In the past
few years, I have often heard about the fighting fish in the north east area of
Thailand we call Isan. My plans to visit Isan country were canceled many
times because of my busy business life. A
tragedy occurred when my time was freed up in the last quarter of the year, but
unfortunately the fish fighting games were already over for the year. The
fish fighting games begin every year in March and end in September, the rainy season or
rice growing period. After a few discussions with a friend I came into
contact with through ICQ, I immediately set up plans to visit Isan country and experience
smaragdina fighting during the month of August 2000. The following is a refined story of the exciting
experiences I had while observing Plakat Thai in Isan country, the land of our richest
ancient cultural heritage.
The terms Plakat
Thai and Siamese fighting-fish both have the same meaning.
difference is that Plakat Thai is the Thai word for the Betta and
Siamese fighting -fish is the English
word for the Thai Betta
biting/fighting fish, and Thai =
Plakat Thai can
be classified into
three Betta species:
Betta splendens, Betta smaragdina, and Betta imbellis.
Betta splendens are the most
famous and also the most in demand among the three
species. Amazingly, in the past all
three species were developed by Thai farmers to be fighting
fish. No one can tell which species
I believe that
all three species were
developed along with each other locally. These three species were
interbred in a pyramid pattern with the Betta splendens at the top of the
This was done
through fish fighting activity, which
plays a very significant role in the interbreeding choices of these three
species we call Plakat Thai.
Places of Plakat Thai
Thailand is geographically
composed of five major parts: northern, northeastern, central, eastern, and
southern. For Plakat Thai there are breeding places in every province of
Thailand. Each province has its own domestic species and stresses the development of
one species more than another. The Northeast of Thailand breeds mainly Betta
smaragdina, while the central part of Thailand breeds mainly Betta splendens.
The Southern parts of Thailand breed Betta imbellis and Betta splendens
actively throughout the entire year.
are very few breeders in the uppermost northern part of Thailand. Geographically
the north is comprised mostly of complex mountain ranges and highland plateaus. The weather there is slightly cold throughout the
entire year, and as we know cold weather is no good for breeding Bettas. There is a short sunny period from March to May. Wild
splendens and Betta smaragdina can be
found in the rice fields and the surrounding areas. However,
there are many more breeding areas in the lower parts of the north, geographic basins and
river junctions from the north provide stable temperatures and fertile soil suitable for
cultivating live food for the Plakat Thai. These are the most essential factors of successful
breeding and maintaining good stock.
northeast part of Thailand favors Betta smaragdina,
especially the provinces that are connected to the river Khong, at the Thai/Lao border. These
breeders preserve the tradition of fish fighting as a joyous after- work activity. There is no reason to breed for commercial
purposes, or if any very few do. The
fish are caught in the wild and exchanged among close friends. The fish are freed back to
the rice fields after the games are over.
province in the Central and Eastern parts of Thailand mainly stress development of long
and short fin Betta splendens. Bangkok
(officially Krung Thep), the capital of Thailand, is the center of all kinds
of ornamental fish trades. However Betta
splendens is a major part of Bangkoks aquarium fish industry.
The southern part of
Thailand has two species, Betta splendens and Betta imbellis. With the rainy climate in the
south, it is suitable for breeding Bettas in all aspects. Like the breeders in the
northeast, the southern breeders, breed Betta imbellis for seasonal
enjoyment and dont care much about quantity. I will discuss breeding Betta imbellis in a separate home
order to win the domestic fish fighting game, some breeders crossbreed the domestic
species with cultivated Betta splendens. For
example, the breeders of the northeast cross wild caught Betta smaragdina with cultivated
Betta splendens, and likewise, the southern
breeders crossbred wild Betta imbellis with
cultivated Betta splendens.
this section I will focus only on the Betta
smaragdina, the first aquarium pet of the Isan people. Keeping, rearing, and fighting of the
Betta smaragdina has a long history in Isan
culture, and it involves a basic social dynamic that has been a part of Isan society for a
very long time. The
traffic throughout different Thai cultures eventually led to the interchanging of Betta
bloodlines for breeding.
