Water buffalo or “iron buffalo”? Sanpatong market in Chiang Mai
Traditional Thailand is slowly fading away. You won’t see water buffalo pulling a plough on rice paddies but it’s still possible to see these iconic animals. One of these places is the Sanpatong market in Chiang Mai, locally known as the water buffalo market. It’s a traditional and vibrant market with a local rural atmosphere.
Sanpatong water buffalo market, traditional and unique market near Chiang Mai
We love markets – messy, full of life, colours, smells, and sounds.
To visit the Sanpatong market, we left Chiang Mai around 5 am when it was still night in order to arrive when the first light comes out. Arriving at the market 40 min later, we found that it was already very busy with the farmers and traders – things start very early in the rural areas.
When we visited the market, there were hardly any tourists, maybe this is why the locals were very laid back about being photographed.
The Sanpatong water buffalo market is a true Thai experience providing a glimpse of rural Thailand. This is a market for local people. This is also a great place to see water buffalos before these lovely and gentle animals disappear from Thailand.
Sanpatong water buffalo market, a glimpse of rural Thailand
Water buffalos have always been an integral part of Thailand. They have been used for centuries by Thai farmers to do the hard work of ploughing the soil, planting and harvesting the rice. They played an important role in Thai society, and the number of water buffalos the family owned indicated their wealth status. With the arrival of the mechanisation of farming, the water buffalo population has rapidly declined all over Thailand. However, these iconic animals haven’t entirely disappeared from Thailand, and the Sanpatong market is an example of their survival.
The Sanpatong market had started around 60 years ago, and has become one of the biggest markets in northern Thailand. The market is held every Saturday in the central area of the Sanpatong district. It gets started before the crack of dawn when farmers and traders come to buy and sell water buffalos.
The farmers, who pretend to be non-interested, are slowly walking around the tied-up water buffalos carefully inspecting the animals and making offers. They can be sold for hundreds of thousands of baht.
After negotiations, sometimes very long, happy buyers stuff the buffalos into the back of the truck to transport them back home.
Thai water buffalos are smaller in size compared to their fellows in India, where they are still widely used. Despite their ominous size and fearsome horns, the buffalos are very gentle and docile animals. Still, the farmers thread a rope through the sensitive tissue of their nose to be able to easily lead the animal.
Water buffalos have many advantages – they can pull a plough on rice paddy corners that tractors cannot reach, their large splayed hooves help them not to sink deep in mud and they don’t require the costly fuel. However, the tractors have now replaced water buffalos. There are concerns over sharp fall in their numbers, and
many Thais say they may completely disappear in Thailand in the years to come. Who will win – the water buffalo or “iron buffalo”?
Cock fighting at Sanpatong market
Although water buffalos are the main focus of the Sanpatong market, it has a close neighbour – a market with fighting roosters in cages for sale. Potential buyers are walking around the cages inspecting the cocks in great detail.
There are no organised cock fighting, however, if a potential buyer asks to see the cock in action, the seller organises an impromptu fight. The owner chooses two cocks, which closely match against each other. This isn’t taken lightly – the cocks are weighted by hand to ensure they are of the same weight category, like two boxers.
Cock fighting is part of Thai culture. Compared to Indonesia or Philippines, where the roosters are fighting with razor sharp blades attached to their feet, in Thailand at the slightest sight of the potential injury, the owner separates the fighting cocks.
Never seen a cock fighting for real? It’s a combination of beauty and ferocity, a mix between ballet, kung fu and boxing. The cocks are real fighters. Head down, feathers along the neck straight up to impress and frighten its rival, they are waiting for each other for the first move. It seems that the cocks are hypnotising each other until one cock dares to strike.
The fight starts, and it’s not unusual to see a cock literally flying, one meter high, over the head of the other. Some fights can last long, almost until exhaustion, while others are expeditious.
Compared to Indonesia, where the cock fighting is a cruel and bloody affair, and the looser is eaten after the fight, too wounded, if not killed, due to the blade, in Thailand, the cock fighting is like a boxing fight. One can enjoy the beauty of competition without feeling guilty.
In addition to water buffalos and fighting cocks, the Sanpatong market has also food (including raw buffalo meat with chilly and onions, and grilled insects), home brew, fruits, clothes, electronics, motorbikes, amulets, etc.
Timing: Sanpatong market is held every Saturday, from early morning after 3-4 am till about 12 noon (everything starts to close around 11 am).
Location: Sanpatong market is held in Sanpatong, a 40 min drive by motorbike south of Chiang Mai. The market is on the right-hand side coming from Chiang Mai.
Transportation: The best way to visit is by motorbike.