Samui Wining & Dining
A look at the place of the Siamese fighting fish in popular Thai culture.


The Thai nation just loves a good fight! Plus, of course, they’re a very sporting kind of a nation. Top of the list has to be their national sport, the Thai boxing known as ‘Muay Thai’. And like many other facets of Thailand, it’s steeped in a whole wrap of pageantry and ritual that is just as much part of the ethos as the spectacularly fast leaps and kicks that characterise the sport.


But, down at grass roots level, few ordinary folk can aspire to the riches and glory that Muay Thai can offer – you need to be young, fit and fast and not a little mean for that! On the other hand, a buffalo will do quite nicely – making the noble art of buffalo fighting a convenient number two combat sport. Or, if buffalos are a bit too big and lumpy and cost a lot to feed, how about pitting a couple of cocks against each other instead? Or . . . if cages full of squawking cockerels are really getting on your neighbours’ nerves, what about something altogether smaller, quieter and cheaper? How about a fish?


This is how it all began, hundreds of years ago, in the poorer part of the northeast of Thailand. Nobody knows for certain when it started, there are no written records, and Thai history is patchy and concerns itself with important things like kings and queens and battles. Some sociologists guess at five or six hundred years, but this is based on the knowledge that these fish were being bred during that period for their beautiful plumage and were a favourite at the Royal Court.


But, somewhere in a rice field in Issan, the plain, dull-green variety were being pulled out of the water and put, two in a tank, to fight. All that’s definitely known about the origins of the sport is that official reports of fights start to appear in the 1800s, and King Chulalongkorn, the beloved Rama V, not only recognised and legalised fish fights but also owned an impressive collection himself. Since then the Thai term for fish fighting has emerged as ‘plakat’, hence the sport has become known as ‘plakat Thai’, and has spread all over Thailand, with each region favouring their own variety of fighting fish.


The species itself is ‘Betta’, and there are three Betta species; splendens, smaragdina and imbellis, of which splendens is the most colourful and the best known. It is also the most reliable fighter and the most in demand. They are found in the wild throughout the extensive Mekong River basin of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, in the standing waters of canals, rice paddies, and floodplains. But they are now much soughtafter and collected, leading curiously to a wild series of colonies having been recently discovered around Adelaide in Australia.


Siamese Fighting Fish are generally quite docile and – much the same as buffalos – have to be trained and practically goaded into fighting. In nature, this only ever happens with males, as a result of the territorial invasion of another male. It’s true, yes, that they have teeth and use them to snap and tear at the flowing fins of their rival. And it’s this behaviour that has led to some bad press as they have spread into domestic aquaria around the world – they’ve gained the reputation of being aggressive. Although, as one breeder pointed out, in actual fact they are shy and a little anti-social, preferring to keep to themselves. Unfortunately, other fish see their huge and billowing fins as something possibly edible, and the annoyed self-defence of the Thai fish causes them to be perceived as troublemakers.


In the northeast of Thailand, the fighting season runs from March until September. But, amazingly, over the generations, each breeder has been releasing the small fry of his champions back into his secret ponds in the fields, selectively strengthening his bloodline. Fighting champions are bred to have thicker lips and a sturdier body, and to have smaller fins with less area to bite at. These little fish make themselves a nest of bubbles in which they live and breed. The mating pair creates hundreds of fry. And then the big problem – how does the breeder pick out the best fighters? The method, which has been developed over centuries of experience, is both simple and clever.


The breeder places a bamboo tube at the side of the pond. Early in the morning, he just lifts the tube out of the water and checks to see if there is a fighter inside the bamboo or not. Only the strongest fighters will be able to chase off others and claim the tube for occupation, as it’s the best location for building a nest and waiting for a fishy lover. The bamboo tube is the best and strongest shelter to hide in because it will protect the delicate bubble nest from winds and an unstable water surface. In short, only the strongest fish can claim the best location to breed. And the breeder takes that one to fight in the ‘ring’. But, having picked out his best fish, there’s an intensive program of training which in comparison makes a Muay Thai boxer’s look like child’s play. This involves sudden temperature changes, spraying his fish with water, putting mirrors inside the tank to duplicate another fish – there are all sorts of tricks!


And the contest itself? Well, it’s really very civilised. The two fish are placed into a tall square glass and immediately start to circle each other. One will then suddenly make a dash at the other, flaring his fins, prompting the other fish to quickly retaliate. After 20 or 30 minutes, one of the fish will give up and swim into a corner, mostly having suffered no damage. If it gets to one hour with nobody backing down, then the fight is considered a draw.


And the best bit? Unlike animals that are trained to compete and restricted in captivity, all of this (except for the fight itself) still happens in the fish’s natural habitat. The competitors are released back to where they came from, none the worse for wear, to breed again for the following year – and I bet there’s more than a few Thai kick boxers that wish that could happen to them!


 Rob De Wet


Copyright 2020 Samui Holiday Magazine. All rights reserved Siam Map Company Ltd.