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Passion, Cockfighting, and Morality

By Dave Lather

January 24, 2011



Beyond Thailand’s beaches, parties, illicit activities and spicy chilies is an ancient sport with a rabid following. The passion of the fans at a fight is contagious. The passion of the trainers and owners is contagious.  Cockfighting is a sport popular across the globe but its questionable morality has led to its ban in most Western countries. In Thailand the passion remains.

The Chiang Mai Cockfighting Museum is on the very outskirts of town away from the normal tourist hustle and bustle.  The museum’s different educational displays describe the history, techniques, breeding and rules of cockfighting. But it is the passion of museum owner Chai that electrifies the recently completed museum.

Cockfighting begins with breeding.  Mates are selected for bloodline, size, and fighting tendencies. Each breed has its own particular natural fighting style. The Burmese rooster is smaller than the others and is a strategic fighter that prefers to wear down opponents, hit and evade. Saigonese are big, proud birds and take a direct body to body approach to fighting. Thai birds are the most aggressive birds in the sport, carrying the attack to their opponents in a blitzkrieg of jump kicks and pecks. Now the most prized bird is a Burmese-Thai mix that combines the Burmese penchant for strategy with the Thai bird’s aggressiveness.

Six weeks after birth the chicks are taken from their mother when she begins to naturally drive them away. The trainer picks which birds he thinks will be the best fighters and feeds them a special high protein, low fat diet of tarantulas, Snakehead fish, boiled eggs, vegetables and beans to help them gain strength.  Frequent lemongrass steam baths and lemongrass smoke help to strengthen the bird’s skin.  To build up muscle strength and endurance the birds are made to walk long distances, sometimes with weights tied to their ankles. Cocks even cross-train like Bo Jackson by swimming 100 metres in a pool to strengthen wing muscles.

Though it was almost closing time, Chai came over to greet me and put on a sparring match.  The cock’s spurs were padded and the beaks were muzzled.  The birds moved about the ring, weighing each other up, using flying kicks to test each other out.  I immediately had an affinity for the patient and creative Burmese bird.  I bombarded Chai with questions about the fight and in turn he was excited about every move and every question I asked. He’s a fourth generation trainer, you could say cockfighting runs in his veins. My bird evaded the Thai’s attacks like Barry Sanders evaded linebackers.  I was engrossed in the fight.

I stayed two hours after closing time and bought a few beers for Chai and his assistants. We talked about strategy in the ring, how to analyze birds, how to breed a good bird. He took me to see his personal birds, the chicks, chickens and other fighting birds.  Chai’s passion for the sport was contagious.  Walking away from the museum I knew I had to see a real fight.


I returned from a typically touristic three day- two night trek in Northern Thailand knowing that Chiang Mai was hosting a government sanctioned cockfight that night. Half delirious from two bad nights sleeping and trekking all day for three days and half excited for the possibility of seeing a cockfight I searched for a rickshaw driver. By the time I arrived the fights had been going on for eight hours.  The sun had set, but bright light emanated from under the aluminum roof of the cockfighting center.

Two giant wooden roosters perched upon tall tree trunks mark the entrance to the Chiang Mai Cockfighting venue.  There are eight rings and two stadiums, the smaller of which is more or less a concrete bowl with 100 surprisingly comfortable plastic chairs around a fighting ring. Three fights were in progress as we walked in. Children played on the side while men watched the fights in progress for tendencies and stamina like old timers handicapping the ponies.

In secluded corners owners and trainers worked on muzzled birds to prepare them for their next fight. Between rounds trainers prepared a MASH unit fit for Hawkeye Pierce.  Bird’s cuts are stitched, swollen areas ironed out, and eyelids re-opened if battered and swollen.

In Thailand the typical government sanctioned cockfight lasts anywhere from 4-8 rounds of ten minutes apiece. There are 75 government sanctioned cockfighting arenas in Thailand, and many more unlicensed venues, some of which tape brutal razors to cock’s spurs. The fight takes place in a ring less than 20 feet across with one and a half foot high padded barriers.

A fight stops and a winner is declared by one of several scenarios. The bird repeatedly runs away and refuses to fight, the bird continually sits down or both eyes are shut so it can not see, or the trainer or owner calls off the fight. The referee is the only human allowed in the ring, but as is customary in Asia, this rule was made to be broken.

