Introduction
 

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 Betta 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. The only difference is that “Plakat Thai” is the Thai word for the Betta and “Siamese fighting -fish” is the English word for the Thai Betta (Plakat = biting/fighting fish, and Thai = Siamese). 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 came first. 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 pyramid. 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.

Geographical Breeding 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.
Thailand map
 

 

There 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 Betta 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.

The 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.

Every 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 Bangkok’s 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 don’t care much about quantity.  I will discuss breeding Betta imbellis in a separate home page section.

In 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.

In 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.

What is Betta Smaragdina?

  Betta Smaragdina is 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 Habitat

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.
This 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.

Catching 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.

The boy slowly opens the grass all around the Betta’s 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 member’s 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 week’s 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.

 

Breeding Techniques of the Betta Smaragdina

  The philosophy 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 smaragdina’s natural habitat by releasing the fry back to specific locations in the wild.  The breeder will secretly release the fry at night because he doesn’t 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 Betta splendens.  They are like Arnold in Terminator, the new strain.  The super selected fighter.
 
 

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 thinner lips.
  • 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.
 

The 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.

 

Controlling Wins

 

Five 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.

There 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 of friends.

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.

  • Fighting Style: A fighter is able to deceive and trick the opponent, also he must be able to inflict more damage than he receives.
  • Sharp Teeth: So that a fighter can penetrate the opponent’s scales and cause the other fish pain.
  • 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.
  • Perfect 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.

  • How to preserve and reproduce captive bred fighters that have the same structure and form as their wild counterparts.
  • How 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.
  • If the breeder is able to fulfill the above two tasks, then the next task is to develop the captive bred fish’s 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 fighting stock.

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 fighter’s 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.
After 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 smaragdina’s natural habitat.

The human made dig pool is exactly the same as the Betta smaragdina’s 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.

 

The breeder 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.

The intelligence behind this method needs to be explained further. Only the strongest 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. The bamboo 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. In short, only the strongest fish can claim the best location to breed. And 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 environment.

You come I'm so please, I'm regret when you leave.

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