There were three badminton games in progress, a man was swinging a sword, a golfer was practicing chip shots, some boys were playing soccer. and a group of Thai boxers were shadow-boxing. Because of Bangkok's oppressive heat, of course, dawn is the ideal time to exercise.
James wanted us to see one final attraction, a Siamese fish fight, but it seemed they were only held on the weekends. We would be gone by then. So we decided to hold our own. When James was a boy he had found his fighting fish by going down to the rice paddies and scooping them up in his hands. The females, which he could identify by a white mark on the fin, he returned to the water. Only the males will fight. Then he and his friends would get together and bet on the outcome. Kids in Thailand also stage cricket fights and beetle fights, and in rural areas we had seen them playing pitch-penny with washers, and wagering rubber bands, which they wore on their arms by the dozens like prized jewelry.
We did not have the time or inclination to seek out a rice paddy, so we took a taxi to the local pet store, which sold fighting fish for 25 baht ($1) each. They were easy to spot. Each required its own separate plastic Baggie, filled with a little water. The Baggies floated on top of the goldfish aquarium by the score. Had the fighting fish been turned loose, the owner told us, they would have torn each other to ribbons. They seemed harmless enough to look at, about the size of a thumb and murky brown or gray in color. We purchased nine of them, plus a Baggie of mosquito larvae to sustain their strength.
The fish customarily fight in round jars, so there is no hiding in corners. We bought two of them, plus four containers of unpurified water. While setting everything up back at the hotel, James told us to be careful not to put the fish within sight of one another, or they would mash their faces against the glass in an effort to attack. The same was true if you put one in front of a mirror. He would butt himself into submission. It was difficult to believe that this innocuous-looking little creature before me was so full of anger and aggression.
And then the battle. For the next four hours we fought these game little roughnecks. When they first faced each other in the jar, the fish literally lit up. Their dull colors immediately flushed to iridescent crimson, emerald or aquamarine. Their fins flared out as they circled. Then, finally, they attacked.
It was not as vicious as we had been led to believe. No fish was torn to ribbons. Shredded a little, perhaps, at least around the fins, which was the primary focus of attack. Sometimes one would latch onto another's gill, which seemed to be an effective hold. And often the two would become clamped in a liplock, turn upside down and fight that way for a while. When one had had enough—the fights seldom lasted more than 10 minutes—it would suddenly back off, lose all color, turning almost completely white, and swim away. Then, as had happened with the bulls, the victor would follow the vanquished around the jar without attacking. Bets were paid. The fight was history.
Two fish remained undefeated. One was a favorite of James's, a pig with fins, a blue monster the size of a big toe. The other was mine, Rama I, a green tiger with a lifetime 4-0 record. I wouldn't put him in against James's pig. One thing I had learned from watching the bulls and fish was that the big guy eventually won. He would wear down the smaller, quicker opponent with the great big heart. Every time.
James took his monster home with him. I had a feeling that it would make the rounds that weekend at the local fish-fighting hangout. We flushed the losers down the toilet with enough mosquito larvae to sustain them, if they were lucky, for months. As for Rama I, I put him in a jar, took a taxi to the klong and dropped him in beside a water hyacinth. It was only fair. Like the great Thai boxer, Nai Khanom Tom, the man who had defeated 10 Burmese, that fish had earned its freedom. Thailand, after all, means "land of the free."