Villagers Cleanse Souls With Mud in Vihear Sour

vihear sour, Kandal – The toothy smile on the villager’s face didn’t quite match the buffalo’s foaming mouth as it spotted a red shirt in the crowd and changed direction. The buffalo swerved, the rider slid off its back and the speeding beast was free.

Dozens of villagers on Friday came to Kandal province’s Vihear Sour village with their livestock—buffalo and horses—to hurtle down a muddy, 4-meter-wide track in superstitious hope of bringing good health to man and beast in the coming year.

It was the penultimate day of Pchum Ben celebrations—the last chance to appease one’s ancestors and spiritually cleanse the living.

But for the crowd of thousands at Vihear Sour, Friday morning was all about getting dirty.

As the rising sun revealed the limitless cloud cover, the first of the buffalo riders finished fixing the sequined headpiece to his 400-odd-kg steed, knowing that he had a good chance of being speared into the mud.

Soon they took to the course, man and beast together, but by no means working as a team. The crowd that had gathered on the fringes of the treacherous track came to chorus.

In this theater, the rider couldn’t win: If he stayed on his mount, he was sneered; if he fell, he was jeered. The first rider fell, but his beast completed the course solo, then went for a swim in a nearby river.

“That was not a good crash,” said Meas Ly, a 32-year-old local.

“The buffalo definitely won this time because he made it to the end and went to clean in the river but the rider is stuck in the mud.”

At the foot of the stairs leading into the pagoda around which the races were staged, the next set of would-be jockeys prepared for their races—on horses—under a string of Buddhist flags. Stallions mixed with mares—a recipe for disaster—and children mingled in between. It was as if they didn’t know that horses kick.

Without good warning, a team of horses carrying yahooing wannabe Cambodian cowboys took off in a spray of mud. The crowd, equal parts thrilled and frightened, peeled away barely soon enough to avoid being trampled. Instinct and wit, and perhaps the will of Buddha, were the only safety measures.

“It can be dangerous but we need to trust the men to know their animals so closely and control them,” said Gao Vannak, 44.

“It is a day of the sprits, so everybody should be OK.”

Down the track the animals, buffaloes and horses raced for hours with no semblance of structure and little sanity. The slightest lapse in concentration or error in judgment could have sent a horned beast plunging into a sea of smiling onlookers. But thankfully, it wasn’t to be.

As the last of the riders dismounted mid-morning, supposedly cleansed and certainly having entertained, the masses moved quickly across the village from the mud track to a patch of red earth under an old bodhi tree.

Here, each year men get their chance to impress through chumbap boran, or traditional Cambodian wrestling.

Half beautiful, half brutal, chumbap boran at times resembles Greco Roman wrestling, at others, Apsara dancing with a cheeky smile. These wrestlers, the victorious ones at least, are the heroes of the village.

“I think if they win, they are the strongest men in the world,” said Soeun Yort, 11.

“My brother was in the fight today but he lost. He is strong but not that strong,” he said. “Next year, I will go in [and fight] and everyone can see me win.”

Between clashes and takedowns, the wrestlers, ringed by hoards of villagers howling for a collision, use sharp, graceful dance moves to mock and rile their opponents. Taking a man down leaves a fighter with free rein to unleash his kookiest dance move.

The early bouts were more demonstrative than dangerous: The fighters were real, but the fights were not. But as the celebratory beers took hold, men began to emerge from the crowd, topped up with cans of courage and ready to get dirty.

And get dirty they did. Flipping and twisting and snapping each other into the dirt, the slap of flesh on earth soon became the soundtrack.

For hours it went on, each fight ending with smiles, pats on the back, a few thousand riel in prize money and a new krama for each muddied fighter.

“On the outside they look very dirty,” Mr. Vannak said. “But now that they have performed today, on the inside they are clean.”

(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)

Related Stories

Latest News