Super Subcultures

Betting Behind Buddha’s Back

In the devout Buddhist city of Chiang Mai, gambling, alcohol and greed are strictly frowned upon, and a booze-soaked racetrack is the most popular place in town.

Betting Behind Buddha’s Back

The first thing I notice is that no one around is wearing a Jatukam Ramathep amulet—the popular necklace that is made out of items taken from Buddhist temples and which grants good luck to the wearer, warding off evil spirits. In this location, one needs as much luck as one can muster. The odds are often not in your favor. The military constantly monitors the situation. Dozens of grim-faced MPs patrol the grounds in slim olive-green uniforms, side arms nestled in black leather holsters. This is their land, literally. And one can assume that the events of the day are somewhat influenced by the Army General who governs the facility.

I finally spot one man wearing an amulet; the religious relic is attached to a string of prayer beads that sways on his chest with every step. I approach him and start a conversation. His name is Jam. He looks to be in his early thirties. Seemingly self-inflicted scars protrude ladder-like on his forearms.

A horse-racing enthusiast cheers during a race.
A horse-racing enthusiast cheers during a race.
A gambler inspects racehorses prior to a race.
A gambler inspects racehorses prior to a race.

“This monk, his name is Som Det. He is a popular monk in Thailand,” Jam slurs while pointing to his amulet. “He is like the Thai Michael Jackson.” He appears to be inebriated, and his English is on par with my Thai (not great). Our banter is filled with pauses, bewilderment and general disarray. We stumble through a series of half-sentences, awkward pauses and head scratching masquerading as actual conversation. Frustrated, he goes silent and looks around for a friend. A trumpet blares the call to post through the PA system.

“Do you have fifty baht?” Jam asks me. I tell him I do not. He shakes my hand and leaves, in search of fifty baht to bet on a horse in the upcoming race.

The betting and concession stable at the Nong Ho Horse Racing Track in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The betting and concession stable at the Nong Ho Horse Racing Track in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Nong Ho Horse Racing Track in Chiang Mai borders a small golf course. From the stands one can easily make out the bunkers, slopes and holes used by military brass at leisure. The facility is built on land owned by the Royal Thai Army, which provides security for the weekly contests. The track is near a shooting range, and the faint sound of gunshots can be heard if you sit in the outdoor restaurant adjacent to the racetrack.

Betting slips on a board at the Nong Ho Horse Racing Track.
Betting slips on a board at the Nong Ho Horse Racing Track.

Horse racing is the only legal form of gambling in Thailand, and hundreds of Thais from Chiang Mai province gather every weekend to place bets on comely horses guided by petite jockeys, some of whom appear to be weathered veterans, others barely out of middle school. The betting takes place in a building that looks like a giant barn, where gamblers congregate around a large screen displaying wildly fluctuating odds for each horse sprinting in each specific race. Behind the screen are betting booths where women of varying ages issue wager tickets with all the enthusiasm of sedated robots. Across the aisle reside the food vendors and alcohol merchants, their booths adorned with items that sate hunger and impair judgment.

Gamblers look at odds for the next race projected on a screen.
Gamblers look at odds for the next race projected on a screen.

94.6% of Thai citizens are practicing Buddhists, according to the CIA World Factbook. Most citizens adhere to Theravada Buddhism. The first five Theravada Buddhist precepts are general guidelines of behavior, similar to the Ten Commandments. They advise lay Buddhists to:

1. Abstain from taking the life of beings.

2. Abstain from taking what is not given.

3. Abstain from sensual misconduct.

4. Abstain from false speech.

5. Abstain from intoxicating substances that cause carelessness.

The interpretation and adherence to the precepts varies. At a horse racing track on a military golf course in a country that has a rank of 37 out of 100 on Transparency International’s global corruption index (0 being highly corrupt, 100 extremely clean), one could surmise that several of the precepts are being ignored as the baht changes hands along with cool cups of bubbling Leo Beer.

A track employee changes place cards.
A track employee changes place cards.
Horses and jockeys within the starting gates prior to a race.
Horses and jockeys within the starting gates prior to a race.

The call to post blares, and the multitude reviews their slips, fixing their attention on the track. The bells sound and across the golf course several galloping figures are seen racing towards the opposite end of the track. Scores of men and women descend from the stands and rim the white metal fence that boarders the southern edge of the field. A cacophony of cheers erupts from the crowd and mixes with the rapidly approaching thump of forty hooves pounding sand.

The contestants whiz by, some jockeys furiously whipping more speed from their horses, others oddly just cruising along, seemingly content with their place in the mobile scrum. Seconds later the winners pass by the finish line. A woman who appears to be in her mid forties, dressed in worn capris and a blue polo shirt, turns and issues a tirade of displeasure towards me. In a mix of Thai, hand gestures and English she explains her belief that the rider of the horse she bet on was intentionally slowing down as he approached the finish line. At the end of the monologue she waives goodbye and returns to the barn, presumably to place a bet on a more dedicated mount.

A jockey and his horse are paraded in front of the audience.
A jockey and his horse are paraded in front of the audience.
A military policeman keeps spectators away from the starting gates prior to a race.
A military policeman keeps spectators away from the starting gates prior to a race.
A jockey and his horse are paraded in front of the spectators.
A jockey and his horse are paraded in front of the spectators.
Discarded betting slips sit on the bleachers.
Discarded betting slips sit on the bleachers.

The races run every hour, so the pause in between the action is filled with patrons drinking beer, examining racing forms, conversing and consuming simple yet flavorful plates of pad kra pao moo (a northern Thai dish made from rice, basil and minced pork). Eventually the horses are led out to the track and paraded in front of the spectators. Handlers in tan uniforms tug at the reigns of the muscular equines who froth at the bit, tossing their manes and occasionally stomping their hooves in the sand. They are led one-by-one to the other side of the track and nearly twenty minutes later the call to post blares once again, causing a cessation of anticipation and the advent of excitement among gamblers making wagers behind the back of Buddha.

The owner of the horse that won the last race of the day displays his trophy.
The owner of the horse that won the last race of the day displays his trophy.