It would be blazing saddles time at the Chonburi Buffalo Festival if only they had saddles. With or without a saddle, that humble beast of eternal burden, the Thai water buffalo, or kwai, has its brief, annual day in the spotlight in October each year.
Buffalo racing festival
In mid-town Chonburi City, capital of the province of the same name (about 100 km southeast of Bangkok), you’ll see some 140 kwai being pimped and polished, watered, fed, decorated, flattered and schmoozed like at no other time in their dour, mud-splattered lives.
That done, and with a number painted on their flanks, the buffalos get to race furiously against each other while being ridden like the bejeezus by skinny, near-suicidal Thai youths.
Getting the four animals that are competing in any race to even point in the right direction at the Start line is a wrangling event in itself, if not a slapstick miracle. Think of it as herding half-tonne kittens with horns. Then — BANG! — they’re off!
Crossing the finish line
Clouds of dust erupt as the buffalos stampede down the dirt track at breakneck speed. The jockeys, riding shirtless, helmetless, barefoot and bareback, are bounced mercilessly during the sprint — grown men wince to watch, imagining the terrible hammering their family jewels must take.
Nevertheless, most riders manage to stay aboard the hindquarters of the thundering beasts as they tear down the 150-metre course. The crowd goes crazy.
Crossing the Finish line, the wild-eyed animals skid to a halt and the jockeys dismount to count their toes, bones and other assets. Without further ceremony, the winning buff gets a bucket of water, but so do the losers.
The Chonburi festival has been going on for around 140, if not 170 years (depending upon who’s counting, and how). It is an absolutely local derby rather than an event the tourist trade.
Foreigners of course are warmly welcome at this fiesta that also features plenty of Thai music, food stalls galore, handicrafts, markets and other, non-bovine contests like taekraw tournaments, greasy-pole climbing and kite-making.
According to Buddhist tradition, the celebration is held on the full moon in the 11th lunar month, which falls sometime in October. This being Thailand, naturally there are beauty contests — for both buffalo and farm girls — not to mention plenty of betting.
Prizes are awarded for the healthiest buffalo, the most splendidly decorated one and the most humorously decorated beast. As well as racing, there is a parade of 13 carts that portrays the Vessantara Jataka, the story of one of Buddha’s past lives. But all these are sideshows — the highlight is always when the buffalo race madly down that track, jockeys bouncing, dust churning and hundreds of Thais cheering them on.