Thundering hooves

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A Khmer tradition plows a sporting furrow

Two pairs of oxen race along a muddy track while an excited crowd looks

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the atmosphere was electric as the Khmer Dolta Oxen Race got underway in An Giang Province last week.

The 25,000-strong crowd at the Ta Miet Pagoda "stadium" was beside itself with excitement, and "spillovers" to the muddy, waterlogged racing tracks were frequent, keeping the race organizers busy and constantly on edge. With eighty pairs of oxen in the fray, this was not surprising. But the oxen themselves seemed to regard all the fuss with a degree of equanimity, with a certain detachment so to speak, of athletes biding their time before bursting into action.

The shook their heads and swished their tails as though they were warming up, but there was no snorting or scraping of the ground with their hooves ... no sign of aggression. Then it struck me that I was expecting aggression because somehow, I was thinking of the bull-fight in Spain.

Big difference, though. This was no man vs. beast contest with the latter provoked into anger and violence, and there would be no killing of the beast here. The race focuses on teamwork between the farmer and oxen and farmer, and symbolizes the cooperation that is necessary between the two to ensure a good rice crop.

The winner of the race, in fact, would be prized for bringing honor and glory to the village or community.

And there was a Spaniard on hand to provide a comparison from the horse's mouth.

"It is spectacular to see big oxen racing on muddy racing paths. I was a bit scared to come to the middle of the racing stadium because it can be dangerous, just like in my country. People were both in a good mood, very excited and concentrated on the race. I was surprised by the number of people, security measures and police officials trying to control the crowd that want to come on to the racing track with bamboo sticks (batons)... and all this amidst a beautiful landscape," said Nacho Madrazo, a photographer from Madrid.

Madrazo said that in many regions in Spain, people (especially the youth) were trying to stop the bull-fighting because it is cruel to kill the bull. "I was also surprised to discover that the "riders" use the small knife to force the oxen to gallop. It does not feel right but it is just once a year and at least they do not kill them."

The race also had several other surprises in store. The rules were not as simple as I'd imagined a starting point and finishing point and the fastest pair wins. The competition consisted of what can be called a "demonstration" round and the proper race. During the first part of the competition that involved the pairs going around the race track twice, the "riders" had to demonstrate good control over the plow and the oxen. If they happened to step on the plow in front, they would be eliminated.

However, the situation is reversed during the speed race when the plow of the contestant in front is touched, the latter is eliminated. All races are between two pairs, with the winners going on to the next round.

I got into a conversation with Nguyen Tri Ton, an 85-year-old member of the audience seated in the first line of the stands. Ton was there to support his grandson. "I joined the Oxen race when I was 20 years old and stopped when I turned 65. Then I taught the skills to my grandson."

He spoke of the days when oxen were used regularly for plowing fields, and a very valuable resource. Now very few were being kept for the traditional purpose, while others were reared solely for the purpose of this traditional event. More and more tractors were being used in An Giang Province, Ton said.

He said it was important to choose the oxen with their hooves close to each other, strong and big hips and gradually sloping legs.

And a smart oxen owner will take really good care of his oxen, Ton said. "I used to feed the oxen not with the grass in the field, but with what I specially grew for them. When they got tired, I cooked porridge for them. We also had the net to protect it from mosquitoes and sometimes, took them out for walks in the field. One week before the competition I feed them with chicken eggs and coconut water to strengthen them and practice for the competition."

Ton said he and his grandson chose a pair of Khmer oxen some months ago for VND60 million.

As Ton spoke, the competition heated up and there were more people climbing the trees around, and the MC was shouting himself hoarse, warning the excited crowds not to enter the racing areas and risk serious injury or worse. Some of the drivers jumped off and rolled in the mud towards the end of the race to avoid being "tagged" by the contestant behind, and jumped right back on track to resume racing, putting the opponent under similar pressure. The excitement reached fever pitch as this happened.

As one owner complained bitterly that he was the winner of a close race, Chau Set, a 33-year-old Khmer man explained in perfect Vietnamese: "He complains because he does not want to loose. If he'd won, the oxen would sell at higher prices."

Chau Set said that unlike in old days, most of the people driving the oxen these days were not the owners themselves but farmers hired them, just like jockeys for horses. The winning "jockey" would get about VND2 to 3 million from the prize money of VND30 million. The owner of the winning pair of oxen would also get other prizes including a motorbike, a mobile phone and a watch. That these gifts are sponsored by different companies testified to the event's growing popularity.

And what of the winning oxen? They live to race another day.

The Khmer Dolta Oxen race kicks off the the traditional Dolta traditional festival of the Khmer ethnic minority in An Giang Province. (which occurs at the end of eighth Lunar month and extends to the first days of the following month).

The races began as an entertainment for those households using oxen to till fields that belonged to local Buddhist pagodas and developed into a popular traditional festivity. They usually take place in the two mountainous districts of Tri Ton and Tinh Bien in An Giang province.

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