just one species in the Betta family, available in the northeast of Thailand. The
general characteristics of the fish are crystal-like shiny green scales and gill
covers. The trunk of the fish is round when viewed from the side and slim when
viewed from above. The pelvic fin is long and tapered, and the caudal and anal fins
are slightly orange in color. The dorsal fin is a green color. The local
people call the Betta smaragdina green fighter or Plakat Keaw
or Pla Keaw for short. The average size is about 1.5 - 2 inches in
length, they are shy in nature and easily frightened by any stranger that approaches them.
Betta Smaragdina’s Natural
Betta smaragdina is the native fighting
fish of the Isan people. The Isan area of Thailand covers over one third of the
entire country, and consists mainly of highland plateaus. This geographical
characteristic is very isolating and helps to preserve Betta smaragdina, as well as
keeping the species from mixing with other bloodlines. The Betta smaragdina,
like the Betta splendens, can be found widely, living in the
shallow rice paddies, ditches, and the
lowland spaces beside the rice fields. This buffer area is a free space that the
farmer uses for releasing the fish and also for irrigation to and from his rice
field. Naturally this area is flooded throughout most of the year, except maybe in
the dry season when it may remain only wet mud.
The farmer does not actually use this area for
growing rice so fortunately it is untouched by chemical sprays. This small
area is very complex and complete in itself. There are various kinds of
plants, weeds, and animals that reside in this area.
small area plays a very significant role in the farmers life. It is a direct
source of food, providing edible plants and fish. For children, this is their
paradise playground. It is a place for
adventure and imagination, and a classroom to teach children the way of nature, running
and playing with each other. Some children may even search for small fish; of course
one of those fish is Betta smaragdina, THE
GREEN FIGHTER, the fighter from the Northeast of Thailand.
the Fighter with a Tender Scoop of the Hands
To catch other wild fish,
some may use a massive net that is thrown into the water and slowly pulled back
ashore. The unlucky fish will get stuck in the net and the fisherman will free him
from the tangled mess and then put him in a bamboo cage. This fish is his food.
Catching Betta smaragdina is entirely different. This
method is very smooth with no noise or violence at all. To get this fish from the
wild there are no special tools required, only two hands are needed. It seems that
the green fighter is just sitting there waiting for someone to take him or her out of the
wild and into his new home.
If a boy wants to get a green fighter he will walk
along the pathways between the rice fields and the flooded land. With experienced
eyes he slowly scans the locations where he might find the green fighter.
Without any hurry, he will slowly step into the
10-inch-deep water and direct his attention to the target. Being very careful, he
slowly opens the wild grass, his eyes scanning intensively for the bubble nest. A
high percentage of the time he will find the small bubble nest of the green fighter.
boy slowly opens the grass all around the Bettas bubble
nest. Without any hurry he tenderly scoops the fish up into the palms of his hands
and raises the fighter into his new home.
One of the green fighting
fish breeders I met in SakonNakorn province told me that fish fighting in Isan country may
go back over 200 years. He was 53 years old. He said that his father had told him
his grandfather was a big player in the fighting fish game. From his personal
opinion, fish fighting may have come along at the same time as cock fighting or possibly
even before that. In order to validate his opinion he said that Thais today and in the
past have always had a close relationship with the water. We are a riverside
society. Over 80% of Thai people were farmers, so naturally their lives are very close to
nature. They grew rice and caught fish for food; children ran around playing and
also caught the small fish in the rice fields. So it is possible that we knew the
fighting fish before the fighting cock. This answer is very similar to the 45 years
old theory, which comes from the owners of a local aquarium shop in U Bon Rat Cha Tha Ni, 119
Kilometers from SakonNakorn. I am inclined to believe their explanation.
However, at this time I am taking a temporary break from researching the origin of the
fighting fish of the Northeast of Thailand. I hope that by doing deeper research in
the literary reviews I can go into more detailed explanations with some objective primary
sources to support it.
