Samui Wining & Dining
Buffalo fighting is more peaceful than you might think.


This activity really should be called ‘head butting then running away’ rather than ‘buffalo fighting’. The word ‘fighting’ conjures up all sorts of tragic scenes. But there is no red flag, there is no sword and there are no dead animals. This is more about asserting authority than survival of the fittest.

        First a little bit about the animals. The water buffalo or domestic Asian water buffalo is found throughout the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. They are especially suitable for working in rice fields because of their large, flat hooves, and their milk is richer in fat and protein than a dairy cow. There are around 130 million domestic water buffalo and you’ll be surprised to learn that humans depend on these creatures more than any other domestic animal. They were domesticated in India over 5,000 years ago and in China over 4,000 years ago. According to the Thai Department of Livestock, in 2009, there were 1.3 million water buffalo in Thailand. They can weigh anything between 300 - 600 kilograms. This is not an animal you want to mess with.

        Buffalo fighting has been a tradition in Thailand for many years. Considering how much it is loved by the locals, it seems to have kept a

relatively low profile for tourists. Perhaps when tourists read the words ‘buffalo fighting’, images of bleeding animals are conjured up - not what you might want to see on your holiday. But wait, don’t stop reading. As mentioned earlier, there are no bleeding animals here, and certainly no dead ones. No, this is a totally natural behaviour that is merely ‘encouraged’. The show is over when one animal runs away, the other is declared the winner, both animals are collected by their owners (one buffalo now suddenly worth several million Baht), everyone cheers and then goes home.

         Let’s explain how it all works. On Samui, it’s a very popular event and there was a festival held at the Chaweng Stadium at the beginning of February. Each day for around nine days, pairs of hefty male buffalos were pitted against each other. The animals were decorated with fancy ribbons, had gold painted leaves on their horns and they even got blessed with holy water by monks before the fights. And yes, while there was ‘fighting’ involved, it was more of a show of strength as each animal locked horns and head butted the other, to see which one would either fall over, or run away with its head lowered in either embarrassment or submission.

          The ring or stadium that prevents the crowd from getting too close to the excited bulls is made up of frighteningly slim wooden poles tied together with rope. It’s a circular ring and the soon-to-be-cheering crowd are bunched up against the edge, some hanging over the top, others sitting on the top rung, children’s faces peering excitedly through the lower rungs. This really is a family event. Food stalls and cool drink stands are set up around the ring, and people who aren’t hanging over the fence, are milling around talking, eating and drinking, no doubt discussing which animal they think will win.

          The excitement builds as the start time approaches. A rope is attached between two trees or poles, high enough to hold a long white sheet so that when the two competing buffalos are brought into the stadium, they cannot see each other. We don’t want them darting all over the place until everyone is ready. I might add that at this time, there are people in the ring with the two buffalos who, at the moment, are utterly calm.

          The crowd is cheering for the sheet to be torn down and you can feel the excitement building. A whistle is blown, the sheet is torn down, the bulls take one look at each other and charge. Sometimes. Other times, they just stand and stare at each other thinking, “What now?” A 500 kilogram solid animal has a certain presence about it and if it does charge, not only does it kick up huge amounts of earth and dust, but it hits the other buffalo with such force that you’d think the other animal would fly right out of the stadium, just like in the cartoons. But, the other animal is approximately equal in size, strength and weight, so the charging from both of them ends with a dull thud as their thick skulls slam into each other.

           Now comes the power struggle with each of them pushing and shoving, trying to overbalance and throw each other over. The crowd is going mad, cheering, waving, screaming - anything to encourage the animal that they want to win. The bulls pull away and this time lock horns. A collective intake of breath, followed by more cheering from the crowd. The fight continues in this manner until eventually one bull either admits defeat or gets bored and retreats. Once this happens, the crowd goes crazy, clearly excited by the winning animal. The owners of the buffalos will head into the ring to recover their animals and slowly but surely, the excitement will calm down and the crowd will disperse only to gather again for the next match later on in the evening or the next day. There have been some reports of buffalos breaking out of the ring and disturbing local traffic, but this is not common!

          You see? No blood and no dead animals. Just one very proud animal and one very embarrassed animal.


 Colleen Setchell


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