A lot of mystery surrounds buffalo fighting, and here on Samui, it’s no different. It all starts with simply trying to find out when and where fights are going to take place. Many visitors to the island aren’t even sure how to get to see a fight. Seemingly desperate posts are left on travel websites, and garner a few equally desperate replies. “When you see a buffalo on the side of the road, see if you can find the owner,” reads one particularly inane bit of advice, as if to say all buffalo owners happen to know about fights!
It’s actually quite easy to get to a buffalo fighting stadium, but just don’t ask Google to sort it out for you: no handy map will pop up with road directions, nor will you be able to buy a ticket with a few taps of the keyboard. That’s because buffalo fighting is a traditional sport that’s still conducted in very traditional ways. Think rustic. It’s not online yet. So who to ask? If you’re staying at a hotel, try talking to the receptionist. He or she probably won’t know any details but will know someone who does. Alternatively pop in to any of the island’s hundreds of travel agents, and they’ll find out where the next fight is slated to take place. If you drive along the ring-road you’ll see hand-written signs that announce fights. The stadiums where they take place are set well away from major roads, so it may require a bit of persistence to actually find. And locations can move, too, and new venues can open very quickly. There’s a fairly well-known stadium in Maenam. Turn inland at the town’s only traffic lights, head through the temple grounds, turn left, then after a hundred metres turn right and follow the road.
‘Stadium’ is an absurdly grand word for most venues. They’re basically cordoned-off areas with a rough stockade covered in curtaining. This is so that people can’t watch the show for free. There may or not be a ticket booth, but there’ll be someone there collecting money. Entrance fees vary and can be from 100 baht upwards. One couple I know paid a total of 1,000 baht to get in – definitely on the exorbitant side. You may be able to bargain.
Some people resort to cunning tactics to watch the show without paying. On Samui, thanks to the island being one giant coconut plantation, there are always coconut trees to climb. And at any fight you’ll see nimble and vertigo-free youngsters getting a drone’s eye view of the action right beneath them. This is tolerated, but what goes up must come down, and the journey down may be excruciating thanks to the wood of the coconut palm tree being prone to splintering!
Buffalo fighting is taken very seriously by some, more so because of all the betting on the animals. These can be very big bets – astounding ones. Cases are known where cash just wasn’t sufficient. Imagine going home to your partner and announcing that you’d just lost your entire house on a single bet. It’s happened. Who would think that a couple of animals between them can cause enough financial havoc to last for years to come? Winners can earn millions of baht during such fights. Needless to say, it pays quite literally to know the animals that are going to be in the fights. When you’re at a buffalo fight, you’ll probably see plenty of money changing hands, quite openly. The system of keeping tallies is a complex one that relies on trust on both sides with the bets always being honoured. To an outsider it’s all an enigma, even more so as the two
buffalo will probably look identical.
Perhaps due to all these invested energies, the atmosphere at a buffalo fight can be amazingly charged, with the crowds cheering as the fight gets underway. You can see people’s eyes a-glow, their only thought the fight that’s before them. To a non-betting onlooker, this can at times seem bizarre – it’s just two animals facing off, after all. But say that to an avid
spectator and it’s a bit like telling a wine connoisseur that wine is just simply, well, grape juice.
If you’re watching a fight, there’ll be a long wait beforehand, as more and more people pack into the stadium and mill around. There’s often food and drink on sale – it all depends how big the fight is. The arena is protected by fencing and beyond that you’ll see just the two buffalo. They’re separated by a dingy curtain and cannot see each other at all, so they remain totally calm, even when the crowd starts baying with excitement. When the canvas is pulled aside, they instantaneously become very aware of each other. Usually they’ll charge at each other and you’ll hear a mighty thwack as their heads come together. Then begins a tussle that can continue on and off for up to a half an hour. The fight is only won when one animal clearly dominates another, for example, chasing it around the stadium. The action can get violent with
buffalo actually crashing through the perimeter fencing, scattering the crowds. But there are plenty of cases too where the animals just quietly look at each other and do absolutely nothing. Make no mistake though; buffalo fighting is a sport that can cause bloodshed and injury, even if the animal doesn’t fight to the death.
Buffalo fighting shows are extremely popular on Samui. It’s part and parcel of a tradition that includes not just Thailand but also other South-East Asian countries. If you go, you’ll see relatively few non-Thais; it’s a sport for local people, though not everyone agrees with it or even wishes to go and witness a show. Most foreign residents have never seen a buffalo fight.
When it comes to experiencing the culture and traditions of Thailand, you will find plenty that’s going on. It can’t be said that buffalo fighting is a must-see activity, but it’s certainly one that will give you a glimpse of life in rural Thailand. And perhaps, too, the speediest to win or lose a fortune.