Battling Beetles: A Northern Thai Tradition

Thai rhinoceros beetle fighting is an ancient Northern Thai tradition and although its popularity is in decline it still has its enthusiasts.

By | Wed 1 Nov 2017

This is the time of the year when the sounds of small ridged sticks rubbing against logs of wood used to be heard emanating from back yards throughout the north of Thailand. The familiar sounds would be interspersed with the roar of a crowd and was ubiquitous and easily identified in days past. But times have changed and its gentle echoes and resounding cheers have faded…along with any recognition with, and familiarity of the sounds.

But if you know where to look, you may still come across this scene, found only in our small corner of the world: men of all ages squatting on the floor in dirty flip flops, dark heads huddled together, focused on a Lilliputian fight as they jeer and cheer. Shots of moonshine as well as weathered and rugged baht notes pass from hand to hand as everyone oscillates between holding their breath, sighing and shouting in unison. Occasionally the silence would be pierced by a soft shriek; this is the agonised sound of a beetle being pincered. A good fighter will pincer back and both beetles would be momentarily still, locked in mortal combat, or at least a very powerful headlock. Seconds later, a horn snaps in two and with one last final shriek the defeated beetle makes a hasty retreat back into the hand of its owner. The men cheer and chink glasses in congratulations bahts won and another pair of fighters is prepped to enter the stage. This is the world of Thai rhinoceros beetle fighting, an ancient Northern Thai tradition. Although numbers are dwindling — in both beetles and interest — there are a few who are dedicated to keeping the tradition alive and since ‘tis the season, Citylife decided to take a look at this controversial and unique tradition which has long been a part of the north of Thailand’s cultural fabric.

Lanna’s Xylotrupes
To many in Thailand, the sight of a Thai rhinoceros beetle, locally known as kwaang, is familiar, often seen in school boys’ top pockets. Kids across the north who happen across a kwaang were the lucky ones and would rush to show off their finds to their friends before a teacher would spot the bug and snatch it away, throwing it into a bush. As boys grow older their interest fades, but for a select few the obsession remains, and as these boys step into adulthood they join the small ranks of beetle fighting fans who trade, breed and gamble their treasured insects.

“All you need is a strong male with long horns and a bit of good luck.”

Recognisable by the large horns protruding from their heads, the male rhinoceros beetle comes in many shapes and sizes. Growing to an average of 6cm in length, many type of beetle can be found across Asia, Africa and parts of Europe. With a pair of wings encased by a black or dark reddish brown shell with lacquer-like properties, these nocturnal insects have an adult lifespan of just a few months after a gestation period of up to five months as a grub. Purported to be one of the strongest species on earth, they can lift between 100 and 850 times their own weight and unsurprisingly pack a powerful pinch between their two horns, capable of doing some damage to a careless handler. Despite their strength, they are often docile and peaceful creatures, spending their days sleeping and eating sugary fruit. That is of course, until they catch a whiff of a potential mate.

When the female pheromones begin to arouse the male, their docile demeanours change to that of a riled up bull, lunging forward looking for a rival to butt horns with. Between August and October of every year, these beetles reach maturity and are highly driven with a desire to mate. According to Dr. Stephane Rennesson, an anthropologist working in the region, the beetles don’t fight to attract females but rather to ward off any rival that may appear during intercourse — a process that takes over an hour.

“To keep up their strength, the rhinoceros beetles need a lot of sugary food, so in the past, all one needed to do to catch one was to hang up a stick of sugarcane overnight and by the morning there would be one sitting there feasting,” explained 28 year old Warakon Thumma, one of the biggest rhinoceros beetle vendors in Chiang Mai. “Sugarcane is sweet and tough so they spend hours working out the sugary syrup in a sort of trance.”

Boxing Beetles
“Fighting beetles is not difficult,” said Sumit Utalerd, an avid rhinoceros beetle collector and competitor. “All you need is a strong male with long horns and a bit of good luck.” Beetles are matched by length, width and size of horns, and when two similar beetles are found they are brought to a log, known as the stage, where the fight will take place. As onlookers share their predictions and place bets, the owners position their fighter over a small hole carved in the stage that houses a pheromone secreting female that gets the males agitated and looking for a rival.

