The energy shifted to a sudden high as soon as we heard the announcer yell “Larga! (Lets go!)”. Mixed screams of “Meron (Have)” and “Wala (None)” filled the crudely made cockfighting arena as spectators placed their bets. While all the betting is happening, the handlers coax their cocks to anger by letting their the battling cocks peck each other before releasing them. Welcome to the world of Sabong (Philippine Cockfight) found at Lio El Nido (Villa Libertad) in the paradise destination of El Nido Palawan.
Lio, The Gambling Capital of El Nido
Mainly known for its airport, Lio is also known for its active cockfight scene and numerous gambling practices. As soon as I arrived, many were playing card games like “Tong-Its” or the toss coins. But the main show has always been the cockfight. As 2pm approaches, vendors prepare their stands for hungry spectators or gamblers. One by one owners from different part of El Nido would arrive with their game fowls.
One look at their game fowls and I could tell the owners invested a lot on their care to deliver that lightning speed win in every match. I noticed how shiny their feathers were and their strong stances. I met A. with his cock named “Gold”. His cock was the big winner a day ago getting the victory unscathed. Many are still betting Gold would win. He told me care for their fighting cocks are much more expensive than what people would eat everyday. He would give oranges as well days before a match.
Before a match would start, owners would gather and size up their cocks. It’s an amusing sequence of antagonizing and coaxing for match. Cocks are paired depending on their size, wingspan, beak size, weight and gameness are some of the factors. The fighting cocks should be an equal match.
The Tari Blade
Once decided on a match, the game fowls are fitted with a Tari Blade usually on the left foot of the cock. Watching how the blade man ties and fits the blade is akin to how a boxer fits his gloves. Blade men have different styles on fitting the blade. If the cock they fitted a blade with wins, they get a commission. Scheming blades men and owners would sometime poison the blade to easily immobilize the opponent.
Inside and Outside Bets
This is where it gets complicated a bit for me, figuring out how the system works. I learned there is an inside and outside bets happening. At the Ruweda (cockpit) the Casador (game manager) and the cock owners would agree on a particular amount of bet for the winning cock. The owners and their cocks are assigned a side “Meron” or “Wala“, when they have agreed on the bet amount, the Kristos (betting managers) would rally up the crowd for bets. It’s a deafening sequence of spectators yelling “Meron o Wala” and the Kristos can communicate by hand signals with his fellow Kristos. What is amazing is that they can memorize the people and their bet amounts. When the bets have equalled or surpassed the amount the cock owners agreed it was when the Casador would yell “Larga Na!“. Kritos usually earn commission when the bettor wins.
That was the outside bets where the winners will either just win or loose. The winners would usually double their money or loose it. There’s also a bet on the odds where the bettor would win and additional amount or deducted if lost but still would take home some cash. The lowest bets in Lio was around P500. I saw a foreign businessman there betting from Php10,000 – Php 20,000. In a shrug he lost all of those in a day.
Once ready, the owners or handlers would give their cocks time on the floor so the bettors could examine both fighting cocks to bet accordingly. Before releasing the cocks, the “Sentensyador (referee)” would unsheathe the Tari blades and would wipe them with alcohol, a precaution in case there was poison on the blade.
Once the game fowls get close everything happens very fast. Feathers would fly, dust rises in the air, the screams get louder and blood could spatter all in seconds or minutes. When the noise from the spectator dies down a bit and the cocks are almost at their limits, the Sentensyador would grab them and get them close. It they still can peck each other, he would release them again. If only one cock can peck at least twice then that would be the winner.
A. did place his cock, Gold in a match and won again but this time with an injury to Gold. I saw Gold bleeding heavily on the legs, but that is something that can still be remedied. For the loosing end, the defeated cock owner not only looses his monetary bet but his dead fowl are now also owned by the winner which would most likely end up as Tinola (A Chicken Stew dish).
I’m not really a fan of gambling or cockfights with its brutal treatment to animals but the Sabong is popular Filipino pass time especially in the provinces. I think this rural arena is a good showcase of Filipino culture and El Nido, known for its stunning limestones and beaches is not exempted. I can’t blame the locals for gambling here. A lot of them earn a minimum wage and participating in this cultural game would give them higher chance to earn more within a day from what they would earn in a half a month’s salary.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.