Celebrate the end of the monsoon rains in Chonburi the first week of October this year, and say “wing kwaii” to anyone there to be pointed in the right direction to see the Buffalo Racing Festival.
by Dave Stamboulis
The Awk Pansaa holiday, known in English as “the end of the Buddhist rains retreat,” celebrates the time when the monsoon rains end and the monks leave their three-month monastic temple retreat. This holiday also ties into fertility celebrations, as it is during “Khao Pansaa” (start of the rains retreat) when farmers plant their crops and hope for an abundant rainfall to nourish their plants and produce a good harvest. Naturally at the end of the rainy season, everyone wants to give thanks for a presumably bountiful reap, and throughout Thailand festivals are held. Perhaps one of the zaniest is in Chonburi, where homage is paid to the star of the fields, the mighty buffalo, at the annual Chonburi Buffalo Racing Festival.
While the running of large bulls tends to be more associated with Spain and Papa Hemingway, this version is well watered down, with none of the bulls being gored or slaughtered. Instead, this festive weekend is all about laughter, with jockeys trying to master the art of riding incredibly hard-to- control buffaloes at fairly fast speeds. The whole festival is dedicated to the buffalo, which probably needs some fêting after being an essential part of the planting season. Farmers bring in throngs of beasts from out of town, with the main event of the day being the 100-meter buffalo dash, when the animals compete for some hefty prize money. The buffaloes actually can get a real burst of speed up once they take off and are headed in a straight direction, and there are some exciting finishes betweenseveral riders. The hardest part
of the race seems to be getting the jockey aboard the beast without being thrown, and then getting the pair out of the starting blocks facing straight ahead.
In addition to the dozens of races that take place, there are also some pretty outlandish events such as the Miss Farmer Beauty Contest, also a buffalo beauty pageant, and a buffalo costume competition, and even a few “man versus buffalo” strength competitions. I’m sure you can guess who always wins.
At the start of race day, the buffaloes are all herded together at one end of
the stadium, where they receive food, water, and a thorough bathing. This is a popular photo op among visitors, but it is actually the most dangerous part of the event, as buffalo are large and somewhat unpredictable animals, and they occasionally bust loose amidst the crowd. Once they are nourished, jockeys take them on a couple of warm-up runs, and then the stadium starts building to a fever pitch, almost like a good football match. There is a series of trials to get to the final races, which are worth a good purse to the winning riders and teams.
The buffalo has been the subject of many a report in the past few years, specifically as to how it is slowly becoming extinct in Thai society as motorized tractors and other technology have replaced buffaloes in the fields and their bodies are used for meat in an expanding trade. Hopefully festivals like this one can keep the spotlight on the animals and how valuable their contribution has been to society, while giving people a chance to go out and have a fun day at the races as well.
The buffalo races are somewhat akin to a good old Thai temple fair, with plenty of food vendors, game booths, folk music, and shopping stalls available to the masses. All of those are available here, with the grounds next to the Chonburi municipality and provincial offices being chockablock with OTOP products, papaya salad and grilled chicken sellers, and game booths. There are also other performances going on, such as youths trying to climb oiled poles to snag THB 500 notes placed on top, but the main stars of the event are the buffaloes.
This year’s Chonburi Buffalo Races will take place the first week of October. While the races do often fall right on the designated Awk Pansaa holiday date (October 8 this year), they are officially governed by the lunar calendar and auspicious dates, so it is best to call the Chonburi Municipal Office (038 283 449) or Chonburi TAT (038 427667) for official information a week or so in advance. While the parades and contests take place over several days, the buffalo racing is on only one day. To get to the event on public transport, take a Chonburi- bound bus from the Ekkamai Eastern Bus Station, get off in central Chonburi, and hop a motorcycle taxi the last five minutes to the provincial office and stadium.
Just say “wing kwaii” (buffalo running) and everyone will point you in the right direction.