Using little sticks with ridges along them, the owners often ceremoniously spin the stick against the stage causing vibrations that are said to communicate a message to the beetle that its fight time. The stick is also used to control the beetle, rubbing it on the left or right legs to encourage it to turn, and spinning the stick between its two horns, moving it forward and agitating it so it is ready to fight. “If a beetle is unwilling to fight, then the fight is forfeited,” said Rennesson talking at a recent Informal Northern Thai Group talk. “That is why the ‘ceremony’ before the fight is very important — it’s like a spell.”

“Before a fight I will let my beetle drink some fresh sugarcane syrup to give it an extra burst of energy,” said 64 year old Udom Wongson at a Lampang beetle fighting event. “I also don’t let them breed until the season is over so then they fight harder. I don’t know if that’s the best way but it’s worked for me ever since I was a young boy.” Rennesson suggests that the hit of fresh sugarcane makes the beetles drunk and their trance like state keeps them fighting for longer.

The two beetles will fight on the stage until one gives up, breaks a horn or after completing 12 ‘rounds’. “A round is over each time they separate horns,” explained Sumit. “When they fight, we try to turn the log to keep them on top but if they fall off that can also counts as a round.” Sometimes, if a beetle looks as if it will back out, the owner will take it by its horns and shake it vigorously. “It helps them forget they are losing,” said Udom as he shook one of his beetles…that subsequently lost anyway. “Once a beetle loses one fight, he usually loses them all,” said Warakon. “These days we try to release them so they have a chance to breed, maintaining the population.”

Fighting a Losing Battle
Sadly, rhinoceros beetles are becoming less and less common in northern Thailand. Warakon explained that although the beetle as a species is not anywhere near extinction, in more recent years they have all but disappeared from the jungles and gardens of northern Thailand. This is widely attributed to the massive increase of pesticides used in farming, especially on longan farms. “The rhinoceros beetle lays its eggs underground after the mating season, so when farmers pour chemicals over their crops it seeps down and kills the eggs,” said Warakon. “In just the last five years, the number has dropped so much that I have had to give up on finding them here and reach out to other parts of the country where they are still more abundant.”

Another reason why the beetles in the north aren’t fairing so well is, of course, due to the beetle fighting industry. Most owners will pitch their own beetles against one another to find the strongest to fight with, eliminating any chance of breeding, while only the weaker ones are released into the wild. Sumit says that he has noticed a weakening in strength in beetles found in the north, his speculation confirmed by Warakon who contends that the past decade’s winners have almost always come from the Northeast.

“In Isaan they are still abundant as they use less chemicals as they generally grow different crops,” he explained. “They are often found around sugarcane plantations as farmers use raw sugar as fertiliser that gives the grubs a burst of energy when they are born improving their survival rates. I get most of my beetles from Chaiyaphum.”

A Growing Trade
As one of the biggest traders in rhinoceros beetles in Chiang Mai, Warakon has had to invest in a team of beetle catchers in the Northeast who source the fighting critters for him. “I have a team of about ten men who have over 100 traps each which they check every day. Once all the beetles are collected, they send them up to me. I get around 500 beetles a time, several times a week,” he said as he explained how the beetle trade has had to change over the last decade. “They sell each beetle to me for between 20 and 100 baht and I sell them onto vendors across the city who then in turn sell to their customers. The biggest markets for beetles can be found behind the flower market near Arcade Bus Station and at Kad Wua in Hang Dong.”

This new era of beetle beauty pageants has given rise to a new market that focuses on looks and perfection over strength and power.

