Part II of this article, involves going to see live Gwang Chon beetle battles, complete with video: Underground Gambling, Beetle Fights, Heart and the Clinch of Muay Thai
On the route home from breakfast this morning we passed by the same familiar fruit and vegetable stalls that we spent 2.5 years living above, here in Chiang Mai. I’d walked this street a million times, seen these exact stalls a million times, but only remember ever seeing the Rhinoceros Beetles tied to bamboo sticks once before. How do you not notice that?
They are seasonal. When I asked the new trainer at Lanna Muay Thai, named Gan, whether these beetles are available year round he frowned and said, “no, only one month or two months per year.” So you have to get your beetle fix “in season,” the same way Thais fill up on Durian fruit like mad for the short 1-2 month season when it’s best each year. Get your beetles while they’re hot.
So why are these Rhinoceros Beetles sold on bamboo, tethered by their horns, next to a fruit stall? Because they’re ready for battle. Only the male beetles have horns, so you’re buying some ready-to-fight bros. I knew you fought them, but I had no idea how it worked; so I walked over to Lanna and asked Nook – the man who would know all about this as he’s the best gambler at the gym, frequenting the horse races every weekend and knowing the ins and outs of betting on Thai fights locally – what was up with the beetles.
The beetles are called “gwang” in Thai and when you fight them it’s called “gwang chon,” which is appropriate because “chon” means to clash or crash (กว่างชน). I asked him if it was something you do at home when you’re bored – a gwang only costs 20 Baht ($0.75), so I reckon it’s not a huge investment – or if it’s something you do with friends. That was a stupid question, really. In Thailand everything is done with friends and in social groups, so gwang chon is quite an event with gambling and everything. I asked how a battle was won, how do you know when a bout is over? Nook looked into the distance and said in his kind of pitchy, cracking voice, “mai su,” which is said for Muay Thai as well. It means you can’t, or better, won’t fight; when one gwang won’t fight anymore or walks away, it’s over.
This is where the connection to Muay Thai really first struck me. Of course the gambling is similar and many have noted strong similarities between cockfighting and Muay, but this particular connection between beetles and nakmuay, especially clinch fighting nakmuay (of which I am one) was striking. It really became the most evident when Gan invited me up onto the porch to watch a gwang chon on Youtube, to see how it works. Here’s the video he showed me:
First off, the sound of the men watching the match is exactly like watching cockfighting or Muay. In fact, as boring as two struggling beetles might seem, listening to them instinctively pulled me into this match. It’s some exciting stuff, if you feel it, just like a clinch fight. Second, you can see the hands of the “handlers” of these gwang as they play little instruments to agitate and egg on the two beetles, making a rattling sound on the right and a stick clicking against the log on the left. This is totally like the music played during Muay Thai matches, which, when it’s live and not recorded is meant to urge on the fighters when they pick up the pace. Fighters respond to the music (and the gamblers), so do beetles. I learned they always fight on a log like this and inside a chamber within the log (or rubberbanded to it in another video I saw) is a female beetle, over which this battle is really being fought. In Muay Thai that motive would be the side bet, rather than stashing a hot chick under the ring.
Here’s where the similarities started to mount. As Gan explained a bit about the fights while we watched on the screen of his cell phone, the rounds aren’t really timed. In cockfighting each round is 20 minutes; in Muay it’s 2 or 3 minutes; but with gwang chon the round starts by putting the beetles on their marks (seen in the video as black dots) and once they lock up the round is on. Gan said, “it’s one clinch. If they stop the round stops and when they clinch again, new round.” Obviously not brief breaks, but it’s basically one long clinch round until one beetle breaks or moves away, showing lack of heart, and then they reset to another long clinch round. It’s all clinch. Why this is exciting to me is because it demonstrates in pure animal form how the clinch is viewed by gamblers watching Muay. You can see (and feel) the excitement when there’s a surge of strength from one gwang and he lifts his adversary into the air for a moment or backs him up – I can see such parallel in Muay Thai clinch fights!
