Tuesday, February 09, 2010


(Written for The Phnom Penh Post 2009)

Bareback buffalo racing is a spectacle not to be missed – so why do so few tourists witness this annual event in this small Cambodian village? It’s hard to understand why this is not one of Cambodia’s premier tourist events.

Whereas Spain has its running of the bulls, the small village of Vihear Suor, just 50 kilometres northeast of Phnom Penh, has its buffalo racing. That’s right. Buffalo races, the likes of which are held nowhere else in Cambodia.

Horns and heads bedecked and bejewelled, these krobei are quite a sight – and when a loose herd of them get moving amongst the crowd at speed, it is scarcely less chaotic and spectacular than Pamplona. And, at times, just as terrifying. When these guys race, there is no holding them back. With nothing but a thin rope through their mounts’ nostrils, a pair of bareback racers whip their wilful beasts along at an astounding pace.

Appearing seemingly out of nowhere, a trio of buffaloes pound their way underneath a temple archway and along a narrow, muddied track to the finishing line. That’s around a tonne of unpredictable animal hurtling past a seething throng of wildly cheering spectators. Then they turn around, line up, and race back. And did I mention the wrestling? And the bareback horse racing? And the sideshows?

Oh. And did I mention the mud?

Though it is utterly amazing to stand back and watch these Khmer buffalo-wranglers pelt through the crowds lining the clay quagmire that serves as a racetrack, it is another thing altogether negotiating a similarly torturous “road” for 20 kilometres or so from the ferry on Highway 6. The wet clay is so slippery you can barely stand upright on it, let alone ride a bike. Particularly when you chose a fast and flashy Honda street bike with slick tyres, as opposed to a far more practical dirt bike, for the trip.

Clay is soft, at least – a quality I found most appealing when the bike slipped out from underneath me. And I wasn’t the only one who came unstuck along this treacherous road. Perhaps it is this perilous journey that explains why the Vihear Suor buffalo races are not so high on the average tourist’s “must-see” list.

To add insult to injury, the races are held at the height of the rainy season. And the 7am start time – meaning a 5:30am departure from the capital – also deters most Westerners. I counted just six barang amongst the thousands of visiting Khmer villagers. But why some budding local entrepreneur doesn’t organise a bus tour to this event I have no idea. Because believe it or not, it was worth all the mud and bruises.

There is no betting or prize money for these races. It is just part of the tradition of the Pchum Ben festival in this village, part of the spirituality of the gathering. The horns of the beasts are wrapped in the same cloth as the monks’ robes. And the decorative pieces on the pointy end aren’t just there for decoration – they also provide protection for the riders.

Apart from the unique spectacle of buffalo racing, I was equally entranced by the wildly entertaining bareback horse racing. Children climbed trees and the temple archway for a better view, while orange-robed monks and beautifully adorned women lined the track to be spattered with mud along with the rest of us. The buffalo disappeared from the races early, however, and by around nine o’clock the racing was all but over.

People continued to observe Pchum Ben at the pagoda; vendors continued selling their food; people threw darts at a wall of balloons at the sideshow. Hundreds more headed to the ring to watch the Khmer wrestling. Meanwhile, I tracked down a buffalo for a quick ride. Having negotiated the roads to Vihear Suor on a motorbike, and taken a ferry across the Mekong, the opportunity to add buffalo to the day’s modes of transport was too great to resist.

Not that I rode very far. Or fast. But was it worth the trek? I’d venture an unequivocal “yes”. And if two-wheeled clay skating is not your thing, there is always the shared taxi, albeit costly over the holiday period.

If you do manage to get there, intact, the colourful chaos that is Vihear Suor buffalo racing is a day at the races you are never likely to forget.

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