Thailand's Traditional Tractor:
The Water Buffalo
In this land of many paddies, the ancient labor of ploughing the soil, planting and harvesting the rice, has been arduous, backbreaking work. But it had to be done if rural families were to survive because rice production represented most of their annual income. To this end, the farmer's "best friend" was his water buffalo and, indeed, the ownership of several buffaloes indicated the farmers wealth and prosperity. Water buffaloes were "money in the bank".
Happily for the farmer, but sadly for many traditionalists, the mechanization of many farming practices has seen the rapid decline of the buffalo population. It used to be a common sight to see buffaloes pulling the plough through the squelching mud of a rice paddy, or lazily wallowing in a water filled ditch at the side of the road, but nowadays the bright-red, diesel driven paddy-plough is the more usual sight.
Fortunately for visitors, the docile water buffalo has not disappeared entirely from the Chiangmai scene so you may see some in their natural, working environment as you travel around the countryside. For a fun day out, it is worthwhile visiting the buffalo training camp at Mae Rim where you can see them at work and at play. You may also ride in a buffalo-drawn cart which can be a lot of laughs especially if you're riding with a group in competition with another group.
There is a further opportunity for those who like to see the "ungilded lily" in totally Thai surroundings. That's by calling in at the Sanpatong Buffalo Market which is held every Saturday morning until 12 noon. Sanpatong is a 40 minute bus ride (very inexpensive) south of Chiangmai and the Buffalo Market is on the right-hand side of the main road after passing through Sanpatong township. By the way, there's more to buy than a buffalo at this large Thai market as there are lots of other goods on sale (from furniture to motorcycles to straw hats) at bargain prices.
The buffalo pens will have interested farmers (pretending non-interest) inspecting the beasts on sale for their work potential. There may be bulls, cows and calves on offer with the seller extolling their virtues. The canny farmer will examine the buffalo's hooves as they are a sure sign of the animal's future. Pale colored hooves indicate lack of strength as, sooner or later, they will crack allowing infection and illness to eventually destroy the beast. Water buffaloes are non-aggressive by nature (although they will defend themselves if attacked) but for ease of management, farmers thread a light rope through the sensitive tissue of their nose; this allows the buffalo to be led very easily with only the gentlest of tugs on a lead rope.
The gentle buffalo -- called "quai" in Thai -- has given generations of service to farmers and continues to hold an honored place of affection in Thai hearts. But to refer to a person as "quai" is extremely rude; although the buffalo is submissive, strong and, maybe, slightly stupid, nature has rarely extended the buffaloes humbleness to us humans. Perhaps we should learn something of these lovely creatures before they disappear entirely from the Thai countryside