Koh Samui, Thailand's Bizarre Buffalo Fights

Leave It to a Buddhist Country to Stage Peaceful Bovine Fights

Koh Samui Buffalo
Kirsten via Creative Commons (Flickr)

When you think of fighting bovines, whether it's Spain's Running of the Bulls or a good old Texas rodeo, you probably don't see pleasant images. You also probably don't think of Thailand, which makes the buffalo fights on Koh Samui island all the more surprising. Take a break from the beach the next time your travels take you the Gulf of Thailand and check out one of Koh Samui's not-so-famous buffalo fights.

The Origins of Koh Samui's Buffalo Fights

If you're curious as to how Buffalo fighting came to exist on Koh Samui, you're not alone. In spite of how popular the fighting has become on Koh Samui—the person whose Buffalo wins the fight can take home more than one million Thai baht in prize money, or about 30,000 U.S. dollars as of January 2015—the origins of buffalo fighting on Koh Samui remain unknown.

One fact that is certain about Koh Samui's buffalo fights, however, is that they're humane, at least when compared to the gorier matches in Spain or Texas. Participants go to great lengths to make sure no harm comes to the Buffalo during fights, which will come as a huge relief if you're concerned about animal welfare.

What Happens in a Koh Samui Buffalo Fight?

Which is not to say that Koh Samui buffalo fights are wholly enjoyable for their bovine participants—it's more complicated than that. On one hand, buffalo fights in Koh Samui are not like bull fights in Spain. The animals don't fight one another to the death; there's rarely blood spilled. They mostly just lock horns (all participants in the fight are male) and the one who walks away first loses.

On the other hand, these events certainly aren't PETA approved, let alone condoned by the majority of Thais. In fact, Koh Samui is now the only place in the entire Kingdom where buffalo fighting remains legal, and the organizers of these events go to great lengths to be respectful to the animals.

A Blessed Ritual

One explanation for the development of buffalo fighting on Koh Samui might lie in Thailand's Buddhist heritage. If you attend a Koh Samui buffalo fight, you'll notice two robe-clad men approaching the buffalos and spraying them with some kind of substance—the men are monks and the substance is holy water. You'll also probably notice the buffalos themselves, which the monks sometimes adorned with real gold leaf, are not unlike Thailand's Buddhist temples in their ornate decorations. 

Likewise, you shouldn't expect an extremely rowdy mood in the crowd most of the time, although it can be more or less hectic depending on which beverage locals choose that evening and also, the predominant social class of the people at the fight you attend. Buffalo fights can range from sophisticated gatherings that are a practically black tie, to little more than an excuse to get together and drink.

The Best Time to See Koh Samui Buffalo Fights

If you're curious about seeing a buffalo fight the next time you visit Koh Samui, the surest bet is to plan your trip around either New Year's Day or Songkran, the Thai New Year. This will, of course, result in higher prices on the hotel where make your Koh Samui home, but if you want to be certain you catch a buffalo fight, you'll have to deal with the extra expenditure.

With this being said, Buffalo fights do happen throughout the year, in designated stadiums all around the island. Due to both the sacred nature of the fights, and the fact that they aren't yet a huge tourist draw, the stadiums don't tend to exist in areas Westerners frequent, so your best bet for finding one is to befriend a local (hint: your hotel's receptionist is a great start for this) and ask if he knows when the next fight will occur. If you're lucky, he might even be a fan and invite you to come along with him and his friends!

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