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Bangkok Travelbug December 10 The Chonburi buffalo racing festival
November 29, 2010

The Chonburi buffalo racing festival

This month, we take on a light-hearted trip to cover a fun event. It’s a very unusual annual festival with a fair, procession and of course the buffalo race. We get a close up view of the unsung hero and traditional plough animal in the Thai rice fields.

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Chonburi province

Chonburi is just 80 km south-east of Bangkok, a little over an hour’s drive from Bangkok. Though the province was formed in the reign of King Rama V, communities in this area have existed since the Ayutthaya period in the 14th – 15th century.

The Bang Pakong river estuary just north of Chonburi was a favourite stop for Chinese junks since the Sukhothai days in the 13th century. Many settled here, hence the huge ethnic Chinese population in Chonburi where the Chinese heritage is apparent in the temples, schools and festivals in the city.

Chonburi (chon – water, buri – city) is well-known for its beaches and ports. Bang Saen and Si Racha are popular beaches with the locals; Naklua, Pattaya and Jomtien are more popular with the foreign tourists.

Laem Chabang, the deep sea port on the eastern seaboard, is in Chonburi. The Laem Chabang Industrial Area is just behind the port. The Sattahip naval base is at the southern tip of the province just before we get to Rayong.

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The festival

The Chonburi buffalo racing festival is an annual tradition that’s more than a century old. It’s held in the 11th lunar month towards the end of the Buddhist Lent, usually in October.

This year, the 139th buffalo racing festival was held from 16 – 22 October 2010. It’s a week-long food and fun fair with music, competitions and sale of handicraft in front of the provincial hall.

On the final day of the festival, there was a grand procession in the morning. Representatives from the various districts, schools and provincial organizations paraded their products of fruits and handicraft before the buffalo race.

Pretty ladies in traditional dress, dressed-up buffalos, schools bands and floats from the different districts of Chonburi took part in this procession. Here’s a short video of the procession followed by still pictures of the events in order of appearance.

Click on this link to view the video

Leading the procession of buffalo wagons

There were some novelty items too, like this one.

Beauty and buffalo all dressed up

Here were some of the pretty ladies from Chonburi on and off parade that morning.

The 11 districts of Chonburi (including the city district of the provincial capital) were represented by contingents and colourful floats.

Leading in Bang Lamung district

Bang Lamung is a coastal district about 8 km south of Chonburi city, near the beach resort of Pataya.

Float from Bang Lamung district
Nong Yai and Bo Thong districts are inland about 10 km east of Chonburi city.

Carrying the banner of Nong Yai district

Bo Thong district

Fruits of Bo Thong

Contingent from Pataya, a special administrative area in Chonburi

Phan Thong district is just north of Chonburi city

This was the contingent bringing up the rear of the procession.

A fitting end to a beautiful parade

Now that we’ve seen the belles, let’s take a look at the bulls.

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The buffalo race

Early in the morning on 22 October, the owners brought their buffaloes to town in pick-ups and trucks.

Contestants arrive in town

They were registered according to four weight divisions ranging from heavy to the super light weights. The signs above the registration tables actually say, big, small, tiny and super tiny.

Registration for the race

As there were no weighing scales available, I wasn’t sure how the classifications were made. After the registration, the buffalos were then taken to the rest areas to wait for their turn to race.

Waiting for their big moment

The Thai water buffalo is frequently the butt of local jokes concerning its low IQ. But this animal has traditionally been the work horse of the rice fields. Though tractors and mechanical ploughs have replaced many of them, with the spike in oil prices, many farmers have turned to the good old buffalo again.

One of the heavies

One of my early images of Thailand was that of a young boy astride a water buffalo with the rice fields and setting sun in the background. Since then I’ve always wanted to see a water buffalo up close. I got my chance.

The kid and his pet buffalo

In the past, farmers brought their buffaloes to town after the rice planting season to race them as a form of entertainment and recreation. Today however, these buffaloes are bred specially for racing and probably haven’t touched a plough in their lives.

Racing buffaloes

They struck me as very calm animals totally unperturbed by the noise, and there was more than enough noise provided by three competing announcers blaring into their loud speakers, the crowds and fuss around them. However, their moods may change under different conditions, as we shall see later.

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence

The race track was this open sandy patch a 135 m long in front of the provincial hall. Grandstands were erected on both sides of the length with metal barriers separating the race track and the spectators.

Race track

Contestants and their handlers make their way to the start line

Before the start of the race, contestants and their riders were allowed to do a few warm up runs which were entertaining by themselves.

Warm up run

Barely clinging on

The starting line was nowhere near the orderly state of a horse race. It took some effort to get the animals into position. Some just changed lanes on their own, others just ran off and the more testy ones threw their riders.

Despite their bulk, these buffaloes are surprisingly agile. One even stepped over the metal barriers separating the lanes to get from one lane to another; doing it sideways with his rider astride!

The only time I saw some buffaloes get agitated was when their riders tried to mount them. There were a few unintended rodeo displays with several riders biting the dust. They have minds of their own and have often made monkeys out of their riders.

Buffalo breaking away with handlers in hot pursuit

One buffalo threw his rider, broke from his handlers, crashed into the safety barrier and collapsed on it. Startled spectators, including a mother and child, had to leap out of the way. Fortunately no one was injured. Having made his point the buffalo nimbly got up and trotted calmly back into the middle of the field.

For safety, I suggest you take your chances along the length of the pitch, somewhere in the middle, not near the start or finish. Be prepared to get out of the way in a hurry.

Obviously the time it took to get each race organized was longer than the race itself. After all the fuss, we finally got to start of the first race for the super light weights which was officiated by the Governor of Chonburi.

It’s amazing how these buffaloes, after galloping for 135 m at full speed, can bring their mass to a halt within metres past the finishing line. Not all riders crossed the line with their steads though, some simply fell off!

Here’s a short video clip of that first race.

Or click on this link to view the video

All in, it was a day of great fun to see a festival that’s special to Chonburi province in Thailand.

See you next year, fellas

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Map of Chonburi and how to get there

View Chonburi in a larger map

Getting there and getting around

A quick way from Bangkok is to take a skytrain to the Victory Monument. Locate the vans going to Chonburi. Make sure you take the vans that go into the city centre. Some stop at the outskirts. Fare is 100 baht and the trip takes a little over an hour.

Once there, get a motor-cycle taxi to take you wherever you want to go. They are present at almost every street corner. There are several song taeow (pick-up trucks running on fixed routes at a fixed fare) services in the city. But if you are new to town, it’s difficult to be familiar with the different routes.

For the return trip, go to Eastern Hotel where the van station is located and take a van back to Bangkok. Make sure it’s the van going to the Victory Monument or whatever location in Bangkok you wish to alight. Vans to other places in Bangkok, e.g. Bang Na are at other locations. The motor-cycle taxi drivers will know these locations.

There are two big hotels in the city; Chon Inter which is a bit pricey and Eastern (750 baht with breakfast) just across the street. Forum Plaza is the only shopping mall in the city within walking distance. There are a number of reasonable restaurants there.

You don’t have to stay overnight. The buffalo race is on the last day and starts at around 11:00 am. If you are an early bird, start off from Bangkok early in the morning and you’ll make it.

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Travel Business

Next month

Paknam – the Fort of Crouching Tigers

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Till next month then.

Eric Lim

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