Dom Joly: Cambodia in grip of grim games

Weird World of Sport: Cock-fighting is weird. Why have cocks been chosen as opposed to ducks or swans?

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I am in Cambodia doing "research" for a book I'm writing about my passion for travel to dodgy places. I'm visiting "The Killing Fields" tomorrow and today, I'm bizarrely off to see a man who is selling Pol Pot's shoes and loo. I've had my fill of dark depressing subjects in the last week or so and I decided to have a little look at the world of Cambodian sport.

The truth is it's a pretty minimalist area. They do play football here but they are spectacularly bad - so bad that most people support foreign teams. Their national football team was supposed to go to the Beijing Olympics but, according to rumours, the powers that be used the tickets to send their families there on a jolly.

The only real sport of any consequence here is kick-boxing. I know this sport as Thai kick-boxing but call it that here only if you want to lose your teeth. Here it's Cambodian kic-boxing, but it is exactly the same. Bouts are shown regularly on TV and the gambling is intense.

It's weird that in a country that has seen so much terrible violence in the last 50 years something violent like kick-boxing would be of such mass appeal. Violence, however, seems to be something that goes deep into the national psyche. The legendary French explorer of Indochina, Henri Mouhot wrote: "Cambodians appear only to have known how to destroy, never to reconstruct." He was obviously referring to their military history but it seems to apply to their sports as well.

While I was visiting one of the extraordinary temples that dot the countryside around the town of Siem Reap, I came across some amazing bas-reliefs on one temple called The Bayon. These bas-reliefs showed in some detail what Khmers, some 800 years ago, got up to for fun. Among others there was wrestling, hunting and elephant- and cock-fighting.

Wrestling, despite it's innate campness (something I've already written about having seen Greco-Roman wrestling at the Olympics and then received much hate mail from big strong wrestlers so we won't go there again) is a fairly standard historical practice and you see it in all parts of the world on ancient illustrations. There's no beating about the jungle, it seems that a lot of men, when given the opportunity, love to strip naked and roll around on the floor scrapping – and fair play to them.

It's a moot point as to whether hunting is nowadays seen as a sport but way back then, it most definitely was. Elephant-fighting is understandable but cock-fighting, however, is a weird one. Why have cocks been chosen to fight through history as opposed to, for instance, ducks or geese or swans? It's always the poor cockerels who get blades attached to their legs and have to step into the ring. Rather embarrassingly I speak about this from some experience as, very unwillingly, I attended a cock-fight in Mexico once, where it is legal. It was while I was filming Happy Hour and the director thought it would add local "colour".

It was a deeply depressing experience. We entered through these doors that looked like they were to a dungeon and came out in a fully seated "cock-pit" complete with commentator on the PA and barely dressed conchitas serving Coronas. Hundreds of Mexican men (it was all men) were off their seats and throwing money about at a table where, what I took to be the bookies, were seated. Then a fight would start and two cocks would be brought in and rubbed up against each other while being held by their "trainers". They were then let loose and would fight rather pathetically on the dusty floor until one would go down and the winning cock would jump on him.

All the time the commentator was keeping a really monotone description going that I couldn't understand but probably went something like "And cock number one has jumped on cock number two, now cock number two has jumped on cock number one, now, great excitement as cock number one has jumped back on cock number two ... holy Pedro, is this a cock jumping and a half...."

It was depressing and left me feeling a little hollow. We didn't stay long. I've just been offered the opportunity to try another great Cambodian sport: blowing up a cow with an RPG. I gave this offer a miss but there are plenty of takers in the backpacking hostels around town.

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