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Khwai is the Thai word for water buffalo. The water buffalo plays a big part in Thai culture and daily life, and they are a common sight here on Ko Samui. See an open patch of land with grass, and you are sure to find a buffalo tethered to a coconut tree, quietly grazing and watching the world go by.
Water buffalo are large bovine animals, domesticated in Asia more than 5,000 years ago. An adult weighs in at between 300 and 600 kilograms. They are wide-set, with large protruding stomachs, and prominent backward-curving horns, larger on the males. Traditionally water buffalo were used to plough fields, and in particular paddy; their large splayed hooves helping them not to sink too deep into the mud. In certain areas of Thailand, they can still be seen working the land, but all too often they have been replaced by tractors, which are actually called ‘iron buffalo’ in Thai.
Samui doesn’t have paddy, but the buffalo are still a big part of the scenery. Owning a buffalo is a status symbol, and a good one can sell for hundreds of thousands of baht. If there’s no paddy, what are they used for on an island like Samui, and why the high price? Entertainment! Gambling!
Buffalo fighting is a popular form of entertainment, and although gambling is illegal in Thailand, you wouldn’t know it by hanging around the buffalo stadiums. Before you get too appalled, this is nothing like the horrendous bull fighting of Spain; the buffalo seldom get hurt. Two males are put into a ring together, and they paw at the ground, bow and show their horns at each other, run and bash heads – their horns point to the back, so no goring takes place. The winner is the one who stands his ground, the loser running away with his tail between his legs so to speak, with admittedly a sore head and perhaps bruising. The more aggressive the buffalo, the more the crowd cheers.
Tickets go for between 100 to 400 baht, depending on the stadium.
The water buffalo is actually a docile creature, with aggression emerging when two hot-blooded males are put together. Driving around Samui, a common sight is that of a handler tending to his buffalo, feeding him grass cuttings, bathing him, walking him on a rope to a patch of grass, or taking him for a swim in the sea. A strange sight to behold is walking along the beach, only to find a buffalo pop his head out from the water to come up for air while his owner lies sleeping under a coconut tree, rope in hand. This is by no means a rare sight; Bang Rak beach and Taling Ngam are common places to see this.
One thing to remember: the biggest insult you can give a Thai person is to call them a buffalo; not because they don’t love and respect the buffalo, but because they are also thought of as stupid and stubborn.
By Rosanne Turner
Last updated on 18th March, 2015.