‘An odd and puzzling feature of this town was that many people looked at the sky for long periods of time, pointing at the clouds, and they did this from morning till sunset. We thought they were plane spotting or on the looking for American or Japanese planes. But no planes flew over that part of that part of the forsaken world at that time. After two days, we could not stand it anymore. We had to find out why, and decided to ask a local. Of all the possible answers, he said that they were betting on whether or not it would rain that day – in the morning or at night. Betting for rain was the town’s single most exciting daily event.’
So wrote Geoffrey Tan of his experience as a slave labourer of the Japanese in 1944 – and the town he was referring to was none other than my home town of Battambang in NE Cambodia.
Over sixty years later people still bet on the rain here and fortunes are won and lost, restaurants, karaoke bars and other businesses change hands and some reputations have been ruined on the vagaries of unpredictable squally showers.
I started researching this article by chatting with my mum. She told me that in pre Khmer Rouge days, rain gambling was very much the pastime of elderly Chinese men from the town’s business class and played over afternoon tea more for leisure than for high financial stakes. This was confirmed by a chat I had with Mr Top Tan Leang – local head of the Dept Culture and Fine Arts who told me that rain gambling has been prevalent here for centuries but was more of a gentile hobby for most people than a high stakes vice.
These days though, rain gambling is, for the most part, the furtive vice of wealthy, married, middle aged business men and has been steadily growing in popularity since the end of the civil war in 1997.
Typically a group of friends, all known to one another, will form a close knit, secretive gambling cartel and usually have to provide a $500 deposit each as a way in. The fact that all members are known to one another ensures a vow of silence, and this secrecy is aided by the fact that there is no bookmaker or office.
So how do the transactions take place? The tools of the trade are two way radios and mobile phones. Cartel members take or give odds to one another based on ‘buy’ or ‘sell.’
For example, if I thought rain likely then I would try to ‘buy’ rain and would approach another cartel member who might give me odds based on his considered view of rain occurring that day. If I wanted to ‘sell’ then I would offer odds based on my belief that no rain would fall. This is in fact an over simplified way of describing a complex process as the actual setting of the odds is highly complicated. For example if I was selling and my spotter told me that the sky was black then I might accept a bet from a buyer of 10,000 baht but with a return of only 1,000 baht. If it rained then I’d collect 10,000 baht and it if the clouds failed to break then I’d give him 1000 baht.
Of course, those risking large amounts of money believe they can reduce this risk by gaining inside track information before placing their bets. Therefore, they will contact professional rain spotters in the countryside backwater of Bavel (90 minutes from Battambang) or in distant Samlot (125km from Battambang) whose job it is to keep a close eye on the skies. Spotters are on duty prior to the three daily rain gambling periods of 5am-midday, midday- 5pm, and 5pm -5am and provide information to all parties. ‘It’s overcast in Samlot,’ one might radio down at 5am and buyers and sellers will make decisions and set their odds based on this information, and as a rough rule of thumb, spotter’s guesses come true about 70% of the time.
What do the spotters get out of it? A healthy commission for good advice, but of course, the information is far more useful to wealthy gamblers wagering 10,000 bahts upwards on a single punt rather than an informal group of motodops at the market punting 100 bahts a day.
As I mentioned, rain gambling is a highly furtive business and as well as the $500 deposit required to enter most high-end cartels (bets are made on the phone and on trust, so the high deposit deters those who may run away from debts), members also pay a further $50 per month. Some of this $50 finds its way into the pockets of those who may otherwise cause problems to the business, and the rest goes to maintain a guard and a tray on top of a tall building.
The location of the tall building is always kept secret but it’s here that bets are won or lost. On top of the tray high up and away from prying eyes in placed a piece of paper and the decision on rain or not is dependent on whether that paper is soaked. Drizzle or a light sprinkling does not count. The rain has to come down from the sky with such vigour that the paper can be held up and be sufficiently soaked to drip into the tray for those ‘buying’ rain to receive their pay out. This process is repeated at the end of each session, thrice daily. A nominated person, trusted by all, will then announce the result.
Like all gambling, rain betting leads to casualties. Compulsive gamblers can be seen staring out of their workplace windows rather than getting on with their jobs. Night gamblers get little sleep or when they do doze off it’ll be with their head on top of a two way radio. More seriously, compulsive gamblers who, having been blacklisted for failing to honour their debts, will front somebody else to enter a cartel and then place their bets via the front man. At least a couple of well known local restaurants have changed hands as a result of rain gambling debts. One local man running a failing nightclub decided to turn to rain gambling as a desperate way of propping up his business. His strategy failed, he could not pay his debts, his nightclub closed and was later found hiding in a cheap local guest house.
Nevertheless, if you’re living in Battambang and see a neighbour suddenly dart of out his house in the middle of the night and then start dancing around in the rain punching the air with joy, you’ll now know why.