© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin
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Makepung, traditional buffalo races in Negara, Bali

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There is a rule concerning human nature: if an animal can move, someone somewhere will use it for racing. There are the proverbial rat races, cockroach races, snail races (a single match can take a full day), duck races, even fish races. The traditional racing animal of Bali is a buffalo. It has a certain advantage over, for example, a cockroach: it can pull a chariot with a jockey. Competitions take place in the western part of the island, near the town of Negara. Surprisingly – or not so surprisingly, if you again think of human nature – almost no travelers ever know about it. This is on an island that receives yearly 50 times more international tourists than its own population. Well, they miss a lot – makepung is exciting, fast-paced, although, admittedly, quite brutal.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Bloody sport

Buffaloes do not look built for running, but they can run. They just need a good reason. A stimulus. Did you know that this word originally meant a sharp stick for prodding cattle? Well, a stimulus is what they get. More precisely, a club with nails in it. By the end of the loop, the rumps of the animals are covered in blood; half-crazed, berserk jockeys, competing for the prize, stand up precariously in their chariots and keep smacking them over and over. Not a suitable sight for animal lovers, perhaps, but how much worse is it than pulling a plow for the whole life, only to end up as grilled meat and cured leather? Racing buffaloes are exempted from agricultural labor, they do nothing other than running, living for sport. The stakes are high enough for this.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Not a show

While travelers are as welcome at makepung races as they are normally anywhere in Indonesia, the event should not be mistaken for a show, or a tourist circus. Nor is it merely a folk game, or a means to get the respect of the community, unlike many other animal races. It is real big sport, with hardcore competition and hefty monetary prizes. The grand prix winner takes home tens of millions IDR - a few thousand US dollars. The race also involves a fair bit of risk – the buffaloes run surprisingly fast, and the beautifully adorned, yet rather flimsy chariots sometimes do break down or overturn on sharp curves. Overall, as you stand by the track, the sight of heavy dark bodies flying past at the speed of a car is exciting, but don’t try it at home, at least not without practice.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Practicalities

Makepung races take place on weekends roughly from July to November, culminating in Jembrana Cup grand prix. All race tracks are in the vicinity of Negara – a small town in West Bali. Negara stands on the main Denpasar – Gilimanuk road; any bus going to Gilimanuk or further on to Java will drop you there. There are a few simple guesthouses in town. The races usually begin around 08:00 AM and last for 3-4 hours. If you want to watch them from the beginning, and maybe see the buffaloes being adorned with traditional decorations, the only way to get to the track from Negara is by motorbike – it’s usually too far to make it in time on foot. Make sure to verify which of the racing locations has been selected for this round the night before: sudden changes aren’t uncommon, and online schedules aren’t very trustworthy.

Negara, West Bali
Negara, West Bali
Negara, Jembrana Regency, Bali, Indonesia

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The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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