Samui Wining & Dining
Seeing a buffalo fight is a must. It’s gently, wonderfully, funny!


I remember a French friend telling me about the fracas he once had in Algeria. He and his wife were driving to Algiers. They pulled into a petrol station to fill their tank – at exactly the same time as another car came in. My friend climbed out of his car and went to the pump. So did the driver of the other car. They both put their hands on the pump at the same time. Words were exchanged. Nobody wanted to back down. The other driver became angry – and then threatening. He started to shout. My friend remained cool – he was French after all, and anyway he was there first. The Algerian was waving his arms about and yelling. He went to his car and came back with a big spanner and waved it in the air. So my friend punched him on the nose. The Algerian fell down. He got up, confused. He said to my friend, “Why did you hit me? We haven’t done the pushing or the slapping yet.”

      Those of you who have witnessed the Spanish ethos of the bullfight will assuredly have mixed feeling about the whole thing. It’s a parallel to the English foxhunting. It’s a bloodsport, but it’s also steeped in centuries of tradition – if you deny the entire genre without a thought then you’re dismissing a whole way of life. But in our more enlightened times it is no longer acceptable for animals to suffer to satisfy tradition. It’s is cruel. It’s primitive and barbaric. It’s just not civilised.

       Now that’s out of the way we can return to the here and now. Samui regularly – several times each year – holds buffalo fighting tournaments. There are buffalo-fighting ‘stadia’ scattered around the island. (Although, it has to be said, that these venues are not exactly bull-ring quality. In fact they are inevitably big patches of dirt with a few poles of bamboo around the edges. If you are expecting Wembley Arena, the Superbowl Stadium or, indeed, anything relating to the 20th century, then think again!)

          Everywhere in Thailand there are water buffalo. For generations these creatures have pulled ploughs and tramped water wheels. They are big, docile, and about as aggressive as a soggy box of Kleenex! In fact, if you forget to tie a buffalo to its tree, you can come back two days later and find it still standing there, puzzled, waiting to be tied up. The nastiest thing you will ever get from a buffalo is if they get confused and tread on your foot. Either that or (far more usually), buffalo flatulence. Picture a cowboy rodeo in the Wild West with crazed and frothing bulls slashing, thrashing and leaping about like they’re on steroids, and then compare this with the image of a big fat hamster plodding round on its wheel. Thai buffalo fighting is tantamount to putting two fat hamsters on the same wheel together at the same time.

          I’m certain that many of the Thai nation would be dismayed by this comparison. For them, their fighting buffalos are their pride and joy. These are their big, mean, fighting machines. Other than elephants they’re the biggest things they’ve got. These are the 1,500-pound hunks which, if they win a fight or two, are worth a small fortune. Winning buffalos are worth almost as much as a new pick-up truck. And that’s why we have our regular buffalo fighting competitions.

          For weeks beforehand the buffalos have been in training. Samui is good for this. It’s an island with lots of wet sand along the beaches. And so, to develop stamina, every day the competitors are exercised. One of the family’s young sons will skip school to jog the contender along the sand for an hour or so, then whack him with a stick up onto the main road and then steer him back home again. And, having talked about all this with the owner of a winning buffalo, there are lots of (shhh) dirty tricks involved, too. Such as, for instance, keeping the buffalo, for a day or two before the games, in the proximity of a ripe and luscious female. (Sniff but don’t touch.) But, whatever the training dodges, in the end it all boils down to mano a mano, as the Spanish say. The Thais say kwaikwai. It means the same (except in Thai it additionally means ‘really stupid’, too).

          For such an excitable occasion there’s a lot of serious ceremony involved, with garlands and prayers, and joss sticks and blessings, even a monk or two, and entire communities all jollied-up to cheer-on their family favourite, along with wagon loads of bets (illegal and thus improbable) being wagered and tankerloads of (legal) hooch being imbibed. Most of the morning is spent with the preliminaries and festivities and an exhibition joust or two. But in the afternoon things get serious, and a white bed-sheet appears across the middle of the arena. Unknown to each other (and sneakily shoved into place) there is now a buffalo on either side of this. And, with great fuss and hullabaloo, the sheet is twitched up into the trees above.

          Half the time both buffalos are peering down for something green to chew on and don’t do anything right away. (Sometimes though, it can be dynamite; one buffalo will trot across to see what the other one is up to!) After a bit however, through their bovine genetic haze, the territorial imperative kicks-in and both buffalos simultaneously decide they are the boss. Unlike Algeria, there is no slapping or shoving; they both start to ‘fight’ right away. Which means, with howls and bellows (excited Thai people, not the buffalos), they meet in the middle and lock horns. And then they stand there, shuffling about.

          And really, not to wanting to spoil things for you, that’s it. There’s no blood or guts – it’s all ever so civilised, buffalotarian, Green, pacifistic, gentle and New Age. After a while one of them will either get uncomfortable with the horns-thing, or just get plain bored, and turn around and walk away, declaring himself to be the loser. If things get really dynamic, the other one will scamper after him and nudge him in the bum, and then they’ll jog around the ring for a bit until the winning owner’s family just can’t stand it anymore and they all jump over the bamboo to hug him en masse.

          Thailand is a lovely and gentle country. And, while it might not quite be up on a level with the rest of the world in some respects, in others it can teach us a lot of things. The Zen placidity of buffalo fighting is one of these. You can only catch these community gatherings at certain times of the year, and in a handful places around the island, and it’s really wellworth making a special point to enquire about.

          You’ll find meetings at buffalo stadia in Ban Makham, Maenam and Lamai. These events are usually held at the beginning of each New Year, between January and May, so do keep an eye out. There’ll be posters and banners all around the island and, absolutely everyone in your resort will know about them. It’s something that’s not to be missed!


 Rob De Wet



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