Thailand’s mighty water buffaloes are facing extinction. Replaced by technology, ridiculed by people as stupid beasts, their last journey is to the slaughterhouse. One Buddhist monk is taking steps to change this.
The sun rises across freshly planted rice-fields. The farmers are out at the crack of dawn, there is some plowing left to do. A young boy arrives, riding a mighty black buffalo – it’s huge curved horns pointing to the sky, it’s gait powerful yet docile. That’s when the morning silence is torn by the farmer’s tractor cranking up.
The water buffalo, for hundreds of years the economical mainstay in every rice field, is fast becoming a rare sight. Technology has pushed them out of the labour market and the slaughterhouse is calling. The buffalo, once a symbol of wealth on every farm in South East Asia, has been made redundant. While the Thais remember the buffalo at the annual Buffalo races in Chonburi and in the movies, the animal’s public image is sinking – these days, the buffalo is considered a stupid animal. In Thailand, their days are numbered.
Now the abbot of a temple in Bangkok has embarked on a unique campaign. Phra Kru Viboonpattanakij is building a pagoda entirely from buffalo skulls to honour the country’s beast of burden.
“I always thought that the buffalo should be treated with respect. The framers grow rice, but they don’t give any rice to the buffalo. They make money and build a new house, but the buffalo is not looked after and sold to the slaughterhouse at the first opportunity. This pagoda will be a reminder of our past.”
Wat Hua Kra Bea (the buffalo head temple), situated on the outskirts of Bangkok, has long been famous for its connection to buffaloes. Wat Hua Kra Bea takes its name from a field full of buffaloes on which the temple was built a hundred years ago. Many local names in the area refer to the buffalo. Buildings, roads and canals are named after buffaloes. But there is not a single live animal around.
“The buffalo was a clean and reliable work hand on every farm. It served as plow-share, could be tied in front of a cart and it fertilised the land. Now the farmers have to buy tractors, keep them in running order, buy petrol and spare parts. They also have to buy chemical fertilizers, which destroy the environment. So the buffalo made a lot of profit against very little investment.”
The abbot, who’s 57, grew up in a farming family and looks upon the buffalo as a valued member of the family, the center of village life. He has been campaigning for the buffaloes’ welfare for the past thirty years. Phra Kru Viboonpattanakij regrets the lowly image of the animal.
“The Thais think the buffalo is stupid because they can use the buffalo but the buffalo can never use them.”
Due to the prevailing attitude that the buffalo is redundant and moronic, the abbot’s campaign has strange repercussions in the local community. Some local teachers have expressed their unhappiness to be working in a school with the word ‘buffalo’ in its name, claiming that it made their students feel ashamed when they met students from other schools. The local council has been changing old names of local canals and roads to more generic titles. The abbot confesses that the bad image of the buffalo runs deep in contemporary Thai society.
“I offered the police land to build a new station. All they had to do was accept the land and the name from the temple. But they turned our offer down and bought land somewhere else.”
Nevertheless the construction of the pagoda is going ahead.
“It’s a good thing for local people. A temple is also a study place. I can’t save the buffaloes in Thailand, but I can make people aware of our traditions.”
3000 buffalo skulls have been lined up on a wide stairway behind the prayer hall. Rows upon rows of black horns and white sun-bleached skulls stare at all visitors. The abbot proudly points out the most spectacular specimen.
“The skulls are increasingly hard to come by. Some are given as donations to the temple but we also buy them – from farmers or from slaughterhouses. We pay up to 4000B (100$) a head.”
According to official figures from the Ministry of agriculture, Thailand loses 200.000 of its buffalo population of just over a million every year. Phra Kru Viboonpattanakij does also undertake active steps to help those animals still alive. He has recently started a new scheme – the temple buys buffaloes destined for the slaughter-house and then sells them to poor farmers who have no means to purchase a tractor. The Ministry of Agriculture is running a similar scheme and has allocated 1.1 Million Baht (25.000 $) to replace dead buffaloes. But the deputy permanent secretary Dhammarong Prakoboon found reason to complain and issued a warning to Thai farmers, “Replace those brass bells around their necks or face more animals being struck by lightning.
A number of water buffaloes have died after being struck by lightning since the beginning of the rainy season. Farmers use brass bells instead of the traditional square wooden bells.
“The fashion leads to the deaths of their buffaloes and wastes state money.”
Clearly the glory days of the Thai buffalo are a thing of the past. Yet, for all the negative and ridiculous publicity, the buffalo does have legendary status in Thailand. Ad Carabao, the country’s best known pop star and a former freedom fighter has sold his soul and launched an energy drink called Carabao Daeng – Red Buffalo, a direct challenger to Red Bull, likely to grab a 30% market share by year end. What’s more, the legend of the mighty water buffalo continues to filter into popular culture. In the 17th century, soldiers of the Royal Thai Army used the animals in battle against the Burmese and the Thai blockbuster Bang-Rachan gave domestic audiences a taste of the fierce fighting force the usually docile animals are able to muster. Most importantly, the Chonburi buffalo races are a major event in the festival calendar. The abbot, Phra Kru Viboonpattanakij, thinks the races are a reminder of the buffalo’s great power.
“The Chonburi races are an opportunity to celebrate the great tradition of the buffalo, to present these beautiful animals to a public that rarely has any contact with the buffaloes these days.”
The water buffalo race carnival, which takes place the first weekend in October, dates back centuries ago. Traditionally, farmers and merchants meet to relax and let off a little steam to celebrate the end of Buddhist Lent. The races are spectacular, high-octane events. Dust flies as the buffalo jockeys attempt to mount their beast bareback, while trying to stay together in order to leave the starting line at the same time. There are many false starts, as the unruly beasts anxiously take off before the starting bell. When the official signal is finally given, the stadium roars to life as the massive animals pound, snort, and stomp their way down the racetrack. It’s an awesome sight, and the crowd gathered at the finish line quickly breaks for cover as the beasts fly towards them. The jockeys show off their bareback acrobatics and dismount the animals at top speed.
Som, one of the buffalo trainers, takes part in the races every year. He doesn’t mind imparting a couple of trade secrets to outsiders, “ If you feed the buffalo a mix of beer and eggs, just before race time, you are a sure winner. It really gets them going.”
It’s a Day at the Races – Thai style. Hundreds of vendors sell fried foods, cold drinks, toys and souvenirs. The crowd is in party-mood and by mid-afternoon, the finalists, the mightiest beasts in the land and their fearless riders line up for the last time. The audience hangs on the sidelines with baited breath, the buffaloes snort nervously under the tropical sun, the riders stare straight ahead. The bell rings, the ground shakes, the beasts break. Som watches his jockey go. Will beer and eggs make him this year’s winner?
Back at the Buffalo temple, Phra Kru Viboonpattanakij and has more plans in store. The abbot hopes to attract many visitors to the temple once the pagoda is completed.
“The next step will be to build a museum documenting the history of the buffalo in Thailand. We must not forget what we owe to this great animal.”