vihear sour commune, Khsach Kandal district, Kandal province – In the short space of time following the final notes of Sunday’s late-night dance party, and just before the loudspeakers around Wat Preah Vihear Sour cranked up to announce Monday’s schedule of events, a brief silence descended on Preah Chas village.
It would be the last quiet moment for quite some time.
For it was with the sun still climbing out of the rice fields that encircle this hardscrabble farming hamlet that the exuberance and colorful activity of the annual three-day Pchum Ben celebration began to reach its peak.
Nearly 20,000 spectators from around the country took part in the day of festivities, featuring a thundering herd of costumed water buffalo and the bravado of bare-chested wrestlers.
It was a day both solemn and high-spirited for the thousands who dressed in their finest outfits and traveled by bike, boat, bus or car to reach the festival, and to visit the famed Wat Preah Vihear Sour pagoda and Preah Chas village.
Preah Chas is equally famous for its raucous, signature Pchum Ben events—traditional buffalo racing and an exhibition of Khmer wrestling.
“More people come each year to see the buffalo races,” said San Sem, a 50-year-old father of seven who has lived in the village his entire life and has served as buffalo race organizer since 1992.
“People here have enjoyed the tradition for a long, long time. During Pchum Ben we must have it—it is our custom,” he said.
The traditional sporting events were begun in 1928 as a way of honoring the pagoda spirits.
Buffalo racing was a chance for local farmers to recognize the importance of the giant, docile beasts, and to show off the strength of specific animals prior to selling them to the highest bidder.
“Almost everyone who lives here is a farmer. If not, people must go to Phnom Penh to work in a garment factory,” San Sem said. “Even though people now use machines and tractors, about half of us still use buffalo. If you don’t have a buffalo, you have to rent one.”
For the buffalo themselves, there could be no finer hour. The biggest males were groomed and adorned with gaudy, mirrored masks made of sequined red and green fabric. The 500-kg beasts were then brought to the pagoda and forced to kneel before the temple steps.
“Only during Pchum Ben do the buffalo get to dress like this,” said local farmer Chub Pheng.
“It is tradition to bring them to the pagoda before the race to pray to the spirit of the wat. I expect that after he prays at the wat, my buffalo will never be sick—he will be healthy and strong,” Chub Pheng said.
With onlookers jostling for position in a narrow dirt alley, the buffalo were paired and the racing began.
Wearing kramas tied around the waist and between the legs, jockeys rode the buffaloes, urging their steeds to surprisingly high speeds with the use of some well-timed whacks from a bamboo crop.
“There are no winners or losers,” San Sem said. “All the riders enjoy the races together. They are showing the health of their buffalo.”
When the racing ended, spectators focused their attention on a makeshift, dirt wrestling ring in front of a nearby schoolhouse.
There, beneath the shade of a sprawling tamarind tree, spectators gathered to watch young men exhibiting duels of physical strength and wrestling prowess. Using such tactics as the Tiger Bow, the Flying Hawk and the Crocodile’s Open Mouth, competitors fought to pin each other down over three rounds. An announcer broadcast the play-by-play to the crowd as traditional music was performed by local musicians.
“It doesn’t matter to me if my wrestlers win or lose,” said Hun Thol, 61, who brought 10 of his wrestling students from nearby Soda village to compete in the event.
“I come every year to watch my students. I am happy to train the young people because I am now too old to compete.”
After the registered participants finished their matches, the announcer called on the crowd for volunteers. Those willing to compete in front of family and friends stripped off their clothes and put on the traditional wrestling garb.
Winners were awarded envelopes of cash, and losers received money from the crowd if their performances were deemed worthy.
“I come to wrestle in this event not for the money, but for the fun,” said 18-year-old Thoeun Bun Heng, who won $0.75 after his second-round win.
“My father was not a wrestler but I enjoy this tradition a lot,” he said.
Pagoda chief Prak Than, 69, lauded this year’s festivities.
“As people learn about it, the festival at Wat Preah Vihear Sour is becoming more and more popular with people from all over Cambodia who want to come celebrate our past traditions,” Prak Than said.
“After the sadness of the Khmer Rouge time, it is important for Cambodians to remember these things.”