The largest stadium in the venue is where the championship roosters fight, and where the big money is thrown around.  The stadium seats hundreds of spectators and its ceiling traps in noise and heat.  Thai men eagerly waved to me and tried in broken English to convey what was happening.  I didn’t need a translator for this experience.  A woman in jewelry and smelling strongly of perfume told me her bird was in the ring. The fight pitted two excellent Burmese-Thai mixed tactical fighters against one another. They exchanged furious blows.  The woman’s bird, though smaller was holding his own.  The crowd gained momentum and cheered every jump kick and every evaded back peck.  The cocks matched each other kick for kick.  The woman’s bird began to duck under his opponent’s jump kicks he was wearing his opponent down.  It was a cacophony of noise to make the Cameron Crazies jealous. The birds were going at it. Grown men hooted with clenched fists and a look of exhilaration on their faces. Bookies furiously threw out hand signals on the newest odds.  When the round ended I felt as though I had been in a ten minute fight. The emotion and passion of the crowd pushed the experience to a new level as all good crowds do.


I loved it. The atmosphere. The passion. It was the same feeling of amazement I had when I left my first bullfight or saw the Taj Mahal in the first orange light of morning.  It’s the the feeling you live for when you travel.  The feeling of closeness to the core of human existence.

The birds retreated like the Union Army at Bull Run. They dodged punches and tested their opponents for weakness like a young Muhammad Ali. They attacked aggressively like Ray Lewis. They locked into a grapple like tiring boxers at the end of a round. The birds exhibited a variety of human emotions and instincts. Or do humans display animal instincts when we fight?

These anthropomorphic aspects of a cockfight are part of what I find so enticing about the sport. To me it is exceedingly natural. There is pain. There is victory. There is life.  Trivialities are thrown away and only the natural and essential remains.

But there are plenty of objections to cockfighting.  Critics cite its cruelty to animals.  There is validity in that statement. Cockfighting is cruel to animals.  To hear a rooster yelp as a trainer stitches his wounds is to audibly feel his pain.  And for what?  For my entertainment?  For my enjoyment?  Those hardly seem like reasonable excuses for such barbarism.  Hurting other creatures for my enjoyment is indefensible.

Detractors say it is unnatural and inhuman.  These roosters would not be injured if they were not brought together by humans. Which is partially right.  The machinations that bring a cockfight to be are unnatural because of human involvement.  But fighting cocks fight.  In nature, on farms, and in arenas aggressive alpha males fight to maintain dominance and superiority.

We use morality to make sense of our world. “I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” said Ernest Hemingway. We use it to choose between right and wrong individually and as societies.  Nowhere are those choices more apparent than in the laws a society live by.

The Western industrialized world has more or less outlawed all sports which the majority have deemed cruel to animals. Bloodsports like boxing have seen a drastic decrease in popularity over the past 100 years.  Over the past 150 years cockfighting and bear baiting have been outlawed.  Is this a phenomenon or a trend?  Football was nearly outlawed in the early 20th century, so too soccer in its earliest forms in 17th century England.

John McCormick, author of Bullfighting: Art, Technique & Spanish Society sees a difference in countries that appreciate and do not appreciate the corrida.  
“Much of life is given over to evasions of reality, wherever it might manifest itself.  It is not necessarily romantic to say that industrialism is a way of substituting the synthetic for the real... The more advanced technologically a society becomes, the more difficult for men it is to cut back through the fabrication and metamorphosis to the original reality.  Therefore it is no accident that toreo has flourished in agricultural societies, and objections to toreo flourish in industrialized societies.”  
While it is an eloquent piece of writing, for me it presents an all too linear, black and white explanation.

Our sporting morality seems just as subject to change and fashion as our morality in other areas of life.  Sexual morals loosened with the advent of birth control and Elvis Presley’s hips.  Greater integration and education helped to destroy the morality and legality of racism.  Economic realities always bend and shape our morals on making money.

America’s current sports morality has made it clear what American values.  Animal sports cockfighting and bullfighting such are looked down on for their cruelty to animals.  Yet football is the nation’s favorite sport.  More than 150,000 children in the United States under the age of 14 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for brain injuries caused by football.  According to the New York Times’:
“Alzheimer's disease or similar memory-related diseases appear to have been diagnosed in the league's former players vastly more often than in the national population — including a rate of 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49.”

We cheer vicious hits that cause potentially fatal trauma to humans.  We laud athletes for their bravery and skill while disease causing plaque builds in their brains.  And that praise encourages athletes to continue to take risks with their bodies. It’s natural human behavior to seek affection and praise even at the risk of physical injury. Or is it just natural behavior?

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