WAT VIHEAR SOUR, Kandal province – Moan Som has been coming to the Pchum Ben buffalo races here for as long as she can remember, but the 59-year-old hasn’t lost her excitement for the beasts at the center of the show.
“Buffalo! Buffalo!” she shouted on Saturday morning, smiling broadly and pointing at the animals passing by with their heads and horns covered in sparkling decorations.
Thousands of people joined her to watch the annual buffalo race at this sprawling pagoda in Khsach Kandal district, which has hosted the event for almost a century. Crowds lined the narrow dirt track and perched on top of statues to watch riders urge their buffalos and horses toward a group of monks awaiting them at the steps of the main temple.
The race has seen a sharp increase in spectators after the 2011 opening of the Prek Tamak bridge, which crosses the Mekong River only a few kilometers from the pagoda, making it an easier trip from nearby provinces, said Thai Thang, 47, the organizer of the event.
Yet as the audience grows, the number of buffalos taking part has been on a steady decline, he said.
Six years ago, there were about 40 buffalos participating, but less than 20 ran in this year’s race. It’s a problem that does not go unnoticed by spectators.
“In the 1990s there were 50, 60, even more than 60 buffalos,” Ms. Som said of the animals, which can weigh upward of 400 kg. “Now it is mostly horses. It is not as fun.”
About 40 horses joined the buffalos this year, all sporting ornate headgear for their sprint down the track—more of a fashion show than a contest of speed, an opportunity for riders to show off their skills and sequined beasts.
The annual festival, which includes traditional wrestling matches and ceremonies for the ancestral holiday, has made this pagoda and the surrounding village something of a pilgrimage site for many.
“It’s very important to us. Even during the Pol Pot regime we had this festival,” said Mr. Thang, who for the past 13 years has volunteered his time to organize the event, which began in the 1920s. But the waning number of buffalos poses a new threat to the age-old tradition.
Mr. Thang said there were several reasons for the shrinking herd. Access to mechanical farming equipment has made buffalos less necessary for farmers. There has been an increase in demand for the animals from Phnom Penh restaurants for meat and Vietnamese buffalo fighters for sturdy mounts.
“Most people who used to have buffalo have sold them now,” said Pat Reath, a 24-year-old monk who has lived at Wat Vihear Sour for the past eight years. “Most years there were more buffalo than horses. Now there are not so many, it is mostly horses.”
Still, the numbers of spectators keeps growing, he said.
Throughout the morning races, children and adults alike broke out in laughter when the riders lost control of their animals. The crowd was occasionally forced to scatter as a rogue buffalo or horse got too close for comfort.
“This year has more people than last year,” said Pat Reath. “I like to watch the people go ‘oh’ and ‘ah,’” he said, smiling as the crowd reacted to a particularly feisty horse temporarily freeing itself from its handler.
But for some, the races just aren’t the same without all the buffalos.
“There are more people now, but it was more fun before,” Ms. Som said after the event. “I will still come back, but I hope there are more buffalos next year.”