Thai buffalo farmers swap paddy fields for race track

Thai buffalo farmers swap paddy fields for race track
Participants ride buffalos during the annual buffalo races in Chonburi southeast of Bangkok on October 7, 2014. Scores of Thai farmers ditched their paddy fields for the race course to sprint across a dusty track on prized water buffalo, vying for glory in a decades-old racing contest.

CHONBURI, Thailand - Scores of Thai farmers ditched their paddy fields for the race course Tuesday to sprint across a dusty track on the backs of prized water buffalo, vying for glory in a decades-old racing contest.

The race is the highlight of the annual buffalo festival in Chonburi town, around 80 kilometres (50 miles) east of the capital Bangkok, with bareback riders competing for the top prize of 10,000 baht (S$383.59) across several categories.

Songphol Kongprasert, a local farmer who won top spot in a race last year, has been competing for more than a decade.

"These buffalos are part of my family, I ride for them," said the 31-year-old, adding he felt no fear tearing across the dusty track in races where injuries are common.

Jockeys as young as nine years old were cheered on by two packed seating areas filled with residents as well as tourists drawn to the seaside town for the festival's 143rd year.

But the event has also attracted criticism from animal rights campaigners who accuse competitors of mistreating the beasts.

Chonburi town mayor Dacho Kongchayasukawat argued the races instead helped to preserve water buffalos, once an iconic part of Thailand's rural landscape. 

"If there is no racing, Thai buffalo will no longer exist because they wouldn't be used by their owners. But if we preserve them, we can use them for ploughing, trading and also for racing," he said.

For centuries Thais relied on water buffalo to plough their rice paddies, provide transportation and even defend villages during war, but with mechanised farming the animals have seen their importance diminish.

The week-long festival, ending Friday, also has other opportunities for farmers to showcase their animals' talents.

Nearly 800 buffalos participate in other ways including a parade through Chonburi town and a beauty contest which sees the animals decked out in patterned fabrics and plastic flowers.

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