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Betting on fighting fish big business in Phnom Penh

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From students to high-ranking officials, a good clash is a way to relieve stress and make a little cash on the side, fans say

HENG CHIVOAN

Fish-fighting enthusiasts watch a match outside of a cafe in Phnom Penh.

As about 20 buyers and punters gathered at an underground fish-fighting arena and aquarium store, owner Kong Sotheary remarked how lucrative the business is, saying betting on fish fights is now as popular as cockfighting.

"I sell about 30 fighting fish a day, and make about US$90 a day," Kong Sotheary said Monday at her shop.

"The fighting fish I breed I sell for between $1.50 and $5 a piece depending on its size and length," Kong Sotheary said, adding that she has recently ordered some fighting-fish species from Thailand and Vietnam to breed with the smaller, cheaper local fighting fish.

Fittingly called the Betta, or more scientifically the Betta splendens, the carnivorous fighting fish are released into a bowl, unleashing the aggression.

The piscine pugilists square off in their watery ring, pecking at each other until one establishes dominance and the loser beats a circular retreat along the bowl's edge.

Vat Channa, a 23-year-old student at Sisowath High School in Daun Penh district, said he and his classmates regularly buy fish from Kong Sotheary.

"Fish-fighting is good for me, because it helps me alleviate stress," Vat Channa said.

But in addition to helping unwind, the betting game often leads him to parties. "We bet on fish fights for our weekend parties - winners and losers all party together, but the loser pays."

But the gambling isn't limited to students with just a little spending money. Theav Buny, who drives to the fights in a Land Cruiser, took a bit of a hit at the underwater smoker. "I lost $200, but I'm not angry," he said, adding that some days he loses $500 and on others wins $400-$500.

Theav Buny said he has switched over to betting on fish from cockfights, which he attended until fears of bird flu threatening his provincial chicken farms encouraged him to move on.

Miech Ponn, adviser to the Cambodian Culture Council at the Buddhist Institute, said fish-fighting first appeared 500 years ago as the national betting game during the rainy season. "In the past only regular people used to fight fish for fun after the harvest, but now the fights are very popular with high-ranking officers and oknhas."

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