Betting on the weather in Cambodia

by AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy, Aug 27, 2007 | Destinations: Cambodia / Battambang

Battambang, Cambodia, Aug 13, 2007 - Storm clouds gathering over this northwestern Cambodian city could make or break the fortunes of dozens of men gathering on rooftops or crowding into nearby guesthouses.

The sky-gazers above and the bookies and gamblers below frantically swap information and wagers; the tension builds as hopes rise of striking it rich with a little rain.

Normally quiet on cloudless days, Battambang city's Beung Chhouk market is humming with excitement as the monsoon descends and the ancient game of "Phnal Tuek Phleang", or rain betting, gets underway.

On higher buildings around the market people have erected plastic tarpaulin shelters and strung hammocks, creating perches that bristle with the long antennae of two-way radios as they watch the incoming weather.

"So many people play the game, there might be more than 10,000 people betting the rain when the sky gets dark," said one 74-year-old punter huddled around a walkie-talkie in a guesthouse with four other men, all listening intently to their rooftop observers.

Betting starts at 100 Thai baht (three US dollars), the main currency in this city near the Thai border. But hundreds, if not thousands of dollars can quickly change hands when a good storm rolls in.

"Sometimes we win, sometimes we don't," said the old man, who like everyone else betting that day did not want to be named.

Phnal Tuek Phleang is played in any number of ways, from whether rain will fall on a specific day to how much will fill a cup within a specific amount of time.

The most common method is to bet on whether a piece of paper placed atop a high building will be soaked with rain within a certain time of day.

Odds are calculated based on weather conditions radioed back from spotters based in distant towns.

While gamblers across Cambodia test their luck with the heavens, rain betting in Battambang, the country's second-largest city, has evolved into a complex and secretive industry regulated by a number of betting cartels with strict rules of conduct.

Not just any punter can put his or her money down here; introductions are needed to play, and deposits and monthly fees keep out all but the highest-rollers.

"People bet around 10,000 baht, but others bet much higher than this," said a 36-year-old bookie, one of scores who ply their trade as middlemen between the gamblers and the betting houses, holding a hand-written list of gamblers' names and wagers.

But countless fringe games keep the momentum going outside of the organised gambling dens, keeping the average punter happy but frustrating authorities.

Like other forms of gambling, Phnal Tuek Phleang is banned by the government but police say there is no way to crack down on a game that is largely organised over the telephone or two-way radios.

"We have ordered the game to be stopped several times already, but we don't have any evidence to bring the gamblers to the court," said So Sam An, Battambang provincial deputy police chief.

"They all use mobile phones and go to pay each other in restaurants when they meet to eat noodles," he added.

"They even bet in rice fields. We don't know what to do with them."

Chuch Phoeun, a secretary of state with the ministry of culture, said authorities were increasingly worried over the huge debts that are accumulating.

Originally a leisurely past-time for Battambang's Chinese merchants, over the last decade rain betting has become a high-stakes pursuit for the newly rich in which money, homes and even businesses can change hands.

Local newspapers are rife with reports of violent gambling-related crime, particularly domestic disputes that erupt over lost family fortunes.

"Gamblers see the dark skies and bet huge amounts of money -- all it takes is a strong wind to blow the clouds away and they lose," he says.

"In the past some people have lost everything. Sometimes the losers turn to crime, they become thieves."

But Chuch Phoeun admits that Phnal Tuek Phleang is an integral part of the monsoon season culture.

"Since I was young, living in Battambang, people have played this game," he said. "I don't know for sure where it came from, but cock-fighting isn't even as big as betting on the rain."

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