The fish fighting takes place regularly at any one
members house. Normally the matches are held on Saturdays and Sundays.
The starting time is usually about 10 a.m. with a few latecomers joining the event a
little bit later in the day. The game is started later in the morning so that people
can finish their daily work and enjoy the playful game. People start to gather
themselves around the fish fighting bottles. A tall square glass is held at the
center of the group of
people. This manner of grouping
is a symbol that represents the community and shows unity between the Isan people.
The fish fighting plays a very significant role in the social interaction amongst people
on the weekend. No one cares about the weeks workload or stress; in the group
everyone is laughing and talking loud with a happy face.
When fighting Betta
smaragdina the owner uses a small net to shift the fighter to the fighting bottle,
unlike fighting Betta splendens, for which we use the small scoop to transfer the
fish. The Isan do this to be fair in the match, some people will put chemical
solutions in their water and transfer this into the fighting bottle with the scoop.
Once the second fighter has been lowered into the fighting bottle, the waiting challenger
will rush the opponent, spreading open its splendid green gill covers. Then both
will flare their fins in an attempt to intimidate and trick their opponent into believing
they are bigger, more aggressive, and more powerful. With a very dignified look they
will slowly rotate around each other. Their
eyes fixed firm to each other, they both will flare their fins to scare their opponent,
but neither of them will back down. Suddenly one of them will attack like a flash and
immediately go back to flaring his fins to show his strength, when this happens the other
fish must pay him back at once.
Betta smaragdina does less
swinging in its body to push away its opponent (in Thai we call this
tec or kicking) compared to Betta
splendens, which try to push the opponent in order to make them lose control. The
Betta smaragdina fight is more artistic and has
more style-almost like traditional wrestling, a playing game not aimed at killing or
injury. After the game neither fish is injured very much. They will return to their normal
condition after the fight without any assistance from medicines.
The fight ends in about a half-hour. If the fight
lasts a full hour and no one runs away, then the judge will tell the owners to take his
fish from the fighting bottle and the fight is declared a draw. On average the fights last
only 15 minutes. Some matches only take 5-10 minutes and one of the fish will run away
with very little damage. The loser is freed back into the rice field, and the winner can
fight again after recovering about a week. Very interestingly, the winner can develop his
fighting skills and do better in his next fight. The fish fighting games take place from March to
September during the rice growing period when the fields are full of water. Whether the
fish is a winner or a loser, all fish are released back to their natural habitat after the
fish-fighting season is over.
Techniques of the Betta Smaragdina
when breeding Betta smaragdina is to
preserve the characteristics of fighting stock to be as close as possible to its original
form, first found in the wild.
To accomplish this, breeders try to simulate
the Betta smaragdinas natural habitat by
releasing the fry back
to specific locations in the wild.
The breeder will secretly release the fry at
night because he doesnt want his opponents to find the source of his fighters.
The opponent might catch one of your fish and
use it against you. The wild
environment slowly trains the human bred Betta
smaragdina to be the real wild toughened fighter.
From the struggles for life, to living with
various predators, this time in the wild gradually teaches the green fighter how to defend
its territory and fight. Only the
strongest survive. The weak
shall die. This is the
process of natural selection. The wild environment will shape its structure to be as close as
possible to its ancestors. The only
difference being that they are not naturally selected bloodlines; they are human
controlled bloodlines. More
precisely they are a hybrid of Betta smaragdina and
They are like Arnold in Terminator, the new
strain. The super
From the above breeding framework,
one can see that the breeders have tried to shape the fighting strain to be similar to its
original form. For game winning purposes, the
breeders introduced Betta splendens fighting
bloodlines into the Betta smaragdina lines. The outcome of the crossbreeding is the stock of
Betta smaragdina fighting strain. One can hardly point out the difference between
the Betta smaragdina fighting strain and the
wild caught Betta smaragdina. However, a breeder
told me three main differences that one may figure out:
- The skull of
the select green fighter is thicker and firmer, whereas the wild caught is small and looks
balanced with its own slim shaped body.
