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.
Sar Thet, the police chief of Battambang province, explained that although his officers try to take a hard line against rain bettors, the market is so diffuse and deep-rooted that there's little they can do. He denied, dubiously, that police accept or solicit bribes from bettors.
"Rain betting has existed for a long time and has now become the custom," he conceded. "Police do not support betting on rain, but it has also become a custom to them after so long."
It's unclear when rain betting first took root in Cambodia, but Ros Chantrabot, a prominent historian here, believes it was likely introduced by Chinese immigrants.
"In Cambodian history, we don't see any evidence of rain betting, just of praying for rain," Chantrabot said. "It must have originated from China, as only Chinese-Cambodians play it, and it's culturally very Chinese."
Vandara, 43, who has run a rain-gambling house out of his mobile telephone store in the city's Chamka Samrong commune since 1997, says the large concentration of ethnic Chinese in Battambang explains the game's immense popularity there. As he tells it, rain betting originated among tea farmers in China's Guangdong province, many of whom immigrated to the area after the Chinese Revolution.
A glass case of rhinestone-encrusted phones is on permanent display in front of Vandara's shop, but nobody pays much attention to them. The action all takes place in a dark corner inside, where Vandara's wife sits at a desk piled with stacks of Cambodian riel and Thai baht, six burbling walkie-talkies, and dozens of betting slips.
Vandara's office is a wooden platform five stories off the ground, where he perches with his 28-year-old assistant, Pheak. Here he spends most of his daylight hours sitting on the building's roof, watching the sky in order to set the house odds. They change approximately every three minutes, depending on the clouds. The men are surrounded by the tools of their trade. They use five walkie-talkies to communicate with men in the field and with Vandara's wife downstairs. Four cell phones keep them constantly in touch with sky-watchers on their payroll who are stationed in Pailin. Less frequently, they check the latest Internet weather reports. They smoke constantly.
Although all of the Battambang betting houses have their own techniques for measuring rainfall, there is only one official gauge of whether it has rained. By mutual agreement, this happens in an isolated and closely guarded mansion on the outskirts of town.
Although outsiders like me are forbidden from visiting the house, several bettors who had seen it described its elaborate procedure. A group of "watchers" monitor a stack of 13 layers of tissue paper on a table on the house's roof, which they must stay 3 meters away from at all times. If it rains enough to soak the tissues through so that water drips from them, it has officially rained and bets can be called in.
During my visit, rain broke just before 1 pm in a clear steady shower. Vandara's wife was glum. She had sold a lot of rain that morning, and lost a lot of money.
"Someone wins and someone loses every day," Vandara said with a shrug. "It's up to the odds, and up to the sky."
Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin