Betters deploy superstition, amateur meteorology, and networks of sources to win big on the weather
BATTAMBANG, Cambodia - There is a tribe of men here who stare at the sky. They do it patiently, devotedly, obsessively, for much of Cambodia's six-month monsoon season, standing in rice paddies or perched on rooftops, scrutinizing the shifting clouds from daybreak to sunset, waiting hours for the moment when they burst.
Although gambling on rainfall is a casual pastime in other parts of Cambodia, Battambang, a city of crumbling French colonial buildings that snake along the sleepy Sangke River, elevates the hobby to serious business. It boasts the largest and most sophisticated rain betting market in the country, complete with bookies, near-professional gamblers, and thousands of participants. As the clouds shift, networks of dedicated sky-watchers call in information from as far as Pailin, a remote frontier town on the Thai border.
The rain-betting day is divided into three segments: 6 am to noon, noon to 2 pm, and 2 pm to 6 pm. A bet, starting at $2, yields a pay-out if it rains during the chosen time period. Betting on rain during the typically dry mornings is riskier, but offers a massive payoff. But it's relatively safe to assume that it will rain before 6 pm at the height of the wet season, so winning bets on the third segment of the day bring in paltry returns.
But because gambling is illegal in Cambodia, the bustling rain betting networks are entirely underground, and its participants are perpetually skittish about the prospect of crackdowns. Most people interviewed for this story refused to be named, citing the regular bribes they were already paying to both the terminally corrupt Cambodian police and to local journalists--who can be nearly as bad, extorting money from lawbreakers in exchange for not publishing articles about them.
One recent steamy morning, about 30 veteran rain bettors stood on the edge of an electric-green rice paddy on the outskirts of the city, peering intently west. Despite the heat, they had bundled up in military jackets against the wet postdawn mist, sucking their morning tea from plastic bags. Nearly everyone clutched a walkie-talkie or two, pausing every now and then to bark into the handsets or listen intently to the garbled transmissions.
Some of these men amount to futures traders, betting against rainfall hitting a certain spot at a certain time. Others make straight bets, or a combination of the two. And a handful of the youngest ones are scouts for the clandestine betting houses in the city center.
Their eyes were all fixed on the one cloud in the sky, probing it like a Rorschach blot, trying to calculate what it meant for the day's profits.
One of the gamblers, a retired soldier dressed in camouflage fatigues and brandishing what might be the biggest walkie-talkie in the clearing, proclaimed himself the Minister of Meteorology.
"We bet because we know the way of the rain," he said. "Just like the way of the cars, the rain has a way it needs to go. So if there is a cloud over there, it is likely to hit the betting area, so we should be careful."
He pointed at the fluffy, innocent-looking cloud far off in the distance. "You can see that dangerous cloud over there."
As he spoke, more men pulled into the clearing on motorbikes and crowded around. One of them passed around a bag of fried pork buns.
"It's not about money--it's about honor and reputation and believability," the "Minister" explained. "If you want to bet, you just say, 'I want to bet.' If you lose, you can just bring the money tomorrow."
He estimated that some 80 percent of Battambang residents place rain bets at some point during the season. With about 30 betting houses scattered around the city and its outskirts, it's a believable assessment.
"It's a very popular game," he said. "We play broadly and openly here. In Phnom Penh, they play but it is not out in the open like this."
The others, clearly on edge, signaled him to stop talking to me, nervous that he was speaking too freely. One warned, "Don't say too much-if the government hears that they will start to crack down on us." The Minister, nodding, walked away.