What was most telling and such a great example is how this fight ends, which is when the beetle on the right side submits and gives up. Mai su. He turns his back and walks away; when the beetles are placed back on their marks and lock again, he once again gives in after a short time and you hear the squeal of disappointment from the handler who just lost. This is so huge for Muay in Thailand and something that is clearly not appreciated by the Muay of non-Thais. Turning your back in a fight is so bad and can not only make you look terrible to the judges and gamblers, but also can cause a fight to be stopped because the message you’re sending (whether or not you realize it) is that you can’t or won’t fight: mai su. I’ve seen this so many times from westerners and I know that it’s practically invisible to western viewers (as well as the men who are doing it; they’re not self-aware of it), but it’s a very strong signal here. And you can see that it crosses over from Muay to cockfighting to dog fighting to gwang chon. Animals don’t throw in the towel or tell you, “put me in coach, I can do it!” They either fight or they don’t and turning one’s back is universally understood in the animal kingdom as being a forfeit – watching this match, you know that little insect man is done. His foe can have the lady inside the wood somewhere. And certainly it would be in vain to try to force this beetle to fight after he’s already shown he’s done. Keep setting him up on that spot and he’ll keep walking away. This is exactly why you cannot force fighters who don’t want to fight if they don’t have heart; they may be set up on that starting mark more times than is necessary but eventually you just cannot force a fight out of someone who doesn’t want to fight – and you’ll lose a shit-ton of money doing so.
I asked Gan how popular this kind of activity is with the beetles. He said it’s very popular but only up in the north, in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Other areas don’t have gwang because they’re regional. I made a joke that at 20 Baht they’re cheaper than chickens (there are entire cockfighting magazines with famous chickens and breeders, some chickens selling for as much as a million baht!) and Gan tisked me. “No,” he said, “if play (gamble) with the mafia one gwang can be 5,000 Baht, 7,000 Baht.” ($140-195 for a beetle.) I was shocked, though I shouldn’t be. Gambling with the mafia is huge money sometimes on seemingly tiny things. But certainly the 20 Baht beetles we saw tied to the bamboo are not the mafia type. They’re for the common folk who are getting together to have some fun with friends. In fact, Gan pointed to his 12-year-old son and said that he’d previously been really into gwang chon; maybe a little too much.
This beetle wrestling is so popular up north that there’s an annual festival, held in September, that is pretty much devoted entirely to gwang chon. Folks bring their best beetles for competition and I’m sure the stakes are high, lots of money being gambled. At the end of the fight the winning beetle is rewarded with the female gwang that has been stashed inside the wood, her pheromones inciting the champions in their battle. So, I imagine the winner is quite happy in the end.
I found an article on the gwang chon of the north, including some rules posted at one of the bigger events of the year. The author points out that these events are very serious, as farmers can earn more from the gambling in one season than from a whole year of farming. One farmer in the article, whose beetle is named Shrek, brings him to the temple to be blessed before the fights that night – same as a nakmuay. Here are the rules from the article:
Rules of engagement are posted on the wall above the fighting ring. “No weapons allowed,” states rule number one, though I can’t see any connection it has to the fighting beetles. Rule two warns that if the bug handlers attack each other with their vibrating files- which they use to vibrate the log to stimulate the beetles into fighting- they’ll each be fined 3,000 baht, nearly a month’s salary for most of these farmers.
Rule three – now we are getting back on point – says the beetle is deemed a winner only when it lifts up its opponent with its pincers and throws it off the log. But if a bug retreats, the beetle-handlers are allowed to expose the female only three times, for inspiration.
I love the first two rules being for conduct of the handlers. There’s also a huge “no guns” sign at the gate of Thepprasit Stadium in Pattaya – if there’s lots of money being gambled and drinks flowing, certainly it’s a good rule to have as the first rule. Not stabbing each other with the prodding sticks is also well advised.
We went and bought a beetle in order to have a physical example while asking Gan more about them. When I stood there looking at the selection I had no idea what to look for and all the beetles were asleep from the afternoon heat, so I couldn’t even go after the most active one. Or, I didn’t know how to test them. So I just picked one that seemed okay and the fruit vendor who was selling them seemed quite surprised to be selling one to a westerner. Indeed, on the walk back to the gym the next stall all gawked and made exclamations about this falang walking with a beetle, so I said, “gwang chon, gwang chon,” just to let them know I knew what it was. The lady who was the most vocal gave me a huge smile and repeated it back to me. I just hope they didn’t think I was going to eat it or something. But walking down the street with this little guy in tow was kind of amazing; like, people know you’re off to try to make some money.
