Mud, sweat and cheers: Buffalo race delights crowds in Thailand

A racer rides on the back of a wooden plough as he races his buffaloes during the rice-planting festival in Chon Buri on June 26, 2022 to mark the start of paddy-sowing season. (Photo by Manan VATSYAYANA / Agence France-Presse)

CHON BURI, Thailand — Boys scurried, ducked and wove through crowds sheltering from the suffocating heat, before upending buckets of cooling water on beefy bovines that waited to compete at the annual traditional Thai buffalo races here in this province on Sunday.

The riotously noisy, muddy and slightly chaotic annual buffalo race in Thailand marked the beginning of the rice planting season — with a festival-like atmosphere in Chon Buri taking place for the first time in two years.

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The main event saw four pairs of harnessed buffalo galloping across a decorated paddy field, with intrepid racers sprinting barefoot through the shallow muddy waters, attempting to control their beasts.

“Before the race start[ed], we [were] a little excited and nervous,” said Sompong Ratanasatien, 33, drenched and breathing heavily after his latest bout.

The trickiest point was the start line, he said, where racers had to wait for the official whistle as they attempted to maneuver the heavy beasts into position and keep them calm.

“After that it depends on our buffalo and how he matches with my skills,” said Ratanasatien, who was enjoying a winning streak with his 2-year-old bovine Kao.

Urged on with a small metal-tipped bamboo whip, the usually placid animals were unrecognizable as they rampaged down the watery field.

Bouts were divided according to weight and size, with the heaviest creatures slightly slower to a practiced eye but requiring significantly more skill to control.

The racers, who worked and trained with the buffalo for weeks, didn’t always have the upper hand.

Numerous races got off to false starts as the hapless human racers were literally dragged through the mud.

“I think normal people cannot do [it],” said Within Lueanguksorn, who traveled from Bangkok to watch the races.

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“There is a relation between the people and them (the buffalo),” the 38-year-old added.

‘A bit dangerous’

The animals often looked close to careening out of control as they thundered across the finish line, scattering any spectator foolish enough to stand nearby.

Racer Noppadon Yindeesuk, 45, admitted the tradition can be hazardous.

“It could be a bit dangerous if the buffalos are running too close to each other because it could cause an accident, so the riders must be careful,” he said.

Still, he said he would be racing two of his buffalos, Parewa and Pete—worth around 150,000 baht ($4,200) each.

“They are over two years old, and they won the race last year,” he said with a grin, adding that he trained with them every three or four days.