Warakon grades his beetles from grade A to D, starting at just 40 baht for a small 5cm long beetle to as much as 350 baht for a 6.3cm beetle. “Now I use the internet to sell the beetles, posting online when I get a new shipment in,” he said. “Thanks to Facebook I can usually sell all of my beetles in just one morning, but there is a downside that has affected the whole market — now those who catch the beetles can easily see how much they can go for, they are beginning to increase their costs. Just five years ago beetles were going for as little as 5 baht a piece, now the cheapest you’ll find is 20 baht.”

Sumit is aware that the future of beetle fighting is not bright. “I started looking towards other ways to make money with beetles,” he said. “I often collect and stuff my favourites from each year so now I focus on their looks rather than their strength.”

This alternative interest has led way to more people breeding the beetles at home, however the practice remains controversial among dedicated beetle owners. “Breeding them may be good for beauty but they’ll never win a fight,” said Warakon. “The thing that makes the beetles strong is that they’ve survived the wild and become an adult, if you just pamper them in a box they are going to be weak.”

This new era of beetle beauty pageants has given rise to a new market that focuses on looks and perfection over strength and power. “When a judge looks at a beetle for beauty, they look at the height and length of their horns,” he explained as he lifted his prized beetle of the year, most recently winning him first place in the Pai Beetle Beauty Contest. “The best ones’ horns make a perfect circle if you were to join up the gap in the middle.” According to Sumit and Warakon, the best beetles, whether they are fighters or posers, can go for as much as ten thousand baht or more. “When it comes down to the big games, beetle fighting is much like football,” Sumit said. “The person with the most money can buy the biggest, strongest beetle or the most beautiful beetle and just win outright.”

A State of Class
“In the past, rhinoceros beetles were something that the masters of the households used to collect and fight,” explained Ajarn Vithi Phanichphant, an acclaimed historian and lecturer at Chiang Mai University. “It was chickens that the poor used to fight. Kwaang beetles were full of beauty, their fights were like dances. They were living pieces of art.” Much like Thai boxing, the fights used to be accompanied by traditional music which along with the vibrating sounds of sticks on logs turned the atmosphere into something quite mystical. Monks would also fight their beetles, sending their novices into the jungles to procure their fighters. With associations to the temple, the animal cruelty angle was diminished as there was no fear of karmic retribution. Often owners would release the beetles at the end of Buddhist Lent to make merit or gift them to the temples where the novice monks would take them, fight them and eventually release them. “Over time the tradition incorporated gambling — which is strictly illegal in Thailand — and became relegated to the lower ranks of society while the masters looked towards more civilised forms of entertainment,” he continued.

According to Ajarn Vithi, the etiquette that surrounded interactions between boys and girls of yesteryear made it difficult for a boy to approach a girl without the permission of her family member. “Each girl at home would be guarded by a brother, often the younger brother, who would have the say as to who was allowed to see the girl,” he explained. “To get a good queue number, as it were, you had to bribe your way in, often with a gift of a strong, valiant rhinoceros beetle.” As beetle fighting became more commonplace and society more fluid, the tradition has all but died out apart from in remote tribal villages. Today boys will just approach a girl directly, sometimes offering up his beetle for her to take without the hassle of talking with her brother first.

Although today we are a long way away from using beetles as bartering chips to flirt with girl in the village, the beetle fighting scene is still around and is still predominantly a male sport. As men welcome their children into the scene, they will support the continuation of the tradition just as they have done for centuries. “Although love is no longer a motivator, money is what still holds it all together,” laughed Ajarn Vithi. “It’s a tradition of the sticky rice people so unless they disappear I expect these unique things we do, such as beetle fighting, to last alongside.” Rennesson suggests, however, that although it is primarily for entertainment, the tradition reflects local wisdom in a way that may become harder and harder to interpret the further we move away from the origin of such traditions. The overall consensus of the dwindling community of beetle fighters and collectors is that despite fewer numbers these days, the tradition will endure. “Fewer young people are showing an interest in beetle fighting these days as it’s seen as a farmer sport,” said Udom. “A bunch of old uncles playing in a farmhouse is not as attractive to the newer generation, but in time they’ll be just like us.”