Pacu Jawi, The Cow Race in West Sumatra.


When traveling Indonesia, or reading about the highlights of Indonesian cultures, you might find that a cow race is what to expect to see in Madura Island, East Java, called Karapan Sapi. That’s what I thought too, until one day a friend mentioned to me there’s a similar race in West Sumatra, called Pacu Jawi. Taking place in the Tanah Datar regency, Pacu Jawi race goes on for 11 months per year, moving between subdistricts in the regency, always taking place on a paddy field.

There are 14 subdistricts in Tanah Datar regency, and the chosen 11 get to be the hosts of the race, each one for 4 weekends in a row.  The Pacu Jawi race we got to visit took place in Nagari Simabur (Simabur subdistrict), just a little off Batusangkar town, the capital of Tanah Datar regency.

It was 11.30 when we arrived in Simabur, the racing cows had just started coming in. Some were numbered on their bodies and some weren’t. Children were trying to poke at the cows out of curiosity Diyan finally convinced me that I didn’t need to be scared to pet them, and so I did. The skin was a bit furry and soft, and the cow just stood against the fence calmly as I stroke the nape of her neck. Cows have really soothing eyes because they’ve got long and droopy eye lashes, both the male and female are pretty.

Food stalls and temporary diners were built near the race arena. Talempong, the traditional Minangnese music, was played by a group of men sitting under a tent. People, including moi, were waiting in excitement for the race to begin. We strolled around the arena, looking at the race preparation, talked to some locals, checking out the knick knacks and snacks being sold. We had finished our lunch at a stall just before the race began. Woohoo!!

Mr.Emi, the head of the Pacu Jawi committee, advised us on a strategic spot to view the race. We took place at the advised spot, at the corner of the finish line of the race amongst local spectators, children and adults, all cheering for the racing cows and the jockeys.

In Pacu Jawi, coupled cows run along the muddy field about 20-30 meters long. Each couple is steered by a jockey with his hands on the cows’ tails and his feet on the wooden contraption that bind the cows together. The jockey bites one of the cows’ tip of the tail to make it run, automatically followed by the other one. The jockey often has to bite the tail again in the middle of the race to make the cows go faster. Usually only a couple runs in one go, followed quickly by the next couples. Jockeys would stretch arms and legs as wide as possible to steer and keep the cows together. Too often they would fall in the mud and come out of the race all muddy, reminds me of pictures of Woodstock!!

Sometimes the cows go off the track. They run to the side and run through the audience! Sure a cow is harmless, meaning it doesn’t actually chase or ram people around, but with a big figure like that (I can only guess the weigh!), one should be able to fun fast enough to avoid being hit by a cow!

The cows that run the fastest and straight til finish line are the winners. I’m not sure what prize the winners get, but the price of the best cows a.k.a. the winners surely go up. A regular cow that’s bred for daily consumption costs about IDR 5-7millions (that’s roughly US$ 500-700). But a Pacu Jawi racing cow can cost at least twice the regular cow. There are even racing cows that can cost up to IDR 30-40 millions (about US $ 3,200-4,200).

The race was still going on and was supposed to end at 4ish PM, but we needed to leave sooner to get to our next destination, Harau Valley in a different regency. We only watched the race for about 2 hours but it was definitely entertaining and heart pumping enough! I would definitely recommend it to any of you who’s going to Sumatra on your trip to Indonesia. Some might see it as a mad mud race in the middle of beautiful and eye-soothing greenery, but deranged or not it’s a traditional race that totally rocks! 

Pacu Jawi is totally one of the Indonesian traditional attractions I love, at least to date. I had been eager to see it since a year ago when I just heard about it. I was ready to get dirty what with the muddy field in a rainy season, though it wasn’t actually that dirty if you weren’t the jockey. But it’s absolutely awesome! It’s full of action, it’s very traditional, it’s rad, it’s crazy, and I gotta take my hat off for the jockeys who are so brave and are undoubtedly fit! Would I recommend watching Pacu Jawi when you’re traveling Indonesia? You bet I would!