You know it’s a damn good holiday when there’s a chance you might get run over by frightened livestock.
At least, that’s how it is in Vihear Sour Cheung village in Ksach Kandal district in the Cambodian countryside. Falling in either late September or fall on the Western calender, Pchum Ben is Cambodia’s Day of the Dead equivalent, when the gates of Hell open and the spirits of one’s relatives wander the earth.
Beyond the expected Buddhist ceremonies at Cambodia’s many wats (temples), people in the countryside celebrate with exceedingly rowdy buffalo and horse races. Myself and some photographer friends pooled together some cash and got a car to take us out of Phnom Penh and into the pancake-flat, electrically green Cambodian countryside to watch the action in Kandal Province. The races, we were told, began at 6:00 AM. Probably.
I made this video. I think I chose the right music.
We arrived and saw hundreds of excited people of all possible ages lined up along what seems to be a dangerously narrow corridor near the town’s main Buddhist temple. We had got there late (thanks to the usually vague Khmer-style time estimation) and managed to wedge ourselves into the eager, nervous-looking crowd. The animals, both horses and buffalo, were raced in laps along this corridor. A man with a whistle would blow on it a few seconds before the animals came into view, giving people a bit of lead time on leaping out of the way, or at least jostling their way into the crowd for a few millimeters of safety.
We got ourselves into position with our cameras, and soon the whistle blew: frantic gallumphing sounds heralded the arrival of the horses, slim chestnut and tan creatures being whipped into a frothing gallop by young men who looked somewhere between elated and absolutely mind-bendingly frightened. The crowd would emit excited sounds as the horses came by, low and then high and low again.
The buffalo came more slowly – a pace better described as sedate, really, with their large whitish-grey heads up in the air. The buffalo were decorated with jingling golden bells and muti-colored beads and fringe. Their jockeys (notably, rather more senior and tubby than the guys on the horses) whapped them animatedly on the butts with switches to keep them moving. Everybody cheered when the buffalo shuffled by. I have no idea how water buffalo perceive their sense of personal dignity but I feel this kind of thing might be corrosive to it.
A terrified looking horse on the way back from one of the heats pulled up and backed into the crowd, which made everybody scream, whether they were in any actual danger or not. It is always very fun to scream in a crowd situation, as anyone who has been eight knows.
None of my journalist friends managed to be run over by a horse or a buffalo, although I suspect some of us were taking private mental bets on who would incur some sort of embarrassing injury. Maybe a close call or two. “There was a hoof print on her BACK!” I overheard one of our party say about someone else.
With poor judgement, I crouched on the red-dust track with a camera on a tripod and shot the animals from below, trusting that I’d hear the whistling and the gallumphing before a very small and very anxious horse trampled my head. I declined to fly my drone over the affair, cool as the video might be. I didn’t want a water buffalo to startle.
The races may not last much longer, or that’s what I heard. Horses have limited utility in a Cambodia where even poor people can usually manage to afford a motorbike – mirroring what happened in the US as cars pushed out horses in the 1940s and 1950s. The buffalo, meanwhile, have greater value as slightly gamy steaks and as rice-growing helpmates than they do as racing mounts to country dwellers.
I certainly hope that this rowdy and highly amusing tradition continues in some form in Cambodia. Perhaps someone should create a Buffalo Jockey for a day tourist program, or something like that – the total immersion Livestock Wrangling Experience. Everyone gets a certificate and lots of selfie opportunities. There will only be a few tramplings.
It works for Pamplona.