Samui Wining & Dining
LIFE’S A SONG!
The southern Thai tradition of bird-singing competitions is practiced here on Samui. We went to take a look and listen.


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You’ve surely seen them in the traffic. Men precariously steering scooters with one hand, while carrying a covered birdcage in the other hand. Inside the cage is a prized possession – a Red-whiskered Bulbul, used in the traditional bird-singing competitions of southern Thailand.

      On Samui, the competitions are held every Tuesday and Saturday at 11:00 am. It’s not advertised, there’s nothing touristy about it, and if you don’t know where it is, you won’t find it. The location for the competition is down what is known locally as the ‘Ghost Road’ – the road that links Bangrak to Chaweng. Coming from the Bangrak side, turn into the Ghost Road opposite Dae Tong Resort, between a light blue bank and a 7-Eleven. Continue about three kilometres down this road until you get to a crossroads with another 7-Eleven on your right. Keep going straight at the crossroads, and a few hundred metres on, after a bend, you’ll see an open field with a metal grid-type structure, and a wooden sala with a few chairs.

       As competitors and their owners arrive, the birds are kept in their ornate bamboo cages with brightly-coloured fabric covers. When they’re ready, the covers are removed and the cages are hung onto hooks suspended around three metres high on the metal grid. We chatted to competition organiser, Khun Pond, who explained that for these weekly competitions, we could expect around 150 birds, but for the main one, usually held at the beginning of March, competitors arrive from the mainland too, and numbers climb to 400. Owners pay 200 baht to enter their birds, and there’s quite a status to having a winning bird. Trophies and prize money are presented at the end of the competition, and it’s not uncommon for some friendly betting to take place too. Khun Pond said that birds are usually bred in captivity, but occasionally caught in the forest too. In 1992, the Red-whiskered Bulbul was added to the Wildlife Conservation Act’s list of protected species. Under this law owners needed a Thai government document allowing them to keep the bird, and so, owners need to carry this document and be able to present it whenever they enter their bird in a competition.

          Now while not everyone is a fan of birds in cages, we were assured that the birds are well taken care of, and some men jokingly said that they looked after them better than their wives – as the wives spend their money, but the birds make them money! When we asked the organisers why we only saw men at the competition, they sheepishly looked at each other and said that women were welcome, and a few do come sometimes, but “Women make too much noise,” they said, chuckling again.

          As the bell rang for the competition to start, some owners whistled and flapped their arms about to encourage their birds to respond with song. There are four judges, and each bird is given 20 seconds to show what they’ve got. They first spread their wings and lower their heads, while ruffling their feathers and shaking their bodies from side to side. Birds are judged on how well they sing, variation of tune and stamina – the judges literally count how many times they chirp in their time slot. The judges take their task seriously, and birds are eliminated as the group is narrowed down. Little slips of paper hang under each cage where judges write the scores, or mark a bird for elimination. The sound of 150 bulbuls chirruping together can be a little overwhelming, and the judges need to concentrate to isolate the song of a particular bird.

          What was interesting to see was how the timekeeping was done: a small silver bowl with a hole in the bottom was placed gently on the surface of the water, in a larger glass jar. It takes exactly 20 seconds for the bowl to fill with water and, as soon as it’s full, it sinks to the bottom of the glass jar and the timekeeper rings the bell.

          Khun Pond explained that birds need to be happy to sing, so tropical fruit is presented to them in their cages, and apparently birds will only sing when the sun is shining, so the competition is called off when the rain comes. In truth, what some don’t realise is that by hanging two cages close together, the bulbul will belt out a song to protect its territory.

           If you’re after a little Thai culture on your visit to Samui, perhaps a visit down the Ghost Road on a Tuesday or Saturday is in order. Just remember to take other Thai customs into account, so dress politely and ‘wai’ the locals. Don’t step over the line once the competitions starts, and of course, ask before taking photos.

          The bird singing competition has a website (see below), and although it’s in Thai, there are several video clips as well as photos to browse. If you’d prefer to experience Thailand’s birds in the wild, turn off the iPod and look around, as within the resorts, if you sit still, look and listen, you’ll see and hear an abundance of birdlife.

          

 Rosanne Turner

 

 


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