“Buffalo racing, number one! Take over the world!” A frenzied Thai man waves two crumpled fistfuls of money at me and screams like a girl at the top of his voice. He turns, screams again, and with both arms flailing disappears into the crowd. Suddenly, there’s a scramble, the crowd splintering as a ten-ton buffalo piles through it, thrashing its horns and bucking wildly. Out front, another race is underway as two huge black water buffalo jackhammer down the racetrack towards the finish. The bigger of the two has had enough. He kicks, stamps and whips his rear end back and fourth, flipping his rider head first into the dust. A wave of laughs rip through the stands, the announcer giggling over the tannoy.
“Ting tong khwai, ting tong khwai” Crazy buffalo, crazy buffalo. The half mangled rider hauls himself up, showing the signs of severe concussion as he’s led off in a limp-legged stumble.
Today, the town of Chonburi, 70km (43mi) south of Bangkok is host to the most electrifying event in the Thai calendar: The National Water Buffalo Racing Festival.
The sun-baked field outside the town’s provincial hall is rammed with two thousand people, and over three hundred, half-rabid water buffalo. Huge Frankenstein chunks of muscle. Some roam freely, tearing after small dogs or repeatedly ramming car doors. Some are being led up the dusty strip of a racetrack to the startline. Others are thundering down it, barely under control. “Watch out for the wildlife” was never a truer adage. Everything’s a blaze of noise and dust: hooves, crowds, tannoy radios, deranged Thai pop and the occasional yelp of a small crowd as a pair of horns lashes straight towards them. It’s chaos. Riders balancing bareback as their buffalo thunder down the straight-line strip. Most don’t manage to stay on, and the crowd loves nothing more than a fall. Just a thin plastic barrier separating the hundred-metre track from the wooden stands and the seats - nothing that could withstand 500lb of rage and speed that doesn’t feel like stopping.
The festival began when farmers gathered in Chonburi to trade. In former years, buffalo were relied upon for farming and transport. Their speed and strength were serious practical commodities. But my new friend, Aroon, 66, who owns the café opposite, explains it a lot better.
“You see, many years ago, farmers argue. ‘Mine is faster.’
“Bullshit. Mine is faster and mine is stronger. They say ‘ok – we race…’” And that was it. Some thinly veiled organ-measuring argument one muddy morning gave birth to a Thai institution. The festival is celebrated on the day of Awk Phansa – the end of Buddhist Lent, marked by the first full moon in October. The day, also known as Rains Retreat, marks the end of the monsoon and gives everyone another solid reason to get crazy.
At the table opposite me, a group of Thai execs have traded their tailored suits and ties for the Rambo look: canvas shorts and camouflaged bandanas. They talk rapidly among themselves, pointing furiously and moving their hands back and fourth as three hulking buffalo are led out of the paddock to the starting line. This one looks serious. They pile huge wads of Thai baht onto the table and scribble down the odds on a napkin. Aroon says it costs around 40,00 Baht (£800) for a big one, but he’s known them to go for as much as 80,000. I pump him with questions about diet, training, their life away from the track. He’s half paying attention. His eyes dart to the track and he jumps from his seat, ripping out a full kamikaze war cry and knocking over a table full of glasses. He calms himself a little and gets back to the subject.
“Training? You know rodeo horse? Same thing.” He says they’re trained on ranches all over Thailand. Fed special protein diets - many of which are top secret and hotly debated in the buffalo circles. But it appears, that for any would-be trainer, eggs and a little beer are a standard favourite. But I’m told you’ve got to buy them young - lean and ready to learn. The big boys are too much of a handful untrained, and are bought and sold only as fully-fledged racers. Away from the racetrack, they live a life of princely fame - good luck totems of fortune that are too precious to work the fields like others do.
But however primitive or unsafe it may appear, the sport’s done a great deal to preserve the animal’s ever-dwindling numbers due to the rapidly increasing mechanisation of farm labour. But here, at the festival, buffalo remain a fanatically celebrated piece of culture.
I walk up to the startline and think about what Aroon said. I watch the wranglers trying to steady one in its starting gate. It takes ten minutes just to calm the thing: it’s bucking, snorting, kicking up the dust and throwing its head about like a man in some PCP frenzy. It doesn’t look trained to me -just a few feet away and I can hear the animal’s breathing; shallow, fast and through teeth. It looks as wild as if they’d just pulled it from the paddy fields. A boy approaches, holds the ring through his nose, gently, but firmly. Somehow it works. A buffalo whisperer. But then the thing goes again, bringing its hind legs up hard and fast, throwing the rider headfirst over its horns and into the dirt. The crowd are in hysterics. Soon, the commentators have gotten bored with playing it safe and start turning them loose four at a time down the strip and out into the crowds gathered at the finish.
But stranger than this headcase sport of half-mangled riders and mad-eyed, buffalo is the complete lack of tourists at the festival. Chonburi is only a two-hour bus ride direct from Bangkok’s Ekkamai terminal. It’s close enough to rip off the gap year students with overpriced tour ticket, but somehow, this national event hasn’t filtered down to base level. Thai people are as baffled to see us, as we are to be here. We’re the only foreigners and soon it catches on. The commentator in excited English welcoming us to the 141st year of this “very most special event.”
Later in the day, sun-drunk and exhausted by three hours of diving sideways each time a new heard of beasts come screaming across the dirt, I stumble back to the café to talk with Aroon some more. He’s busy running around, so I sit and order a beer.
As he puts the drink in front of me, a paddock barriers bursts and two buffalo make a break for it: the wood splintering under their weight as they thrash down the street and towards the sea. A mother pushing her prams doesn’t give them a second glance; trainers carry on calmly hosing the ones still inside. No one pays any attention – all that muscle and mass and horn careering down the tarmac. It’s just some thing that happens round here, a few bones broken, a few crazed animals break loose, no biggie. Aroon looks at me squinting in horror as the animals stretch further out of view - just two tiny black dots now, getting smaller and smaller against the stretched-out blue of the sea.
“Funny buffalo,“ he says. “You don’t worry so much. They come back in a minute.”