The thunder of a speeding water buffalo thrills rural Thais

The unsung hero of Asian rural economies gets its due at the races.

Sakchai Lalit/AP
You go, bull! Deao (center, in green) takes his jockey, Chaiwat, to the finish line. At Thailand’s annual Chonburi water buffalo races, he won his qualifying rounds but took third in the finals.

Chonburi, Thailand

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.

• • •

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.

They come to celebrate the unsung hero of the country’s traditional rural economy: Bubalus bubalis, or the water buffalo.

A draft and dairy animal once ubiquitous across the region, domesticated water buffaloes (they’re almost extinct in the wild) are mainstays of household farming in poorer communities from Burma to the Philippines.

The races aren’t the only homage this industrial province pays to the engine of its agricultural past: There’s a Miss Buffalo beauty pageant (for humans), a parade for extravagantly bedecked bovines, and various pedigree contests.

“This is our way of thanking the buffaloes for their hard labors all year round,” explains Chompoonut Aromdee, a young local woman. Today she is a kwai devi, or buffalo goddess. Costumed lavishly as a celestial nymph, she holds the spangled nostril reins of Luang, a 14-year-old, raven-black water buffalo.

Luang (meaning “yellow”) sports an enormous sequined papier-mâché headdress (appropriately yellow) bearing royal insignia. His regal parabolic horns are festooned with flowers, and he has an embroidered satin sash wrapped around his shoulders. Near him stands 7-year-old “Fang” (Thai for “straw”) dressed in a similarly extravagant outfit, down to bejeweled golden fishnets on fetlocks.

“Fang is a charmer. He’s sweet and gentle and loves to eat from my hand,” says Watchanin Janyam, Fang’s owner, a local farmer who has 16 animals entered in the various contests. Emblazoned on her shirt is the event’s cartoon buffalo mascot. “He’s also generous and always shares his drinking jar with others.”

Despite the event’s ostensible purpose of thanksgiving for labor rendered, most of the 600-plus buffaloes on parade here have never worked a day.

These superior specimens – which can sell for up to 300,000 baht ($9,000) – are far too treasured by their owners to be sullied by pulling plows and bullock carts. The buffaloes lead charmed lives, getting oiled rubdowns and other pampering.

Racing buffaloes also have their grassy diet fortified with milk-and-egg rice dishes, mashed fruits, and herbal cocktails (but no steroids or stimulants, owners insist).

Throughout the year, racing enthusiasts – a close-knit fraternity marked by their love of Thai country folk music and herding paraphernalia – arrange regular private races on farmlands and paddocks around the province. Gambling is not uncommon.

But the granddaddy of contests is this town’s October contest. The winner of each age category takes home a 10,000 baht ($300) cash prize – and heaps of bragging rights.

• • •

“Without races, buffaloes would die of boredom. And so would we,” quips Chaiwat, a gangling veteran rider. Before clambering astride Deao for the final in the superior age category (3 years and up), the jockey dabs the buffalo’s brow with soil he scooped up at the finish line. It’s for luck, he says. To further enhance their competitive advantage, several animals also have colorful good-luck ribbons tied around their neck or forehead.

“Deao is a born racer,” Poramin says, his elderly father nodding in assent. “This morning we didn’t need to push him into the wagon; he skittered up the ramp by himself. He knew we were coming here.”

As if on cue, the buffalo fidgets. “Easy boy, don’t run yet,” Poramin murmurs to the animal, stroking its muscular neck.

“The races start on buffalo time,” an announcer jokes in English for the few tourists present. “When the buffaloes feel ready, we can start.” Several animals buck to unseat their rider, others false start and have to be chased down and brought back for a restart.

Then they’re off. Deao bursts into a rattling sprint, but he’s racing against formidable opponents, including the robust titleholder. He comes in a close third.

“He did well,” says Poramin, visibly downcast, as he leads Deao to a hose-down at the water tank. “He’ll win next year.”

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