Tourism projects alone will not lift this stalwart icon of Thai culture—and farming—off its last legs
In Thailand, buffaloes may bear the brunt of jokes and insults about their stupidity, but some people are convinced that they’re far more useful than some human beings. One such person is the abbot of Bangkok’s ‘Buffalo Head Temple’ (Wat Hua Krabeu), located on the outskirts of Bangkok near Samut Sakhon province—the only district of the city with an ocean-view and a beard of mangrove forest.
“Buffaloes help us in the rice fields and their manure is good for the soil. Even when they die, their skins and horns are still useful. But bad people contribute nothing to society,” said the elderly Phra Khru Wiboon Pattanakit at his temple on Bangkhuntien-Chai Taley Road. “Why do people call buffaloes stupid? Bad people are much worse.”
As a tribute to these once ubiquitous beasts of burden, who served as steeds for Siamese soldiers to ride into battle, the abbot is building an eight-metre-high pagoda of buffalo skulls with a tunnel at its base so that cars can drive through it. So far, the 260-year-old temple has collected about 8,000 skulls, but they need 10,000 to construct the pagoda and tunnel. Many of the skulls were donated by villagers in the surrounding district of ‘Buffalo Head’. They are scattered around and piled up in front of one of the main halls of worship.
The memorial could very well serve as an epitaph for what is already a dying breed in Thailand. According to the government’s Livestock Department, the buffalo population has plummeted from around 6.7 million heads in 1990 to a little over a million in 2016, as farmers rely increasingly on the gas-powered ploughs introduced to Thailand in the 1960s. Sharpening the horns of this dilemma is the fact that around 300,000 animals are butchered in the name of protein every year, while only 200,000 calves are born. Most of the beasts that end up in the slaughterhouse are females—an unhealthy number of them pregnant. What has further reduced the population is the fact that the males, favoured for their brawn, are castrated to make them even brawnier.
In tourism, the most prominent festival keeping the animal off its last legs is the annual Buffalo Races, held every October in front of City Hall in Chon Buri province. Using a bamboo switch for a riding crop, the jockeys ride their charges bareback down a 100-metre-long course. In every heat, five or six of them compete for a grand prize of around 20,000 baht.
Or at least that’s the premise. But some of the beasts are content to mill around the starting line. Most of the races have a minimum of three or four false starts, and a fair number of the bovines buck their riders off only a few metres down the track. Once they get running, however, the buffalo charge down the track with a velocity that could be measured in double-digit horsepower, and watching the riders dismount near the finishing line with breakneck leaps from their backs is an act of pure dare-devilry. To keep the crowds on their toes, now and then a buffalo runs amok, charging into the crowd so people scatter like pool balls after a break.
The competition is more than 130 years old. When it was first held, Chon Buri was the biggest market place on the eastern seaboard. After ‘Buddhist Lent’, when the farmers came to town, the races first began as an informal joke, spurred by booze and macho bravado. In the decades to come, more events were added to race day: a beauty contest for the beasts—their fur dyed with different colours and horns bedecked with flowers—and a ‘Miss Farmer’ beauty pageant for young women. Now, it’s a full-fledged spectacle attended by thousands of locals and a few hundred tourists.
Running a distant second in the bovine tourism sweepstakes is the Buffalo Villages near the capital of Suphan Buri province, a few hours north of Bangkok. However, during the bus trip there, I scanned the rice paddies and farmyards but didn’t spot a single buffalo.
The village itself is a déjà vu of Siam’s bygone days—minus the squalour and the machetes that villagers used to keep beside their sleeping mats—with wooden houses on stilts, carefully coiffed gardens, a fortune teller’s abode, and a Siamese merchant’s place of business. The signs and brochures impart history lessons in animal husbandry; archaeologists have unearthed evidence that farmers used the domesticated breed of water buffalo in the area some 1,300 years ago.
The twice-daily ‘Buffalo Shows’ take place in a dirt arena with a grandstand overhung by a thatched roof. On a weekday afternoon in the soggy season I was the only Caucasian in a “crowd” of seven or eight people, mostly older women. The first buffalos were led into the arena, ambled up a wooden stairway, and then, in a death-defying feat, continued ambling along a wooden beam through a couple of hoops nailed to the platform.
Another man, wearing the blue cotton outfit favoured by rural folks, led a brown beast by a rope through its nostrils. After much coaxing and pushing down on its neck, the animal knelt on its forelegs to the astonishment of absolutely no one.
For what was supposed to be the showstopper, a young boy laid down on the dirt and a bovine performer, lured by a handler with a fistful of bananas, walked up, ate a few of them, nosed around in the dirt, flogged some flies with its tail, ate a few more bananas and then… defecated. But wait, the show wasn’t over yet. The buffalo then wiggled its ears, looked around and, following the bananas in the trainer’s hand, walked over the boy without actually crushing him to death.
Unless buffaloes are pulling a plough, or served on a plate, they are sadly and tragically useless. To think that any tourism spectacles (even the Buffalo Races) are ever going to save herds of them from the abattoir is futile. My disappointment with the show was diminished somewhat by getting to feed them out of my hand afterwards and laughing when they licked me with their sandpapery tongues. Not even fawns have such large, liquid eyes. When one of the male staff members helped to prop me up on the back of a beautiful albino female for a ride, I was leery of getting bucked off, but buffalo lack the skittish temperament that marks all equines as ‘dark horses’.
At the Buffalo Villages, after feeding time, an old rice farmer with a conical hat and plaid shirt took me for a bumpy ride in a buffalo cart. As he urged his two animals onwards with a bamboo switch, we bantered about the 2001 historical drama feature film Bang Rajan (above), starring the most famous Thai buffalo of them all, Boon-lert, who acted as the ‘warhorse’ for the film’s hero. The historical settlement of Bang Rajan is in Sing Buri province, not far from here. Outside the town is a monument to the battle and slain heroes.
Set in the 18th century, Bang Rajan is based on a real-life story of heroism, in which a rag-tag group of Siamese villagers—fighting with homemade weapons—staved off eight different attacks, by a total of 100,000 Burmese soldiers, before finally going down in defeat. The film garnered some impressive plaudits when it was released in the United States in 2004 and presented by Oliver Stone. One American critic called it “the Saving Private Ryan of ancient Thailand”. Another compared the climactic battle scene to Colonel Custer’s last stand at the Alamo.
Words and photos by Jim Algie