I asked Gan to come explain some beetle stuff to me and immediately upon handing him the gwang he knew just how to wake him up. He pulled one of the support sticks out of the bamboo and started tapping, which agitated the beetle right away. He prodded him with the stick a bit and got him to wrestle it lightly, then hung him off the side by the string and let him swing a bit, like he could fly if he wanted to. “He want to fight,” Gan said, which was promising. So I asked how you pick a beetle when you see them being sold. Gan said you look at the horns first because that’s how they fight. You want the bottom horn to be long, which he compared to a Muay Thai fighter having a good kick – long range first. Then you want them to be strong because once they clinch up, you want the beetle to be like a good Muay clincher and go directly in, “not outside, around,” Gan said, which I think means like a fighter who knees straight and grabs inside position; the insect version of that. You can see my conversation with Gan here, below:
I asked where you buy the lady beetles and he said you can buy them with the males, usually. He said before a gwang chon match you have to let the male beetle “kiss” the female beetle, make sure he likes her and make him stronger for the match. If he doesn’t have contact first, he won’t fight as hard. I also asked if they’re always sold on bamboo like this and he said it depends on the price. Sometimes they’re sold on banana tree (pretty similar to bamboo in effect, but maybe they can eat it?) and the really expensive ones are sold with honey, which gives them energy. On the street, he said, you can sell really good beetles for 300 Baht: good horns, big size… that kind of thing. Gan’s son spends all weekend looking for gwang around the farm he lives on, which, I would do too if I could get 300 Baht off of a big one ($10). But Gan doesn’t want his son to do this because it’s dangerous to be poking around the areas of a farm where you might find gwang – banana groves, bamboo stalks, wood piles, etc. There are poisonous snakes in those areas, too. It’s dangerous.
I’m not sure what kind of promises the sellers are making when selling a beetle, because you don’t generally buy beetles that are already fighters. They’re life cycle isn’t crazy long and if you have a winning beetle your incentive to sell it is pretty low unless you’ve got one of those 5,000 Baht mafia beetles. So I asked Gan about how many fights a gwang might have. I’ve heard that with chickens, once a chicken loses you don’t really keep fighting it. He said it’s the same with the beetles. If your beetle wins, you can fight him again until he starts losing. Even a beetle that loses can fight again, but generally once it shows it doesn’t have heart (turning away, quitting), you don’t want to invest in that beetle’s fights anymore. I suggested it was like a “knock” Muay Thai tournament, where once you lose you’re no longer in the running, versus a “marathon” tournament where you can still take second, third or fourth place. He got a huge smile and laughed and said it’s exactly like this. In fact, Gan seemed most excited by answering my questions when he was comparing it directly to Muay fighters. “Like a good kicker,” or how well they clinch. They’re not similar in his mind, they’re the same. And I think that’s true for many gamblers – the ethic is the same; how a beetle shows heart is exactly the same as how a human nakmuay shows heart. Except we can lose and fight again, provided the heart is not in question.
Here I bought my Battle Beetle on the soi, just part of the regular daily market (below):
Here I am just after taking to Gan about Kwang Chon. I name my bettle Kem (below):
When I first got my beetle Kem it was going to be just for this interview, and I was going let him go afterwards. But we kept him in our room that night as I had heard that I could go watch beetle fights the next night with Nook, one of my favorite Muay Thai men in all the world. (Kevin wrote about Nook along with Pi Dam in Real Men of Muay Thai). It turns out that when you have a beetle in your hands everyone assumes you want to fight him – just like they assume that if you train hard in Muay Thai, you want to fight. So momentum was building to go and get Kem a fight. But more than that, keeping Kem in our room we started getting attached to him. At night you can hear him loudly crunching on his bamboo, and he definitely had a presence. Part II of this piece is about our night trying to find Kem a fight in the “illegal” gambling spots around Chiang Mai, the next night, and more about the things I learned about Muay Thai through these beetles.
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