The whole image of bull-fighting conjures up richly dressed Spanish matadors in red capes, fighting bulls to the death for the entertainment of the masses. Yet here in southern Thailand the bulls do not fight people to the death. They fight other bulls, and it’s not to the death. Pushing and wrestling in a stadium arena to get dominance is the contest, and eventually one bull proves that he is the best in this three day contest.
In this rural setting, forty minutes outside of Krabi-town, lies an arena so rustic and makeshift it seems of an earlier era. The outer walls of the stadium are rusted, made of corrugated tin and standing no more than eight feet high with wooden boards that patch the whole stadium together, creating a flimsy looking wall. Parking is like at a county fair; temporarily set up on a grassy area near the stadium and the bull stalls. The arena is made from a variety of tree posts buried into the ground, some of which are tilted, looking like a makeshift structure. Tire treads that have been cut lengthwise are used to stabilize the poles and create the arena enclosure, much like ropes in a Muay Thai boxing ring. The stadium seating is newer than the stadium itself, which, from a quick scan, has room for 800 to 1000 people. Viewing is good from every seat, however once the bulls come out for each match, no one is sitting. The ground level area between the arena and the seating is large enough for people to walk around, mingle and place their bets. All this fun social contact offers a splendid, rancorous and social afternoon for everyone. The energetic crowd feeds the spirit of the bullfight.
These bulls are large, tipping the scales at 500-600 kilos, and standing at their haunches, roughly 1.75 meters (5-5.5 feet). Their muscles are pronounced all over their bodies. Their neck are especially impressive, having to hold up a large, bony head and horns, and use them to batter their opponents. The horns come in different shapes and angles, some wider apart then others, and the length, which can range from 25-30 cm, is nothing to remind one of the Texas longhorns. The variations in their black/brown hide colors helps watchers distinguish them in the ring.
Several handlers and corner men lead the bulls into the ring. Two of them are the rope holders who are able to control the bull by pulling on the rope that is threaded through a nose ring. The bulls seem tame before the match starts. At the start of the match, the bull is brought over to one side of the ring where he is scrubbed down with ornamental liquids, leaving white spots on his head and shoulders. Their horns are wrapped with white tape, and bananas are given to them as a snack before the fight. The handlers then bring them to the center of the ring to quickly face- off. As soon as the bulls are positioned to butt heads, the nose-ring cords are pulled away and the match begins.
This is when the crowd gets into it, yelling and cheering their bull on. Spectators would exchange chatter about this move or that push, or the constant pressure applied by their bull, not much different than any sporting event. Betting and bettors were worked through the crowds. There were no betting windows or an odds board to see where the favorite stands. In place of that were individuals who would stand at a section and scream out odds for the fight. If you don’t understand Thai, you can only guess what the shouts and phrases of these hawkers mean, but it is still colorful to watch.
The bulls have certain techniques when they fight. One clever bull broke away after contact and rolled around to the side of his opponent, in a grazing-type relaxed mode and then attacked his rival on the side. The other bull was keen to his charade and swung his head around to resume head-to-head contact. The sneaky bull eventually lost. Some of these matches are all about who can last longer with all the pushing and head butting. One match clearly showed off the stronger neck muscles and size of one bull that could easily push his opponent around.
A referee oversees the contest and blows his whistle when he feels there is not enough action. If this should happen, one brave soul needs to hook the bulls with a bamboo stick and direct them closer together, face to face. Our normal idea of a referee is of someone who breaks up violent encounters, but here, the referee wants to encourage it. If these bulls just hang around at a safe distance from each other then nothing will happen to entertain the crowds.
In practice fights, the bulls have wrapped or flattened horns, to limit the chance of injury. On the day of the actual bullfights however, the bulls have pointed and fearsome-looking horns. A hit from these horns could easily, gouge a man or leave a good scrape in the tough hides of another bull.
Each month, this bullfighting goes on for three straight days. The winners of the first day battle the winners on the second day, and the third days contest is a contest of the remaining two winning bulls. That’s when the betting gets fiercer and the odds fluctuate constantly. These bulls go through a lot of pushing and head butting, so I can only imagine what they must feel like on that third day. The overall winner is the one with the stamina or the heart to continue the battle.
You may wonder, as these fights start, how do they stop, and who is deemed the winner when no one controls the bulls. It is the bulls themselves who decide when the contest is over. Eventually one bull, in exhaustion, quits by running away. Wouldn’t you be too if you were being pushed and had to push back for 40 minutes? The tricky part was when the fight is over, the handlers have to chase down their bull. They have to grasp the bull-ring with a hook on a 3 meter long bamboo rod, while keeping a safe distance from a bull who’s all riled up. The handlers now need to thread the rope onto the nose ring and lead the bull away. Before exiting, the handlers give bananas and throw cool buckets of water over the bulls to cool them off.
Like any event in Thailand, food, clothing and merchandise is sold inside and outside as the stadium. All varieties of food are available. There is soup, noodles and chicken for a small cost. Everyone is friendly and enjoys seeing a foreigner in this primarily-Thai-event. The strange looks and jokes that surfaced by my presence were all in good fun. Communication on my part was limited, but I still found conversation with some, who, with their broken English loved to talk about the bullfighting and who were interested in where I was from.
It was a fun and fascinating day, hanging with the locals and seeing the excitement they share at this unusual local event.
To find out how to see a Thai Bullfight, contact the representatives at