by Nguon Sovan
KANDAL, Cambodia, Sept. 21 (Xinhua) -- Thousands of Cambodians flocked on Wednesday to watch the traditional water buffalo race at Vihear Sour pagoda here in northeastern Phnom Penh, as the number of beasts taking part in the competition has kept declining over the years.
The buffalo race is part of a ceremony hosted by the Vihear Sour villagers to mark the end of Pchum Ben, the annual 15-day festival honoring the dead.
At the event, buffalos were adorned with brightly colored headgear, and racers rode them up and down a 450-meter dirt track, which was flanked by crowds of spectators.
One of the viewers Kong Phon, 68, said he had never lost his excitement in watching the annual race although he had seen it for six decades.
"It's an interesting, traditional buffalo race, and I'm never fed up with it although I have watched it almost every year since I was a child," he told Xinhua while using his smart phone to capture the views of the race, which was held on the track leading to the pagoda.
Buffalo rider Chin Rinda, 23, said it was his first time to join the competition in order to contribute to preserving the nearly-a-century tradition of residents in Vihear Sour village and to celebrate the Pchum Ben festival.
"We do not compete for the championship, but for fun," he told Xinhua. "After the race, we ride on our beasts back home and do farming normally."
Mam Sao, a member of the buffalo racing committee, said there were only six buffalos participating in this year's race, fewer than almost 20 last year and about 40 in 2010.
"It's a worrying sign; we are concerned that there will be no buffalos participating in the race in coming years," he said, recalling that the tradition of buffalo racing in the village had been practiced since the 1920s.
The 58-year-old man attributed the waning number of buffalos to a plague of foot-and-mouth disease among cattle, access to mechanical farming equipment that has made buffalos less necessary for farmers, and an increase in demand for the buffalos from Phnom Penh restaurants for meat.
"Buffalo is now very expensive as the demand for meat is high in Phnom Penh market," he said. "An adult buffalo (weighed about 400 kg) is sold at around 2,000 U.S. dollars." Interspersed with the buffalo race were horse race and other events, including traditional wrestling and prayer ceremony for the dead ancestors.
Cambodian Buddhists believe that their deceased relatives emerge to walk the earth during the Pchum Ben festival, and they honor them with prayers and food offerings at pagodas.
Vihear Sour pagoda is located some 40 km northeast of capital Phnom Penh.