Gamefowl millionaire: Thai women find fortune in cockfighting | Agricultural news

Lampang, Thailand – With every houndstooth, tufts of white down float in the air above the densely packed spectators. The men watching the fight jumped from their seats to shout Odds, and their voices rose like singing cicadas.

One face stands out among the spectators at the cockfighting ring in Lampang province, northwest Thailand.

With the ends of her long hair curled with a flat iron and carefully drawn eyebrows, Phromanas Jumpa looks like an idol or an influencer. She is neither. The 27-year-old, better known as Mod, is one of Thailand’s up-and-coming wildfowl breeders and became known as “The Angel of Gamefowl” after joining Super100, a TV talent show where she was able to showcase her expertise in birds.

Mod watches the fight from the front row, elbows propped on a plastic-coated soft barrier, cracked and chipped from a history of clenched hands. Your bird is in the ring, and if it wins, there’s plenty of money to be made – not necessarily from gambling, but rather from selling your champion’s offspring.

Cockfighting is a long-standing part of Thai culture. Unlike some Southeast Asian countries, betting on the outcome of a fight is legal at licensed venues, and the spurs on the bird’s legs are often taped to prevent serious injury.

While rings are ubiquitous across the country, tournaments are mostly held in rural provinces where household incomes are also often lower than in Bangkok. Mods Farm, a few hours from Chiang Mai, is surrounded by rice fields. In recent years, sport has transformed from a sideline activity for farmers to the main source of income for an entrepreneur.

Mod streams a practice match live to her followers on LINE, an instant communications app. She doesn’t earn her money from the matches themselves, but from the offspring of her winning roosters [Mailee Osten-Tan/Al Jazeera]

In a country with one of the largest wealth disparities in the world, wildfowl farming has become a rare gateway to social advancement. Mod’s mother was a housekeeper and most of the family’s neighbors are farmers.

“Bird farming used to have no status and has only recently been considered a main occupation,” Mod told Al Jazeera.

“Nowadays bird breeders can have a car, a house and a higher income than people with regular jobs.” More than 100 birds live on their farm. Sales can reach 100,000 Thai baht (just over $2,900) a month — much more than the 300 Thai baht ($8.70) a day Mod previously earned as a receptionist at a gym.

Reputation matters

A fighting bird can sell for between 3,000 Thai baht ($85) and 50,000 Thai baht ($1,450), but with the right promotion, sales can reach even more lucrative heights.

“I make about 15 million baht ($435,000) a month in earnings and that doesn’t include the prize money from the fights,” said Meesuwan, aptly nicknamed “Bird” S. Meesuwan, another wildfowl breeder.

In January 2022, his master rooster, Trickster, won a match for a prize of 70.2 million Thai baht ($2 million). Success in high-stakes matches like these might seem like the end goal, but for businessmen like Bird, these are mostly PR gimmicks. Selling the offspring of his winners is where the real money is made.

Like Mod, Bird remembers growing up poor; As a child, he supplemented his family’s income by bringing food to spectators at his local cockfighting ring in Ayutthaya. Today he is the owner of one of the most successful wild poultry farms in Asia.

“Just 15 years ago I was making 3,000 baht a day from sales, but now it’s 300,000… 500,000… or even a million a day,” he says, speaking over a buzz of notifications on LINE, an instant communication app, among several smartphones in front of you.

Reputation – curated by carefully selecting their fighters’ opponents – and relentless digital marketing are some of the biggest factors that determine a farm’s success.

Once a rooster has won its highest-grossing fight, it is unlikely to fight again so the breeder can maintain its profitable reputation. Breeders are taking reservations for the offspring of high stakes winners before the chicks are even born.

Bird’s Farm has around 250,000 followers on LINE and most of the chicks are sold to smaller breeders hoping for a genetic payoff.

Some crossbreed their native birds with others in the region; It is known that different types of chickens have different fighting styles and strengths.

Like Bird, Mod uses LINE to sell their wildfowl domestically and internationally, shipping them in wooden crates to Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia. She sees foreign buyers as an important way to grow her business.

A wide view of the chicken-covered pen at Bird's Farm with a farm worker in an orange shirt feeding birds housed under domed cages
A farm hand feeds the roosters at Bird’s Farm. The small breeders who buy his birds are hoping for a genetic payoff [Mailee Osten-Tan/Al Jazeera]
Mod sits among the other rooster owners waiting to mate their birds for a fight
Mod sits among the other rooster owners waiting to mate their birds for a fight. It is rare to see women in cockfighting [Mailee Osten-Tan/Al Jazeera]

Breeding as a new financial opportunity has led to constant demographic change in the sport. Cockfighting not only attracts more low-income opportunists or women like Mod, but also social media-savvy marketers.

In Bangkok, businessman Thongprasert Luengsupapit has been breeding a handful of game birds for two years.

From an enclosure behind his hardware store, he films YouTube videos to offer troubleshooting advice to other small growers. The pandemic may have slowed the gambling side of the industry, but Thongprasert believes the financial instability has contributed to increased interest in wildfowl farming.

Low-income households were hit hardest by pandemic-related losses, with about 50 percent of agricultural activities and non-agricultural businesses losing more than half their income. As of mid-2020, Thongprasert’s YouTube channel has gained more than 10,000 subscribers.

dirty work

Mod’s business may be booming today, but it hasn’t always been supported. Not least from her mother, who initially feared that the industry would not offer a stable income.

“In the beginning my mother didn’t like this job for me; It’s new in Thai society for women to raise fighting chickens,” she said.

Bird holding Trickster, the winner of a 70.2 million THB bout in January 2022
Bird features his award-winning fighter, Trickster, winner of a $2 million fight in January [Mailee Osten-Tan/Al Jazeera]

The reputation of the blood sport, the mostly male audience and the initial costs of starting a business mean it’s still rare for women to enter the industry.

“People generally look down on women who come into work environments with a lot of men. But people are becoming more accepting,” Mod said.

Bussarin Choeybanditthakul, who has been raising birds for 29 years and turned down a 20 million Thai baht ($57,800) offer for one of her Thai breed birds in 2018, noted that aviculture can be a good way for women and men alike to make extra income, should try it first.

“There’s a lot of dirty work involved in maintaining a farm, and it’s far from a glamorous job,” she said.

Back at ringside, Mod’s bird lost an eye.

In a brief lull, Mod’s manager tends to the rooster like a Muay Thai boxer, wrapping its wings in plastic bags to keep them dry while draping a hot towel over the bird’s head. Another member of her team blows steam from a bundle of scorched lemongrass under his chest to revive it. Your efforts are in vain; In the next round, the bird ducks and runs away three times in a row, losing the fight.

A close-up of one of Bird's chickens as one member of the team cradles him in his arms and another sews up his eye
A close-up of one of Mod’s chickens as a member of the team cradles him in his arms and another sews up his eye [Mailee Osten-Tan/Al Jazeera]

Mod fails to hedge her bets in time and also loses 5,000 Thai baht and some dignity.

As she carries the bird back to her truck, she passes promotional posters for other teams with pictures of women in lingerie posing next to their top performing cocks.

Tomorrow the Mod Birds will be fighting in Chiang Mai – in a bigger stadium and with higher stakes.

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