Travel Stories »

Happy Pizza and Cockfighting in Phnom Penh

Brutal rooster violence with a belly full of marijuana. An average night out in Cambodia.

I woke up on a Sunday morning in my cheap guesthouse on the lakeside bleary eyed and groggy. I swore to myself that I would start making real changes in my life. No more weed for one day, I assured myself. No drinking, no women, no extra expenses… For at least one day, I would be healthy and responsible. By noon, however, as I sat at a restaurant on the riverside with two Canadian friends eating a pizza coated with marijuana, all such notions had dissipated into oblivion.

We had met at the guesthouse in the morning, and they mentioned that they wanted to see cockfighting in the afternoon. I agreed that it would be interesting, but insisted that it wouldn’t be weird enough without the injection of a near-hallucinogenic dose of THC.

The ‘happy pizza’, as it’s called locally, is an interesting culinary experience. Marijuana has a slightly spicy taste that is quite pleasant on a pizza. It can be used as a good substitute for oregano. We munched through two large pizzas within half an hour, and followed it up with a round of “happy shakes,” which operate on much the same principle. Assured that we would be thoroughly stoned by early afternoon, we hopped back on our awaiting tuk-tuk and began rolling down the riverside at our top speed of about 20 km/hr.

“Fuck, how long is this gonna take?” John, one of my Canadian friends complained. “Does this guy even know where to go?”

“Relax, man, this is our best hope, maybe our only hope,” Mike, who had had the original idea of watching two roosters maul each other to death, assured him. “This is going to be amazing… but first I need to roll this joint…”

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, tapping the driver on the shoulder. “Can you stop for one moment please?”

He seemed to understand, and pulled over to the side of the road under the shade of a tree. Mike immediately rolled a cone-shaped joint of pure “skunk,” and we were rolling down the highway again smoking the joint like a cigarette. Fear of the police is non-existent in Cambodia.

We continued cruising around at our pathetically slow pace, being passed by bicycles on a regular basis. After half an hour, the driver began to stop to ask directions. None of us understanding Khmer, we trusted the fate of our day completely to our chauffer, and sat back to enjoy the heavy high that was beginning to take over our bodies and minds. Finally, after circling around a wide area a couple of times, our driver found someone who seemed to know what he was talking about. After a lot of pointing and animated discussion, we were on our way.

We pulled through several small alleys and eventually onto a dirt track, where we were forced to leave the tuk-tuk and walk through rancid, trash-filled puddles of mud, eventually arriving at a sizable farm. Looking around the area, it seemed that we were on the very outskirts of the city, and I imagined with reserved anticipation the weird spectacle that we were about to witness.

After paying the $2 entrance fee at the door, which seemed somewhat inflated by Cambodian standards, we entered the farm. Looking back at my two comrades I could see that John was experiencing mild moral reservations. Maybe he was just stoned. His eyes were completely bloodshot, and I imagined that we all looked half mad. Mike was grinning like a boy on Christmas morning.

“Fuck, this is cool, man! I love this country…” he said as we finally arrived at the ring.

Dozens of roosters stood under large woven baskets that served as cages. They screamed at each other constantly, weird war cries that filled me with a strange excitement. I leaned close to one who was crowing louder than most.

“Are you ready to die…?” I asked it in a low voice, grinning at my own foolishness.

“I like this one… It’s real spry, you know. I think that’s more important than size…” Mike commented, pointing toward one of the roosters.

John seemed less interested, fully immersed in whatever weirdness was churning in his mind. I was beginning to feel heavily stoned, and needed to sit down.

“Jesus, man, this is an illegal cockfight!” Mike exclaimed, grinning.

There were only a few people around though and the atmosphere was strangely nervous. I took a seat in the front row of the ring, and waited for the fights to begin. The others sat next to me, and we waited for nearly an hour before the action finally started. First, they weighed the birds and the crowd grew to watch this weird ritual take place.

“I like that one… It looks like it’s ready to kill something!” Mike exclaimed.

At that moment, the rooster escaped from his handler’s control and flew into the crowd on the other side of the ring. A fluster of feathers and a few shouts and laughs from the crowd and the handler had him back in his hands. The thought of being in the first row seemed suddenly less appealing, especially as I watched the handlers place long, razor sharp spikes on the back of the roosters’ feet. It was far too late to move, though, and I waited with paranoid uncertainty for the battle to start.

