Travel & Life - October 12, 2018 | 06:17 pm PT

Farmers as strong as bulls race oxen in Khmer fest

A Khmer tradition, the Bay Nui Ox Racing Tournament requires contestants to be physically strong and tactically smart.

This is the ox racing arena at Tho Mit Temple, Tinh Bien District, in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang. On October 8 this year, the Bay Nui Ox Racing Tournament, a unique cultural event, was held as part of the traditional Sene Dolta Festival celebration of the Khmer ethnic community. This is one of the main festivals of the Khmer people, when they commemorate their ancestors, pray for the living and strengthen community bonds.

64 pairs of oxen from various parts of An Giang and Kien Giang provinces took part in the competition. To race, the animals need to be of good height, fighting fit and have a competitive spirit. A pair of racing oxen costs VND60 million ($2,570) to more than VND100 million ($4,283).

A rider crouches on a plow yoked to the oxen. He uses prods with sharp nails to make the animals run faster.

One oxen owner said that the choice of animals depends on a family’s affluence. "Rich people can buy good oxen," he told VnExpress. "Besides competing, they also have to work in the fields."

Two pairs among the 64 that competed in 32 races were named the champions. Lots were drawn to determine the order of the race, with different finishing points fixed for each contestant. The first half of the race is called "ho" (walking at slow speed) and the other is "tha" (accelerating to the finish line).

In the "ho" stage, if a contestant comes into contact with the plow in front, he loses. But in the “tha” stage, doing this, or maintaining a distance of four meters or less from the person in front can facilitate victory.

A contestant loses if he goes off the track.

The leader has the tactical advantage of being able to speed up when necessary to eliminate an opponent. On the other hand, a trailing contestant can maintain the required distance (4 meters or less) behind the leader or make contact with his plow to win.

The racers have to be very healthy and courageous. Thach Minh, 36, said, "I've been a racer for 18 years. But because I am poor, I only have normal oxen and mainly win consolation prizes.”

In the annual race there have been many instances of racers falling off the plow and being run over, leading to broken legs and other severe injuries.

Besides plowing the field, the oxen practice every day with their “riders.” For a week after the tournament, they are allowed to rest and treated to nutritious food like porridge, eggs and coconut water.

Many ox racing contests are held each year in An Giang Province.

One racer fell off the plough, and his oxen ran into the crowd. The contestant was disqualified.

This year, oxen belonging to Nguyen Thanh Tai of Chau Lang Commune, Tri Ton District, defeated those of Ngo Van Cuoc of Nui Voi Commune, Tinh Bien District in the final, winning the championship and the VND30 million ($1,285) prize.

The Bay Nui Ox Racing Festival is held annually between Tinh Bien and Tri Ton districts, which neighbor Cambodia.

The champions will return to their usual work after the event, but the value of the animals will increase.

Story and photos by Duc Dong