Water buffaloes are special. They defy categorization. They are farm animals but sometimes more than that, almost members of the family. They are given pet names. Love between a little boy and a kwai is sometimes hard to explain, but to call someone a “kwai” is a strong curse implying the person is an “idiot”. As if to counter this aspersion, a buffalo culture center has been built in Supanburi (an hour north of Bangkok) to show off the beasts’ ability to climb ladders and play ball. [All right, it is a reflection on human stupidity that the more like us animals can act, the more intelligent they are supposed to be; it’s the idiocy of most animal acts around the world].
On a real farm around here where we live in North Thailand, kwai were valued for their strength. They could pull plows and wagons. They were tough but (in line with their other ironies) they were also vulnerable to sun and insects. One of my former students told of sleeping under the house with the buffalo to keep a smoky fire burning at night to repel mosquitoes. Many farm children spent days of their lives tending buffaloes while they grazed and wallowed in the mud during the heat of the day.
Buffaloes still pull plows in outlying districts, but in our valley they are gone. The most beloved got old and died. The less lucky ones were sold in the famous Sanpatong cattle market or were taken directly to slaughter houses to be turned into meat sold at special prices in fresh produce markets. Kwai meat is favored by local connoisseurs of raw minced meat and blood dishes such as ลาบ หลู้ ส้า because the flavor is thought to be better.
The era of muscle power and self-sufficiency is over when the kwai are gone. Part of the culture almost as deeply engrained as elephants is gone. No more folk singing groups will choose the caribou as a symbol of their advocacy of the dignity of subsistence farmers. A coming generation will not be able to relate to the school-book stories of their fathers, nor to romantic pictures such as the one at the top of this essay.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.