A busty woman with a scratchy voice shrieks into an intricate set up of radios, microphones and walkie-talkies, her tone not unlike that of a breathless Flemington race-caller.
Every few seconds the woman, a broker or bookmaker of sorts, reels off odds and figures into a different gadget, her run-down, two-room home a cacophony of crackles, buzzing and fervent voices.
The woman is in continuous contact with up to 100 men peppered over rice fields fringing Battambang, analysing the sky and making calculating guesses as to when the weather may turn tempestuous.
Phnal Tuek Phleang, or rain gambling, is big business in Battambang.
We’d arrived in the city a day earlier and had observed dark and moody early afternoon storm clouds gather and roll in over the sleepy city’s diminutive skyline.
A cluster of young men at a nearby cafe table yelped and clinked Anchor beers in a rapture of chul moys and hearty laughter.
A blasé passerby told us the men had placed a wager on whether it would rain or not, and apparently had scored themselves a rather hefty sum of cash.
“It’s bigger here with a wider range of people than other parts of Cambodia,” the man had told us, raindrops and indifference splashed across his face.
One of the group, the lanky yet elegant Chhorn, sat perched on the edge of his chair, a glint in his eye and his voice almost a whisper as he tried to explain the inner workings of Phnal Tuek Phleang.
He tells us we can bet three times throughout the day—from 6am to midday, midday to 2pm and 2pm to 6pm. If it rains during your time slot, you win money, with odds determined by the rain sellers’ opinions on the likelihood of rain.
He and his friends have just won over $100.
“It’s best to bet in the mornings, nobody knows when it will rain, and the odds are better… in the rainy season it usually rains by 6pm so the odds aren’t as good then,” he says.
“You either buy or sell rain… it’s a bit like the stock market.
“The seller determines the odds by how much he thinks it will rain that day, but there are other variations, such as how much it will rain, at what exact time it will rain.”
In Battambang, Chhorn says, men stand patiently in rice fields or balanced on the rooftops of buildings with a swathe of cotton or paper. If the material is soaked by a certain time, “it has rained.”
He tells us these locations are kept highly secret, with “payments made” to “gambling managers.”
According to the 1996 National Assembly Law on the Supression of Gambling, punting in any way, shape or form is illegal in the country for Cambodian citizens.
The law, “unless authorised by the Royal Government,” clearly states “rain games of all kinds” are prohibited, yet the game has continued to flourish underground.
“It’s an intricate system and a bit if a secret club,” Chhorn says, “people that play end up becoming weather forecasters in a way—they understand cloud systems, pressure systems, the air—they watch it in look-outs in fields all the way to Pailin…they understand it all.
Usually, the women forecasters “have a better eye than the men,” he says with a smirk.
My friend ask Chhorn is she can place a bet, and he hesitates.
“You have to know each other…it’s all very secretive and you have to pay a large deposit to play, it ensures it all stays underground,” he says, but agrees to take us to a bookmaker friend of his, or a “middle-woman.”
The rain clouds have cleared as we drive past Battambang’s grand, crumbling buildings, an ode to the country’s French colonial history, and arrive at his cousin’s modest home on the outskirts of town.
Surrounding the home are cages of roosters—the family is also partial to cock-fighting, it turns out.
We hand over $8, but we don’t have much time left before 6pm.
She tells us she has bought and sold rain bets on behalf of other gamblers for three years now, after working for another book-maker for five years.
“I can make more money on my own, and I’m good at it…you can earn a bit of money but it’s hard work…if someone doesn’t pay up, I’ll have to cover it. I also spend all day calling out odds and placing bets, so you need a strong voice, I often have a sore voice.”
She says the job was extremely fast paced and required her to be quick on her feet—if someone purchased rain at certain odds those odds could change in seconds.
While she talks to us, her daughter sits at the radio.
“If people are still playing this game in years to come I would like my daughter to continue on after I finish,” she says.
“My husband helps to collect money for me sometimes, but I’m much better at it all than him.”
Hours of anxious waiting later, rain clouds have failed to formulate in Battambang, and Chhorn laughs as he tells us we’ve lost our $8.
He says had slowed down his habit after losing up hundreds of dollars.
In Phnom Penh, each morning at a noodle shop on the corner of Street 107 and Charles De Gaulle Boulevard, up to twenty men sip on tea and discuss the day’s odds, a 40-year old motodop driver stationed across the street says.
“They’re usually wealthy men,” he says.
On the rooftop of Olympic Stadium, men with walkie talkies and iPads and downloaded weather apps hover above its pool, eyeing us warily.
“It’s the best viewing platform in the city,” a security guard tells us.
“This is where the rich people come to play,” says a pot-bellied shirtless man. “The minimum you can bet here is $100, it’s very popular with both Khmers and Barangs.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]