Although many of Thailand’s sporting events might seem strange, they are all steeped in tradition
Thailand has had a few different slogans given to it over the years, both by visitors (‘The Land of Smiles’) and Public Relations gurus (‘Amazing Thailand’). But even after having lived here for nearly 30 years, I am still sometimes surprised by what I see, or come across, on my travels throughout the Kingdom. I believe the most appropriate slogan for this country should be: ‘Thailand: Unique and Curious Charm’. And nowhere is this mercurial magnetism more apparent than in the country’s often unusual, but always colourful, sporting events, which are exciting and distinctive, and steeped in tradition.
The first one to examine is Bullfighting. Not very unique, you might think, but this version is probably not what you’d expect. In Thailand it’s actually the bulls themselves fighting. As a sport, bullfighting has been popular in Southern Thailand for centuries, and it can be seen in most provinces, with a total of 28 stadiums across the region. However, you will see no flashy matadors or red capes, and no animals die, either, because this combat is purely bull-on-bull; part of an ancient tradition of combat in which the participants all live on to fight another day.
The bullfight arenas on competition days are packed with the crowds loudly cheering on their chosen beast, as two combatants are brought head-to-head by their handlers. The bulls eye each other up, and proceed to lock foreheads rather than horns. There will be frenzied pushing and shoving, with head butts the most violent part of the proceedings. The victor is chosen when one bull feels he has had enough, and simply walks away from the encounter. In the present-day version of Thai bullfighting, the owner of a winning bull can get prize money of a million baht or more. Betting is not exactly legal in Thailand, but you are not likely to be prosecuted if you feel like having a little flutter, as laissez faire is the rule on bullfight days. If you’re in Hat Yai province, check out the bullfighting arena on the first Saturday of each month.
Next up is Kite Fighting. There are two famous traditional Thai kites—Chula and Pakpao—with Chula designated as the male kite, because of its larger size, and the smaller Pakpao as the female. The “fighting ground” is divided into two halves, each about 100 metres, which are separated by a line strung at about head height. The Pakpao teams always take the upwind part of the field, while the Chula teams take the downwind end.
The object of the game is for the Chula team to try and drag the Pakpao down into their half of the playing field by using spurs attached to their control lines, and for the more agile Pakpao team to attempt to ensnare a Chula kite with a loop attached to its line, also attempting to drag it down into their half of the playing field.
Each year the Thailand International Kite Festival is held towards the end of March, usually at the Royal Thai Army’s non- commissioned officers school (in Hua Hin, about three hours’ drive from Bangkok). Many other activities take place during this event, and about 20 teams from different countries are also there to show off their kite-flying skills.
With Thailand’s many lakes, rivers, and abundant ocean access, water based sports are also popular activities. Traditional Thai longboats can be seen all across the nation, and racing them is a popular sport up and down the length and breadth of the country. Longboat Racing is one of Thailand’s oldest traditions, and competitions have been arranged continuously since the Ayutthaya period (about 600 years ago). In those days of yore, the games were used to enhance the physical and mental strength of the men folk, as the country was almost continuously at war with the neighbouring countries of Burma (Myanmar), Laos, and Cambodia. They were essentially war boats, and the festivals of today portray this well. The traditional garb worn by the crews and the traditional instruments played—including the pounding of the war drums to keep the pace—will transport you back to ancient times.
Annual longboat racing festivals in Thailand are something of an assault on the senses—a lively atmosphere of tumultuous noise and vibrant colours, combined with an army of vendors selling local produce. It’s easy to see why visitors and locals alike enjoy them so much. One of the best is held annually in Phitsanulok province, in mid-September when the river tides are at their highest.
Finally, a sport unique to Chonburi province (just outside Bangkok) is Buffalo Racing. This is a truly unique event—the most famous event in the province, in fact—and the competitions have been held annually for more than 140 years. The races began as a way to show gratitude to the buffaloes after working for their farmers throughout the year.
The races, held in front of the Municipal Office, are fast and furious and the rampaging beasts throw up clouds of dust as they pound down the course, with their “jockeys” hanging on for dear life.
Apart from the must-see buffalo racing, the annual Buffalo Racing Festival also features the ‘Most Healthy Buffalo’ contest, and a parade of beautifully-decorated buffalo carts. Other highlights include a ‘Miss Farmer Beauty Contest’, a Thai martial arts exhibition, and plenty of local food and drink specialties. The next one takes place on Tuesday, September 23rd, 2018.
By Robin Westley Martin