- The lips of
the human bred fighter are thicker and sharper in form, whereas the wild caught has
- The color
of the human bred green fighter is a more deep dark color, and the color of the fins are
not as clear cut, whereas the color of the wild caught is faded but the scales are more
crystal like and shiny. The most genius breeders can breed fighters with structure, form,
and colors very close to that of the wild caught Betta smaragdina.
paradigm of Breeding Betta smaragdina to the Development of Betta splendens
Based on scientific method,
ichthyologists have named each of the Betta species from its differentiation from one
another. In the past, Thai breeders were without any scientific knowledge or modern
educational support, and they classified the fighting fish into only two types: Plakat
Pah, or wild caught Betta, and Plakat Morh (fighting fish in earthenware jar), or the
cultivated fighter. This method of naming species was based on where the fish was found,
and was common in farmer societies all over the world. The breeders in the central part of
the country were able to successfully develop Plakat Pah (which were wild caught Splendens) into Plakat Morh and then extended the
development even further to create the new strain of long fin Siamese fighting-fish. These
admirable innovations in the development of selective fighting fish strains through social
practices can be attributed to the Thai farmer alone. This is truly amazing because the
farmers had no means of education or study.
December 15th, 2001)
I went to Isan country again
from the 28th 30th of September 2001. The purpose of this trip
was to fill in some gaps that I had missed on my last trip. What I wanted to see was how
the breeders reproduce the selective Betta smaragdina fighting
bloodlines. If this point was made clear, then understanding the development process of
the short fin Betta splendens or Plakat Thai
should also present itself in the light. I will try to formulate the three key variables
involved in new breeding and actually playing the fighting fish games: controlling wins,
commercial, and social prestige. These three variables are all correlated with each other;
each variable plays a role as a spoke in a wheel cart, slowly moving forward upon the
Plakat Thai caravan. They not only play significant roles in the modern practice of
breeding fighting fish of the Isan people, but in fact they are the mainstream core of the
whole development process of Plakat Thais in general. I wrote this article based on the
assumption that one similar historical event in the same historical atmosphere and
environment may represent or be mapped to another historical event in question. I am
trying to convince and show the reader that the development of Isan fighting fish breeding
practices will throw light on the development process of Betta splendens.
These three variable relations may be
grouped together as a prototype model to present the whole picture of Plakat Thai history,
restructuring the story that has been dismissed.
years ago, the Isan breeders would free the winning fish to specific paddy fields and free
the losers to the public flood lands. In the next season the breeder would go back to the
special location and catch the spawn of the winners from last year. Hopefully, they will
be as good, or even better than the winners from the last year.
Like all games, the
absolute aim of the player is to be the winner of every
match. But to be the winner all the time is like
challenging fate. The player will never know the result until the game is at an
end. In the game the players try to reach a desirable end, but the path to
reaching the end is always variable and hard to predict the outcome. In
other words, the players cannot control or program the resulting outcome. One
can only prepare him very well and time alone will tell the result. This is the
charm of the game that makes it fair for both players; they both wait on the
fate and outcome of the game.
are two terms that should be considered here: certainty and control. These two terms are
always connected and imply something about the other. If more certain results are needed,
then more control functions should be set up. We can use another term to represent this
relationship, seriousness. The more the breeder is serious about the fighting
results, the more breeding control he does. The more the fighting result is affected by
the player the more the breeder tries to accomplish the same result. This implies that in
the past, the breeder was not as serious about the fighting results when obtaining good
fighters from their natural habitat. So there was not as much breeding control when
producing fighters. No doubt, no matter how many champions the breeder released to the
paddy, there are already native Betta smaragdina
already available there. The reader can imagine the result of uncontrolled mating and the
outcome of the offspring. The fish fighting was for fun and prestige amongst a close group
Apart from luck, the breeder
looks at the quality of his selected fighters in the following attributes: Fighting Style,
Sharp Teeth, Stamina, and perfect structure or form. These attributes are all contributing
factors for a fighter to win the game. The first two attributes are offensive whereas the
rest are defensive attributes.
