Samui Wining & Dining
A Bout Time

Thailand’s docile water buffalo is a gentle giant – until he gets in the ring, that is!

 

48Noisy and spectacular. Stomping, snorting, rushing madly around. And that’s just the crowd at one of the many buffalo fighting festivals here on Samui! They truly are big events drawing masses of spectators to each festival, usually held on special occasions, such as New Year’s Day or Songkran.

 

For the animal lovers amongst us, bull fighting has always been a repulsive ‘sport’, for obvious reasons. But the buffalo fighting seen on Samui is a world away from the dramatic and often gruesome bull fighting seen in other countries, such as Spain. In fact, it’s fairly harmless and is sometimes little more than a stand-off between two males eyeing each other up, displaying a lot of hoof stamping and horn locking in order to protect their territory. And a bout can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours on end.

 

These huge bovines are lovingly cared for by their owners because, at the end of the day, each buffalo has the potential to become a champion. And a buffalo’s value can suddenly skyrocket to as much as several million baht after winning a bout. The possibility of winning the substantial cash rewards on offer is also within reach, not to mention the vast amounts of money that can be won by well placed bets! Prize money can be in the region of up to one million baht so these swamp-wallowing creatures are extremely cherished.

 

It’s a very common site on Samui to see a huge water buffalo lumbering behind his owner (or, as sometimes is the comical case, led by a small child!) on the way to the beach for a leisurely soak in the calm evening sea. Definitely a fabulous picture moment for anyone visiting the island as the water frolics begin. These animals love their daily bath!

 

So, fit and ready, the day of the fight dawns. It’s strictly male buffalos only and weighing in at anything up to 600kg for a mature bull, they’ll be suitably adorned in bright ribbons and garlands, elaborate gold paint designs upon their mighty horns. And, thus, the bovine equivalent of arm-wrestling will commence! On fight-day, the stadium will be bustling from around 9:30 am. There can be up to three different bouts per day but before each fight some very important rituals take place and each buffalo will be sprinkled with holy water and receive a blessing. The ground surrounding him also receives a sprinkling to increase the good luck.

 

The two buffalos are segregated in the arena by a white sheet strung across the centre. Each bull becomes familiar with his surroundings and therefore assumes it’s his territory. When the sheet is removed and they spy each other, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next. Most often, like shy children on the first day of school, they pretend not to notice each other too much, nonchalantly ignoring the other, in the hope that the interloper might go away! When this doesn’t happen, a bit of a rumpus ensues as one of them at least feels he has to make a stand. So a lot of snorting, pushing and horn-locking takes place until one of them either gets bored or frightened enough to run away. The winner is usually declared after one male submits with a fast trot around the arena and out into a run-off lane, with the more dominant bull hot on his heels! Once the running starts, the cheering becomes thunderous. So the fight is over, and both buffalos are still in good health, calm and safe, back in their own zones. But meanwhile the crowd are going mad. Some with euphoria, some with despair … and a lot of money changes hands.

 

Between bouts there’s usually a party atmosphere going on with a fair amount of alcohol being consumed. And, of course, there’ll be surreptitious bets (gambling is actually strictly illegal in the Kingdom) being placed on the next fight by spectators hopeful of recovering some money or making more. As with all Thai festivals, an abundance of food stalls will be in evidence. The standard tasty fare is on offer, with plenty of cold beer and bottles of the local whiskey. The whole day is really a very leisurely event even though the more serious aspect of fame and fortune (for the lucky few) is never that far away!

 

Buffalo fighting has long since been a grand tradition in the South of Thailand, especially on Samui. But, prior to this, the buffalo had a very different role.

 

Throughout Thailand’s history, the mighty buffalo has been acknowledged as one of the most important animals in the kingdom. The Thai swamp buffalo is called Ai Tui which means ‘honest royal worker’. Their role in rice farming, in particular, dates back centuries as there’s no alternative animal capable of this profession. With its big feet and slow gait, the buffalo is perfect for pulling ploughs in the rice fields.

 

Of late, though, these gentle giants have been replaced by the universal ‘iron buffalo’ (tractor and plough), something which isn’t welcome by all Thais. And this is because not only has it caused the demise of the buffalo as breeding numbers have dropped considerably, but also because of the high cost of fuels needed to run these new machines, which has caused financial hardship for many farmers. Reduction in rice production has also contributed to the drop in numbers. Forty years ago, buffalo numbers were in the region of 6 million. But now these have dwindled to around 1.5 million, and concerns that these wonderful animals could become extinct within the next 20 years are being raised to draw public attention to their plight. In fact, the King of Thailand himself has launched the ‘Ox-Buffalo Bank’ project which ‘lends’ buffalos to farmers (particularly in the north) who might not otherwise use them. As they breed, the calves are given back to the bank to increase numbers.

 

However, the buffalo on Samui has a rather different life to their cousins in the north of the country. They’re pretty much ‘semi-retired’ as rice farming is practiced very little on the island. So mostly they’re left to wallow leisurely until it’s time for their next bout.

 

There’re various stadiums around the island, including ones in Ban Makham, Maenam and Lamai. Posters and banners are always displayed in advance of a festival, so if you’re keen to take a look at piece of traditional island style fun and socializing, just turn up early and immerse yourself in this fascinating and fun aspect of local Thai culture.

 

Kathryn Amberley

 


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