Limbang, a small administrative town stuck in between the two parts of Brunei in the Borneo island, is a sleepy town that attracts few visitors. But every year in June, the town comes alive with the Babulang festival of the Bisaya people. One thing that had fascinated me since I learnt of this festival was the buffalo racing. Unlike horses, which seem to be created for running, buffalo just seem too bulky to be charging down a race course.
The day of the race was a hot day and the unrelenting heat drove the buffalo and their riders into the shade provided by tall rubber trees at the peripheral of the race track. I had never seen so many buffalo congregated in one place before. They all seemed very docile and gentle; their huge frame and heavyset body is synonym to racing, like pig is to dancing.
When the first event was called, I was surprised to see that it’s the veteran category. From the cooling shade, five old men appeared leading their buffalo to the start of the track. As the men stood next to their buffalo, the whole scene just looked so wrong; not only the animal looked out of place, it’s also uncommon to see old men racing. But when with one swift move, these grandfathers mounted their buffalo, my skepticism disappeared and I knew I was in one for a one-of-a-kind experience. It was quite exhilarating to see these retirees galloping down the race track riding on their bulky buffalo.
When there was a lull in the competition, I decided to talk to the oldest of the racers. He’s a small man with a crown of silver white hair, and a gentle face wrinkled from a life under the sun.
Q: What’s your name?
E: My name is Enggam anak Gumbang.
Q: How old are you?
E: I’m 63 years old.
Q: How many children and grandchildren do you have?
E: I have 8 children: 3 sons and 5 daughters; and 13 grandchildren.
Q: Do you live in Limbang?
E: No, I live in a village near Limbang, called Kampung Batu Danau.
Q: Are you a Bisaya?
E: Yes, I’m a Bisaya.
Q: What do you do?
E: I’m a farmer, I plant paddy. I’ve been a farmer all my life.
Q: Are you retired now?
E: No, I’m still working. It keeps me active. If I retire then I do nothing but sit at home; that’s a very boring life.
Q: Any of your children helping you?
E: Most of my children have moved to work and live in the towns. But two of them work with me.
Q: Do you do other things besides planting paddy?
E: Yes, I also rear buffalo.
Q: How many buffalo do you have?
E: I have 10.
Q: That’s a lot!
E: Yes, because buffalo is an important animal for the Bisaya people.
Q: How so?
E: In the past, the Bisaya people were mostly farmers. We needed the buffalo to plough the land, to carry harvested paddy and wood, and to transport sago to feed the pigs, etc. So the more buffalo you have, easier and lighter the work. Traditionally, the buffalo is also a gift in wedding, where the groom’s family has to offer to the bride’s family. And the more buffalo you have, the higher your status in the society. When I was young, a matured buffalo fetched about RM1500, today the same buffalo can fetch up to RM6000.
Q: So buffalo is like an asset?
E: Yes, a living and breathing asset.
Q: Do you eat their meat too?
E: Yes, but only during special occasions; like weddings, funerals and Babulang.
Q: Is it possible for someone to get more buffalo?
E: Yes, in the past it was possible to go and catch wild buffalo.
Q: Is it easy to catch them?
E: No, it’s not easy. When I was about 15 years old, I started to follow my father and grandfather whenever they went to catch buffalo. And from them I learned how to catch them. It’s very difficult to catch wild buffalo; they would run away before you could get close. We have to use ‘pundul’ – decoy – to get near the buffalo and then we can catch them.
Q: Why are there buffalo racing in the modern babulang festival? Have the Bisaya people been racing buffalo in the past?
E: Yes, buffalo racing has always been part of the Bisaya culture. It was a form of entertainment, sport, and merry-making. In the past, buffalo racing was done among villages; even today, some villages still organize buffalo racing occasionally.
Q: How old were you when you first started racing?
E: It was in 1965 when I was about 14 years old. The school I attended organized a buffalo racing event for their Parents’ Day celebration, so I took part in it.
Q: So you have been racing since then?
E: Yes. I’ve taken part in all kinds of small and big races. I remember in 1990 and 1991 I was invited to a cultural event in Kuching. There were about 30 of us from Limbang and Lawas; from the Bisaya, the Malay and the Lun Bawang people. We couldn’t fly to Kuching because the weight of the buffalo, so we traveled with them on a boat for 2 days and 2 nights. We raced each other at the event. It was the first time for some people to see buffalo racing.
Q: Have you won many races?
E: Yes. When I was younger, I won almost all of the races I entered.
Q: Are the Bisaya people the most skilled buffalo racers?
E: The Bisaya racers take buffalo racing less seriously compare to the Malay. The Malay would train days prior to a race, while the Bisaya would just show up with their buffalo on the day of the race. So it’s not surprising that the Malay would win most of the races.
Q: What’s the name of the buffalo you are racing with today?
E: His name is Durung, he’s 7 years old.
Q: What happened in the race, it looked like Durung didn’t want to run?
E: I don’t know what’s wrong with him today, that’s why I got angry with him just now. Usually when you are racing with a new buffalo the first time, then it’s hard to control them, but I’ve been racing with Durung for some time now, we even won an event just a few days ago, so I’m not sure why today he isn’t his usual self.
Q: I saw that some of the buffalo were foaming in the mouth during the race, is this normal?
E: Buffalo is by nature a slow and heavy animal, but the buffalo that are used for racing have been trained to do so. Moreover they are tough and strong. As long as the riders know the limit of his buffalo and the race isn’t too long, then the buffalos will be fine.
It’s strange that I’d never heard of buffalo racing while growing up just 200km from Limbang. I guess I’ve learnt to see my own homeland with the eyes of a foreigner after being away for almost a decade. Sometimes we don’t have to travel far to find exotic and one-of-a-kind experience, all we have to do is change our perspective and we’ll see a wealth of beauty right at our own backyard.