of the buffaloes: Thais take their beasts of burden to the races
The jockey rides bareback astride the water buffalo's rump, slaps him with a switch and bumps along on his sprinting steed down a 130-meter (427-foot) strip. That's if the buffalo cooperates.
Other buffaloes, perhaps happier wallowing around muddy rice fields than stampeding down a race track, kick their hoofs in the dirt at the starting line or buck their riders before they reach the finish.
All the while, a joking announcer excitedly narrates the spectacle, poking fun at the lads who can't stay aboard their hurtling beasts.
Thousands of people Sunday flock to this entertainment in downtown Chonburi, 70 kilometers (44 miles) south of Bangkok, at the annual water buffalo festival.
The day's events, which also includes a buffalo beauty pageant, a Miss Farmer beauty contest and a comic buffalo costume contest, perfectly exemplified a favored Thai attitude to life — "sanuk," meaning fun.
Adul Boran, a 39-year-old water buffalo jockey, has been racing for 28 years for the good times associated with the unorthodox sport.
"I don't get paid for it, but my friends and I get together three days a week to train with our buffaloes just for fun," he said.
The festival was started as a social event for farmers who gathered from around the country in Chonburi to trade their goods.
"In the olden days, we used to race on farm buffaloes," said Bang Supapon, 75, who raced for 20 years until the 1970s. "It would teach them to work faster in the fields."
Later, farm work was mechanized, he said, but the buffalo-running tradition continued. Now the buffaloes don't have the extra burden of field labor.
"We raise the buffaloes just to race them. They don't work at all," said Boonyeun Chamchap, as she stood under a tent with her five racing animals to shield them from the scorching sun.
"Our fastest one cost us 80,000 baht (US$1,800). We definitely don't get our money's worth, but we have a great time racing them," she said.
The day's grand prize is 5,000 baht (US$114), while runners-up win farm equipment.
Boonyeun, who also has buffaloes tilling the family sugar cane fields, said farm buffaloes are much bigger than the racers because of the strenuous work they must perform.
"None of the buffaloes that race are farm buffaloes," she said. "Nowadays, farm buffaloes are in the beauty pageant."
Alisa Tang, Associated Press Writer
Pictures copyright: Associated Press