driver.

“Sometimes, but usually one runs away and then the other wins.”

“Do they do this everyday?”

“Sundays and Thursdays.”  He pointed to where a stick of incense was dangling over the improvised ring. “The time it takes each stick to burn is one round.”

The scene seemed timeless.  I imagined that it had been going on in exactly the same way for centuries and would continue indefinitely into the future.  Perhaps some of the most persistent human behaviors are ones that we’re not particularly proud of – gambling and blood lust.  Several days later while visiting the temples of Angkor Thom, I saw a carving on the great temple of Bayon. It depicted men taking bets in preparation for a cockfight.  Indeed the scene had been being played out for a thousand years.

Bas relief of a cockfight and men taking bets. Photo by Joaquin Uy.

As we drove away I wondered what it meant- this bazaar mixture of cruelty and entertainment.  Clearly the human desire for diversion goes back thousands of years.  Is it more than entertainment? Is it something that takes us out of ourselves to helps us endure difficult circumstances?  If we have enough diversion can we survive stranded without love indefinitely?

Published in Cambodia, Things to Do

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Meet the Author

Seasoned traveler, avid reader, over-eater, clumsy but determined hiker and wannabe Spanish-speaker.


  1. loredana valles

    cockfighting is also happening here in the philippines. sometimes there are raids conducted and the gamblers and spectators run for their lives away from government officials. the roosters here also fight to death and the winner takes it home for lunch.

  2. WYNNA

    i agree with you dana. the unlucky rooster will be cooked for lunch. haha 😀

  3. Michael Jon Falk

    I could never sit through a bull fight and really have no desire to but I like your observations of people Jenny. It’s so true, this type of desire for blood lust has lasted through out time, through people and culture. There is definitely dog fighting going on here in Detroit and lots of other places.

    The last question you raise “If we have enough diversion can we survive stranded without love indefinitely?” is great.

    For sure it creates some type of callous in ones emotional response to things I imagine. I could never be that person however..

  4. EJ Juen Jr

    @Mike I have no problem with jets dog fighting but real dogs fighting? That really sounds cruel and bloody messy considering they are man’s best friend.

    The only fight I want to see is between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. 🙂

  5. Jennifer Choban Post author

    Unfortunately, there’s dog fighting here in Mexico too. The way I see it the bullfight is the most fair. At least with bulls, there is a good chance that the humans can get hurt as well. Not something I particularly want to see, but it seems just.

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