Within a few minutes, the roosters were ready, and we watched them walk around for a moment with their new spikes on. One rooster walked easily with the spikes, while the other seemed to stumble around, but they were both clearly ready to kill each other. As the handlers held the two roosters face to face for a moment, the feathers on their necks puffed out like umbrellas and they lunged toward each other, ready to tear each other to pieces. Shouts rose from the crowd and we watched as money began changing hands. I heard numbers ranging from $2 to $20 that I could understand in my very limited Khmer, and I could tell from the serious faces of the Khmers that this wasn’t for entertainment but cold, hard cash.

A moment later, as the shouting died down, the handlers again set the birds face to face, swinging them three times toward each other before releasing them in a maniac flurry of feathers. They attacked each other with utter, thoughtless rage. They took to the air, one coming down on the other with his spikes and piercing its chest. I could see it wheeze painfully as it struggled under the other bird, which now had it by the throat and was mauling it viciously.

Shouts and laughter echoed from the crowd as the handlers moved in to separate the birds. The rooster that had received the wound was wheezing heavily, but was still standing. Its handler licked its wounds and spat water on its head, and it became suddenly easier to understand the human origins of avian flu. The handler filled his mouth with water and brought his lips right up to the bird’s beak like a mother eagle to give it drinking water. The dedication of the handlers to their birds was surprising to me but understandable given the economic stakes in the fight.

The fighters being ready, the battle resumed. Almost instantly the wounded bird was on the bottom again, getting mauled by the other. The handlers separated the roosters and the same routine followed. It seemed unlikely that the wounded bird could continue the fight, but there was money on the line, and they would battle until one of them couldn’t stand or wouldn’t fight.

After the next rest, the dynamic of the fight suddenly changed. The wounded bird leaped above the other and came down on it ferociously, planting its spike in his enemy’s wing. The crowd cheered hysterically as they mauled each other, rolling in the bloody dust of the ring. A moment later, the rooster that had been losing had the other pinned, and his backers were cheering madly.

The handlers separated the birds again, but this time the cock that had been winning since the beginning turned tail and ran around the ring as the victor chased him, much to the amusement of everyone who watched. The handlers grabbed their birds, the winner sporting a broad smile. I watched as money changed hands all around the stands, and waited with interest to watch another fight.

After a long wait, during which I felt the pizza fully taking over my mind, the handlers brought out two more birds. I suddenly found it difficult to keep my eyes open, even as it was inconceivable that I would fall asleep. My head nodded and I felt extremely unsettled. I started giggling to myself at the ridiculousness of the situation, dozens of men crowding around to watch birds getting weighed, two men taping long, vicious spikes to their feet, and finally the dance in the center of the ring, the flapping of feathers and shouts of the betters. I sat dumfounded waiting for the next act of carnage.

The second fight, however, was very different than the first. Both birds took to the air, but one came firmly down on the other, jamming its spike firmly into its enemy’s throat. The handlers separated the roosters, but it was clear that the fight was over, much to the amusement of half of the betters. The loser tried to stand up, unable to lift its head and stumbling stupidly to its side. After several attempts, it lay dead on the ground, ready to be cleaned for someone’s dinner.

I was not especially bothered by any of this. Cambodia is a country where you will see destitute poverty, squalor and vicious greed, and where human life and perhaps life in general has a very different importance to that in the West. It is such a vastly different culture that you can’t bring your judgements from home with you.

All conscientious problems aside, therefore, and having gotten a feel for what makes a winner, I decided to bet, along with my Canadian comrades. After the standard long wait, the next two birds arrived, fit and beautiful. They both were large, confident roosters, and it seemed that either could win. I rather randomly selected the bird with blue tape around its new spike, hoping to get lucky. I called out my bet, pointing to my animal and was immediately matched by a grinning Khmer man several seats over.

The fight wasn’t as brutal as those before it. The bird with the red tape pinned his enemy several times and severely mauled it. The final time the birds were released, my bird cowered and fled from the ring, much to the amusement of my betting partner. I paid up my debt and resolved to do better the next time.

There were several other fights that day, and we bet on all of them. I left not a penny richer or poorer, but with a new perspective on gambling, cockfighting, and Khmer society in general. We rolled back through the dingy city of Phnom Penh as the sun descended in the sky, and arrived at the lake in time for another joint before sunset.

M.J. Lloyd

James Tramplefoot has been, and will continue to be on the road indefinitely, for years and probably decades.