Style: A fighter is able to deceive and trick the opponent, also he must be able to
inflict more damage than he receives.
Teeth: So that a fighter can penetrate the opponents scales and cause the other fish
- Stamina: So
that a fighter is willing to fight for a longer period of time even though he may be
sustaining more damage than his opponent.
Structure or Form: So that a fighter can gain a natural advantage in all aspects of
matching, giving him a better chance of winning.
The following are points the
breeder has to achieve in his breeding tasks.
to preserve and reproduce captive bred fighters that have the same structure and form as
their wild counterparts.
to reproduce the captive bred fish to have the same wild energy as the natural strains.
Captive-bred fish are often fat, lazy, and slow.
the breeder is able to fulfill the above two tasks, then the next task is to develop the
captive bred fishs fighting style and the will to fight for long periods of time
while at the same time having the ability to self adapt to new environments. Most of the
wild caught Bettas are shy corner living creatures. Some breeders will even introduce
Betta splendens fighting strains to his own
Doing your best to select the
best parent stock, the breeder accomplishes the three above tasks by simulating the wild
environment in his controllable breeding tank. The following are breeding processes for
selective fighting fish strains.
To increase the percentage of
winning reliability, the breeder selects the best pair from winners of the fighting ring,
pairs them accordingly and furnishes a breeding tank with a habitat as close to the
fighters natural habitat as possible.
Start by placing a round black
vessel in the middle of a bigger cement tank. Lay clay on the bottom of the vessel and be
sure to furnish real weeds and wild plants. The water depth should only be about 2 inches
above the clay. The reader can easily see that there is no difference between the inside
of the black vessel and the outside of the cement tank. The pair is confined to the round
vessel to ensure that they are mating in a specific place and date, it also makes it easy
for the breeder to look after the bubble nests and keep some records of his stock. This
can also increase the survival rate of the new fry. After the fry are hatched they live in
the limited space for one week. On the seventh day the breeder simply adds water to the
tank until the water level is slightly higher than the top of the round vessel. Then the
fry are able to slowly move out from the round vessel to the wider space that is already
provided in the cement tank, the breeder will make sure to supply plenty of water fleas to
feed the fry. They
will live in this tank for about a month before being moved to a bigger tank.
a month, the new tank space is about 5 * 5 meters with a water depth of about 30
centimeters. The young fighters will live in this tank for around 2-3 months. This is to
ensure that they will be able to survive in the wild. When the young fighters are big
enough, the breeder will move them into the human made dig pool which has already been
furnished like the Betta smaragdinas natural habitat.
human made dig pool is exactly the same as the Betta smaragdinas natural
habitat. The breeder just leaves the fighters to struggle for survival on their own. There
is no food supplied by the breeder. Only the strongest of the fighters are preserved and
continue to flourish.
Now the problem is; how does
the breeder distinguish the best fighters amongst the thousands available in the pond? How
does he catch the best fighters from such a big pond without disturbing the other living
creatures in the pond? The method to catch the best fighters is very simple yet at the
same time extremely intelligent.
places a bamboo tube at the side of the pond. Early in
the morning he just
lifts the tube out of the water and checks to see if there is a fighter inside
the bamboo or not. Of
course, almost 100% of the
time he will get a fighter
in the tube he placed out yesterday.
behind this method needs to be explained further.
fighters will be able to claim the tube for occupation, as it is the best
location for building a bubble nest and waiting for his new lover.
tube is considered to be the best and strongest shelter to hide in because
it protects the delicate bubble nest from winds and unstable water surface.
short, only the strongest fish can claim the best location to breed.
the breeder gets that one to fight in the ring.
From the above
selective breeding processes, the reader may notice that the selective pair were
obtained from previous winners of the ring, so we may assume they have already
been acquainted with human contact. The fry
will also become accustomed to human
activity within the first two months of their life. When the
breeder takes them
from the wild, they will surely adapt more easily to their new man made