A Bug’s Life – Chiang Mai

June 4, 2006

A proud breeder, originally uploaded by curious_shutterbug.

Insects are big part of the Thai diet, and are sold at most markets throughout the county. But here in the north, the rhinoceros beetle has a more noble cause than ending up in a wok of deep-fried oil as a protein snack: they’re groomed as fighters.

The rhinoceros beetle’s armor is formidable and its strength is legendary – one can support 850 times its own weight. Prized for their brute strength and walrus-like determination, they are set against each other in a competition for the right to mate with the female.

The fights take place during the monsoon season, when they are breed for the fighting pits scattered around the rice mills of the North.

The Shan brought this sport from Myanmar to Thailand, centuries ago, says Manop Rattanalitikul, who curates an insect museum in Chiang Mai. “So for northern Thais, kwang chon, or the art of the fighting beetle, has become very refined and sophisticated. And traditionally, the North has been known around the Kingdom for it’s formidable s. Breeders can make more money during the rainy season than a year working the rice fields in the fighting pits,” adds Manop. “And rightly so. They took this sport to another level.”
Somchai Terasuk, 46, is a roadside seller of rhinoceros beetles. Hanging from a bamboo rafter, are hundreds of beetles perched on sugar cane, secured by pink string. Each beetle sells for 100 baht. “This is not only a sport for us,” says the local rice farmer, “it’s a lifestyle. We consider it up there with gai chon (cock fighting) or muay thai. It takes skill and local wisdom to breed these beetles.”
Somchai has a stable of 10 fighters, and is on the road most weekends, putting his prized beetles through mini gladiatorial-like battles in the many makeshift-fighting rings around the North like this one on the outskirts of Chiang Mai.

And it’s here that I’m witnessing the height of what is certainly a man’s business. The only women are the ones manning the rice whiskey stall. There are more than 100 locals milling inside the stadium. Outside, breeders and bug-handlers are comparing their bugs, weighing them up for an even fight.

At center stage, high on the rafters, two beetles are battling it out to the raucous cheers of the farmers, while their handlers sit on the fighting log doing their thing. Rules of engagement are posted on the wall above the fighting ring. “No weapons allowed,” states rule number one, though I can’t see any connection it has to the fighting beetles. Rule two warns that if the bug handlers attack each other with their vibrating files- which they use to vibrate the log to stimulate the beetles into fighting- they’ll each be fined 3,000 baht, nearly a month’s salary for most of these farmers.
Rule three – now we are getting back on point – says the beetle is deemed a winner only when it lifts up its opponent with its pincers and throws it off the log. But if a bug retreats, the beetle-handlers are allowed to expose the female only three times, for inspiration.
Normally the female is kept in a hollow cell in the log, informs Somchai. “But on certain occasions,” he says. “The female can be released to encourage the tiring beetle to fight on.”
In layman’s terms, this means a serious injection of ‘mojo’, as the female secretes a scent that makes the male bull fighting mad, evident by its audible war cry.

“Shrek” is in the ring, with its large pincers on guard. Its opponent, “Chaiyo,” which is Thai for “champion,” is from nearby Chiang Rai. Somchai is perched over the fighting log, vibrating his file like there’s no tomorrow. And his prized beetle, named after his favorite movie, Shrek 2, gets out of the gates early.

People go to extreme lengths to get the comparative edge and Somchai is no exception. Before the fight this morning, he took his prized fighter to a local temple to be blessed.

The fight, which lasted no more than half an hour, had me snoozing. It’s slower than golf, and a little bit more racy than lawn bowls. But the locals were screaming and carrying on like it was a kick-boxing tournament. And if it wasn’t for the overt gambling, I’m sure they would have been snoozing too. Shrek won. And I’m not even going to go into the point scoring system, suffice to say that Somchai is a happy man as he puts a wad of cash in his pockets. “I’ll let Shrek in the harem tonight,” says Somchai, who walks away with a tidy profit.

It’s a bugs’ life, no doubt. And when the rhinoceros beetle isn’t serving a purpose in the bug pits – winning – the loser soon becomes a culinary snack for the insect-loving Thais.

By Thomas Brecelic (This feature first appeared in Thai Day, 25 of May, 2006.)

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