On the outskirts of Battambang in Cambodia’s rural northwest, in the dust-green smear of a rice field, below the shadow of a solitary sdao tree, a group of men are fixated on the northwest sky. Black plastic walkie-talkies squawk in their hands; bursts of urgent, intense Khmer drilling into ears like old leather. The dry dirt shatters beneath their feet as they pace through the parched patch of shade, eyes fixed on clouds as blue and swollen as a bruise. The still air stirs in the afternoon heat. The men stop and rattle off rapid-fire commands into their radios. The wind is rising.
These men are just a handful of ‘the rain gamblers of Battambang’, a sizeable group of punters who partake in a tradition widely believed to have come to Cambodia with the swelling ethnic Chinese population. Although wagering on the weather is widespread in the sprawling capital of Phnom Penh, it is in Cambodia’s second-largest city that the sport has spilled out of the backrooms and basements and into the public eye. While the stakes differ according to what players can afford to pay, it is not unheard of for tens of thousands of dollars to be won or lost in the space of an afternoon squall. Illegal under Cambodia’s anti-gambling laws, the pastime nonetheless attracts a committed following of bettors, bookies and budding meteorologists.
From his stall in the streets behind Battambang’s old shopping mall, ‘Mr Noh’ (he declined to give his first name for security reasons) squats among the rubble of dissected bicycles and listens to the radio. Unable to leave his repair shop, Noh has nonetheless gambled on the wet season rains for almost five years. First introduced to his fellow weather watchers through a friend involved with a local bookie, Noh tells us that rain gambling is a notoriously wary industry – trust, once lost, is rarely recovered.
“When you don’t know each other, when you want to buy and sell the rain, you have to put the money first – you buy in cash,” he says. “Later, you don’t have to buy in cash – you just use the radio transceiver.”
While details can differ, each day is traditionally divided into three parts: 6am to noon, noon to 2pm and 2pm to 6am. Like the stock market, bettors ‘buy’ or ‘sell’ the rain in a given period, staking their money on clear skies or showers. The early slot is where the real money can be made – in the wet season, afternoon rains are all too common. For those looking to up the stakes, bets can be made on the precise location and time of the rain – down to the hour, if you are feeling lucky. Every few minutes, the changing odds are broadcast across the city on a network of handheld radios as the bookies assess the changing sky.
Noh says that people spend anywhere between $100 and $1,000 on a “piece” of rain in a period, with returns determined by the judgment of the broker and their rain-scouts – $15-$20 being fairly standard for an afternoon bet. Betting on dry weather is riskier, but carries a far greater rate of return. Asked how many people in Battambang were betting on the rain, Noh shrugs. “Many hundreds of people,” he says. “Thousands.”
One of Noh’s friends pulls up on his moto. A fellow gambler, he is finding it more and more difficult to sustain himself betting on rain that never comes. “Climate change is making it hard to bet,” he grumbled. “The wet season now seems to be the dry season as well.”
The effect of Cambodia’s years of drought are all too clear in the fields around Battambang. The previous night’s pre-dawn rains have left little trace in the fractured soil. The only shade comes from the sagging trees and faded wooden shelters rising from the rice paddies. Beneath almost every tree, huddled among the wooden struts of dried-out huts and on the roofs of bare construction works, rain-gamblers gather by the dozen to seek their fortune. Wary of outsiders, most groups fall silent as we approach. One mob, grinning beneath the gathering clouds, welcomed us into their number. From April to November, they tell us, most of these men can be seen out in the field from the early hours of morning until sunset, their living staked on each day’s success.
‘Mr Oun’ (he also declines to give his name), a grizzled man past his middle years with white stubble and a clump of longer strands spilling from beneath his lip, has been betting on the rain for more than 30 years.
“It’s kind of my heritage,” he says.
He says he knows men who have lost upwards of $50,000 on bad bets. Oun is unsympathetic – for him, rain gambling is no mere game of chance, but a test of just how well you can read the signs written in the heavens.
“If you are clever enough, you can be a winner,” he says. “It all depends on your eye – and your brain.”
Gesturing to a run-down group of buildings on the way back into town, Oun explains that the rain-broker (he uses a Khmer term for “shop-keeper”) is stationed somewhere within those walls, her precise location a closely guarded secret from outsiders. On the roof, a sheaf of papers serves as the critical test of precipitation: after a strong shower, the papers are lifted by their edge and twirled gently through the air. If the rain has soaked through enough for drops to fall, a lot of people in the surrounding fields stand to become wealthy men – or lose everything.
In the city’s Boeung Chhouk Market, a well-dressed man running a jewellery store is undaunted by our curiosity. Behind him, a network of radios maintain a running commentary on the sky’s changing moods.
“Sometimes I’ve lost $1,000,” he says. “Sometimes I win $3,000; sometimes I win $5,000.”
The man, who gives his name as Chhuk Mien, tells us that experienced players learn how to make the rapidly changing rates work in their favour – and how to tell when the odds are stacked against them.
“We bet just like in boxing,” he says. “Sometimes one is weaker, sometimes one is stronger, so we just bet the money that reflects that.”
Beaming, he brings out an iPad and fires up a weather radar app. The blue patterns on the screen shift with the beat of the refresh button, showing a fierce storm front streaming towards Battambang. Although this may seem unsporting, Mien maintains that such technology – widely employed among more prosperous gamblers – only serves as a guide, not a replacement for years of experience.
“There is a plan we can check on the iPad,” he says. “We can check if it’s going to rain or not. You cannot believe everything you see on this, but it’s helpful when you’re indoors – you can go out later and check it yourself.”
When asked whether he is worried about being caught by the police, the jeweller laughs. “We pay monthly,” he says. “In one month [we must keep aside] $30 to pay for the police.”
Back in the rice fields, the first drops of rain are spattering the sdao tree’s bitter leaves. In just minutes, the drizzle has sputtered out. It is not enough. Scowling, the men spit instructions into their walkie-talkies, their eyes never leaving the brightening skies.