Not exactly built like a lean mean racing machine, the water buffalo is more at behind a plough than on the racetrack. But for the last 100 years or so they have been given the chance to show what speeds they can achieve at the annual Chonburi Buffalo Races.
Chonburi was always the trading capital of the eastern seaboard. At the end of Buddhist lent local farmers would head by buffalo cart for the market in Ban Beung district to trade their goods. There was always strong competition between the farmers, each thinking that their buffalo was better than the others. One day before heading back home farmer Chai challenged farmer Kittipong to a race around the square in front of the city hall. Chai was sure that his buffalo was fasters than Kittipong's. Soon other farmers decided to join in the race. The beasts were un-tethered from their carts and prepared for the event.
The farmer’s sons were used to riding their buffalo back from the field after a days work. They had a great affinity with their animals, knew their temperament and personality have worked with them every day harvesting rice. Although they had never raced before were excited at the idea of not only racing but winning for the honour of their farm and village. And so the sport of buffalo racing was born though the winner of the first race was never recorded.
The sport gained royal interest when on 7th December 1912 King Mongkut (Rama VI) was visiting Chonburi. He had heard of the unusual sport and that raced buffalo in the town. The King was keen to see how it compared with the horse racing that he was more familiar with at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. While His Majesty enjoyed the day’s sport, he decided against the idea of establishing a stable of racing water buffalo.
By tradition the races are held on 14th full moon night of the 11th lunar month. The calculations sound very complicated but what it means for this year is 9th October. The event will take place in the courtyard in front of Chonburi City Hall. Similar races will also in Ban Beung and Nong Yai districts in the province.
As dawn breaks on the morning of the big race farmers walk their buffalo through the surrounding rice fields, splashing them with water to keep the beast cool, as they make their way to the racetrack.
The event is part of the celebration of the rice harvest. Before the start of the races a scared ceremony is held to express thanks for the rains and to ask for healthy and prosperous year ahead.
The festival is not only meant to be fun but also to help preserve the traditional Thai way of buffalo racing as well as the number of the animals involved in Thai agriculture. It is a sad sign of the times that some farmers are replacing buffalo with modern machinery. “ I no longer use buffalo to cultivate the rice field,” said Koh Surisan, a 47 year old farmer who has worked in the fields since he was a boy, “It’s much easier and convenient to use a mechanical tractor for plowing and cultivation.”
Throughout the day upwards of 300 buffalo will be divided into groups of five or six according the weight (smallest, small, medium and heavy). They will race down the 110-meter tack. Their jockeys who are wielding wooden sticks spur the animals on. No cute leather saddles to keep them in place, just perched on the animals back kept in place purely their innate sense of balance.
These animals are more accustomed to sedately pulling a plough than racing. The start of each race can take some time get underway. First getting the jockeys mounted and then to get the buffalo to run. Some times a slow start but when they are off the thunderous beat off hooves on the hard sand track can be heard around the town. It is not uncommon for some of the jockeys to fall off and for his buffalo to run amok scattering the crowds in all directions. No Jockey Club etiquette just good fun and a few laughs.
It is rumoured that there is heavy unofficial betting among the spectators such is the local enthusiasm for the sport. As gambling is illegal, hypothetically would should we be looking for when picking a winning racing buffalo. A keen eye, a noble head or deep stride. In an exclusive interview , Khun Somsak, a former jockey and now a trainer, told us "You need a buffalo that likes to run." Obvious isn’t but let’s hope the one we’ve picked agrees to run in the right direction.
Other activities throughout the day include comical clowns, a review of decorated water buffalo, contestants climbing an oily pole, a slingshot-shooting contest and the inevitable beauty contests for Miss Buffalo (a girl not a beast) and a “Most Healthy Buffalo” contest.
The prize for the best decorated buffalo is almost as coveted as the prize for the fastest animal - $475 and an irrigation water pump. Not exactly the US$ 6 million up for grabs in the Dubai World Cup, but then this is buffalo and not thoroughbred horseracing.
At the end of the day a “champion” is crowned and man and beast wend their way home for another year, everyone hopefully having a good day at the races.