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Driving around Samui, you’ll often see men on scooters steering with one hand and carrying a covered birdcage in the other hand. Inside the cage is a prized possession – a red-whiskered bulbul, used in traditional Thai bird-singing competitions.
On Samui, competitions are held every Tuesday and Saturday at 11:00. It’s not advertised, it’s not aimed at tourists, and if you don’t know where it is, you’ll not find it.
The competitions are held down what is known locally as “Ghost Road”, the road that links Bang Rak to Chaweng. Coming from Bang Rak, turn into Ghost Road opposite Dae Tong Resort, between a light blue bank and a 7-eleven. Continue about three kilometres down this road until you get to a four-way stop with another 7-eleven on your right. Keep straight, crossing the four-way stop, and a few hundred metres on, after a bend you’ll see an open field with a metal grid-type structure, and a wooden sala with a few chairs.
As competitors and their owners arrive, the birds are kept in their ornate bamboo cages with brightly-coloured fabric covers. When they’re ready, the covers are removed and the cages are hung onto hooks suspended around three metres high on the metal grid.
For these weekly competitions, expect around 150 birds, but for the main annual one, usually held the beginning of March, competitors arrive from the mainland too and numbers climb to 400. Owners pay 200 baht to enter their birds; trophies and prize money are presented at the end of the competition, and it’s not uncommon for some friendly betting to take place too. Birds are usually bred in captivity, but occasionally caught in the forest too.
According to the owner of the competition site, a bird can cost anywhere from 10,000 baht up to one million baht for a winner. With prize money for the weekly events being around 3,000 baht, that tells you there must be either status involved, or the friendly betting is quite profitable.
While we’re not big fans of birds in cages, we were assured that the birds are well taken care of, and some men jokingly said that they looked after them better than their wives – as the wives spend their money but the birds make them money. The birds certainly did look healthy.
After some research, we discovered that as the red-whiskered bulbul is an endangered species, so owners need a permit to keep them — in theory, although in practice this is often not the case. Numbers in the wild are also dwindling due to the practice of many households in Thailand keeping them in the small ornate cages as pets, and there’s an increasing number being caught in the wild for this purpose.
On our visit, as the bell rang for the competition to start, some owners whistled and flapped arms about to encourage their birds to respond with song. Each bird is given 20 seconds to show the four judges what they’ve got. They first spread their wings and lower their heads while ruffling their feathers and shaking their bodies from side to side. Birds are judged on how well they sing, variation of tune and stamina – the judges literally count how many times they chirp in their time slot. The judges take their task seriously and birds are eliminated as the group is narrowed down. Little slips of paper hang under each cage where judges write the scores.
The time-keeping was interesting: a small silver bowl with a hole in the bottom is placed on the surface of the water in a large glass jar. It takes exactly 20 seconds for the bowl to fill with water, and as soon as it’s full, it sinks to the bottom of the glass jar and the timekeeper rings the bell.
We were told that birds need to be happy to sing, so tropical fruit is presented to them in their cages and apparently birds will only sing when the sun is shining, so competition is off when the rain comes. A little further research brought to light the fact that when birds are hung in cages right next to each other, they are also singing to fiercely protect their territory.
If you’re sick of the tourist traps and after a little Thai culture on your visit to Samui, perhaps a visit down the Ghost Road on a Tuesday or Saturday is in order. Just remember to take other Thai customs into account: dress politely and wai the locals. Don’t step over the line once the competitions starts, and of course, ask before taking photos.
As heartbreaking as it is to see birds in small cages, one is torn between accepting some things as tradition and the need for conservation. The birds are not harmed and are well cared for, but there’s no doubt they would be happier in the forest.
The bird-singing competition has a website, and although it’s in Thai, there are several video clips as well as photos to browse.
By Rosanne Turner
Last updated on 9th March, 2015.