The thunder of a speeding water buffalo thrills rural Thais
The unsung hero of Asian rural economies gets its due at the races.
Chonburi, ThailandSkip to next paragraph
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Unfazed by the festive chaos of shouting and jostling, Deao contemplates it all with bovine insouciance. He flaps his Yoda ears, drools a bit, and, now and again, sneezes distractedly. A seasoned pro, he’s been through this before.
But he turns downright perky at the first sign of his qualifying round: his jockey grabbing him by the nostril rein to lead him to the start line. Shortly, at the drop of a red flag and a slap on his hindquarters, Deao bolts out of his gate – two metal street barriers positioned lengthwise. He thunders down the muddy 120-yard racetrack in a muck-splaying stampede of five other half-ton competitors.
“Buffaloes run a lot faster than they look,” notes Poramin Ekrangsi, Deao’s straw-hatted owner, a local farmer whose family has raced buffaloes longer than he can remember.
Poramin is following the races at this year’s annual Chonburi Buffalo Race – Thailand’s oldest championships in the sport – from inside a tarpaulin-roofed bamboo corral where, between rounds, the animals are cooled down in the blistering heat with bucketfuls of water.
With their laidback, wallowing ways and broad splayed hooves adapted for swamplands and rice paddies, these amphibious ungulates don’t seem designed for speed. They do leg it pretty quick, though.
Jockeys ride their buffaloes bareback, holding on for dear life. Grasping a cord lashed around the animal’s neck in one hand, wielding a twine-tipped bamboo stick in the other, they perch precariously on their galloping animal’s croup, defying gravity.
“You clamp your knees around the buffalo and try not to fall off,” explains Chan, a nimble pint-sized jockey awaiting his next ride.
A few yards away on the track one of his bare-chested colleagues is bounced off his galumphing steed and lands backside first in the mud. His riderless, careening buffalo is restrained from running into a nearby street by race helpers who throw themselves before it with the bravado of Pamplona’s bull runners. Curious spectators scatter in alarm. Past the finish line, the other four riders leap off and, scuttling beside their buffaloes, tug at a rope looped through each animal’s pierced nostrils to slow them down.
Don’t try this at home. These riders were practically born astride buffaloes.
“My father was a buffalo herder and so was his father. I became one, too,” says Chan, a native of the province. The 30-year-old has been racing buffaloes since he was 10. The two dozen jockeys like him take turns riding the hundred bulls competing today for various owners. The buffaloes, each with a number painted on shoulders, race in four age categories determined by the maturity of their lower teeth (water buffaloes naturally have no upper teeth), from 10-month-olds to 14-year-old veterans. The burliest bulls weigh more than 1,300 pounds, all of it muscle.
But back to Deao: here he comes, hooves pounding.
As in each of the dozens of races throughout the day, his round comes down to a frenetic photo finish; that is, the hundreds of cheering spectators excitedly photograph all the animals crossing the finish line. Deao – Thai for “single,” and a name he’s inherited from his thoroughbred champion father – wins by a lavender tongue tip and qualifies for the semis.
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One day, one story goes of how Chonburi’s trademark water buffalo race originated, two villagers bickering over whose buffalo could run faster challenged each other to a race. Another account has it beginning among local farmers and itinerant merchants who staged lively contests with their sturdy draft animals during market day before the rice harvest.
Either way, locals and their buffaloes have been at it for 137 years. One day every October, as the three-month Buddhist Lent comes to an end in a full moon closing out the rainy season, residents of this seaside town 70 miles southeast of Bangkok gather on the commons outside City Hall.