As well as being Bali’s artistic and cultural capital, Ubud is at the centre of the island’s sumptuous fine-dining tradition. The heady mix of galleries and bistros along Monkey Forest Road are enough to while away many an afternoon, but away from its main thoroughfare you soon lose yourself amongst small rural villages and the endless patchwork of rice-fields which surrounded the town.
I took a walk one morning and after the usual combination of wrong turnings and stray dog attacks chanced upon a large, crowded outdoor arena. I could barely get through the adjacent road due to the hundreds of excited-looking locals arriving on the scene from all directions. My curiosity sufficiently piqued, I paid a small entry fee and cautiously made my way to its epicentre. Judging by the mood, I knew I had stumbled upon something big, an extravaganza of sorts, but what was it? My confusion must have told as a local gentleman soon approached me and informed me that this was a cockfight, and not just any cockfight, but the largest event of its type on Bali this year. It was, apparently, my lucky day.
It must be said that this type of thing is not usually to my liking, the ‘cruelty to animals’ element in particular not sitting well with my personal sensibilities. Nevertheless having already paid the entry fee and encouraged by my new friend, I decided to stick around to have a look.
I was at first struck by the size of the stadium, which seemed huge, certainly by what I had imagined cockfighting arenas to look like. It comprised a central fighting area about the size of a boxing ring with about 20 concentric rows of seats. It was filled to the brim with about 1,000 of the toughest looking Balinese I had come across during my short time on the island. A quick look around showed that although I was the only non-local, I was in good company amongst an almost entirely male audience. I was receiving a few curious stares but my novelty soon wore off and I positioned myself ringside to snap away like the wide-eyed tourist that I was.
The fights themselves were enormously short-lived, lasting until one of the cocks (razor-sharp knife tied to its claw) inflicted a killer blow on its opponent. Although the rules appeared as simple as ‘dead cock loses’, later research taught me that there were in fact subtleties to the ‘sport’ which went far beyond my understanding. I was nevertheless, completely dumbfounded by the frenzy of betting which preceded each fight. For about a minute, the stadium erupted into a mad flurry of hand signals, like dealers at the opening of the Stock Exchange, accompanied by a deafening cacophony of screams and shouts. When the fight began, the crowd went deadly silent – their faces contorted and their bodies writhing with tension at every flutter of feathers. Within seconds, a cock would be lying on its side and all bets were settled with the strictest civility, rolled up wads of money thrown across the arena without a word of complaint.
The losing cocks were plucked at ringside and served with rice at one of the many food stalls which surrounded the arena. I learnt later that cockfighting, as well as all gambling activities were illegal in Indonesia; a law which is rarely enforced as the fights have special cultural and religious significance to the Balinese people. That said, there was certainly a ‘den of iniquity’ feel to the place and the surrounding area was rife with all sorts of illicit activities. I beat a hasty retreat after a full round of fights, returning to the safety of Ubud just in time for a slap-up lunch at one of its many first-class restaurants.
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