We were coasting along a dirt road, deeply inhaling the ocean-scented air when, in the distance, we heard weird scrambling sounds mixed with loud cheers. We rested our bikes in the soft grass at the side of the road, and followed the noises around to the back of a tired-looking barn. Roughly twenty men were gathered around the edge of a round enclosure. They were smoking cigarettes and clutching Baht bills in their sweaty fists. Then, I heard clucking and flapping and, as the crowd around the enclosure parted a little, I realized that we had stumbled across a cockfight.
I typically cringe at the rampant animal abuse and neglect that I’ve witnessed in Thailand, but, for some reason, I didn’t stomp away in disgust when I realized what was happening here. I guess my sense of curiosity overrode my morality. It also helped that our guide, Chat, assured Brent and I that the roosters would not fight to the death.
One man seemed to be acting as a referee, taking bets, and separating the roosters when necessary. Chat had never seen a cockfight before either, so he wasn’t able to answer our questions about how bets were won and lost. I braced myself for a gruesome display with blood and feathers flying everywhere, but it was actually a lot less violent than my fears. The roosters pecked, wrapped their necks around one another, or became locked in other strange positions. They moved around the ring stealthily, and seemed to choose their attacks as carefully as well-trained wrestlers.
Chat asked us not to judge the event too harshly, explaining that cockfighting is deeply rooted in Thai farming culture. In the same way that hunting is acceptable in many cultures, a number of Thai people have grown-up with the sport of cockfighting. As boys, these men would have watched their fathers and grandfathers enjoy the fights. This didn’t make it any less cruel or unacceptable to me. Yet, I also realized that it’s comparable to the way that I’ve come to accept racism in Thailand. Yes, both are appalling based on the morals that I believe in; but how can I justify trying to apply my sense of right and wrong to people who were raised with a completely different set of cultural values than I was?
Fortunately, we also had a chance to experience less morally-grey examples of local culture and tradition in Koh Chang. We biked up to the Chinese Temple, which is perched on one of the highest peaks on the island. Thailand has many ties to Chinese culture, and a significant number of Thai people have very recent Chinese ancestry. People come to this particular temple to find out their future, and to receive protection from the resident deity, known as the Godfather of Koh Chang.
We went inside the temple to receive our fortunes by shaking bamboo jars filled with numbered sticks. We shook the jars, tipping them slightly downwards until a single stick fell out. The number on the stick could be matched to a fortune, written in Chinese, Thai and English, on a thin piece of paper. Outside the temple, a few men sporadically set off fireworks. The loud blasts and pops were meant to attract the attention of the temple deity so he would hear their prayers.
We biked down to the coast of Koh Chang, where the water was so clear that I could see for many metres below the surface. Then we moved on to a Buddhist temple, where Chat showed us an ancient bell and a drum, which, as it turns out, play a very interesting role in the traditional Thai way of telling time. In this time system, which has perplexed me since we arrived, the 24-hour day is divided into four sections of 6 hours. As part of this system, the morning hours are referred to as “mohng” and evening hours as “thum”. Chat explained that the word “mohng” comes from the sound of the temple bell ringing in the morning, while the evening “thum” comes from the sound of the temple drum beating at night. Although the connection has weakened over the last few decades, the lives of Thai people have always been profoundly linked to the temples. I thought it was fascinating that there was a point when the only way to know the time was to count the bell chimes or drum beats resonating from the local temple.
We ended the day on the patio of a small bar, where we stretched out on mats and listened to the waves smacking against the bottom of the bamboo deck. Earlier in the day, we had visited a traditional fishing village, where oysters were cultivated in the shallow waters beneath the stilt houses, and where men would rise early in the morning to fish and avoid the hot afternoon sun. At night, the fishermen go out again, shining bright lights into the ocean to attract squid to the surface. These boats created the appearance of neon pinpoints scattered across the dark horizon. The lights are purely functional, but the effect was ethereally beautiful.
Have you ever visited Koh Chang? Have you ever been to a cockfight?