A small village in Kampong Chhnang province is celebrating the return of international tourists, with as many as 100 guests a day enjoying its unique service.

The residents of Kampong Tralach Leu village – in Kampong Tralach commune and district – offer an authentic rural experience, mixed with a chance to admire Cambodia’s rich cultural heritage, with relaxing rides on traditional ox carts.

Guests not only get the pleasure of a slow paced journey through tranquil green rice fields, but are treated the chance to explore a fascinating 300-year-old temple, just 5km from the village.

Many local people feared the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic would bring an end to the income opportunities their traditional mode of transport and their proximity to the Wat Po Rukkharam pagoda – with its beguiling paintings – have brought them since the ox cart association was established in 2007.

Now, they say they are welcoming more and more visitors, giving them not only the chance to support their families, but also preserve their prize oxen and customary carts.

A driver’s perspective Khieu Sopheap is one of 48 members of the Kampong Tralach Leu Village Ox Cart Association, and owns his own cart and pair of oxen.

The proud ox cart driver notes that in addition to his fellow villagers, their association contributes to the well-being of the residents of Tahang village, the home of the 300-year-old Wat Po Rukkharam pagoda, also known locally as Wat Kampong Tralach Leu pagoda.

The 52-year-old says his cart can carry two passengers at a time, and generally makes two or three trips per day.

Sopheap adds that most of his guests arrive from far away locations like the US, France or Japan, and marvel at the lush green fields, the traditional way of life of the local residents and of course the wonders of the Wat Po Rukkharam.

Each of them pays just $7 for a relaxing ride on his cart, and he can earn between 30,000 and 50,000 riel ($7.50 and $12.50) from the association.

He explains that in 2019 and 2020, the effects of the global pandemic had a huge impact on the number of visitors. The dwindling amount of business forced the association to close down in 2020, with many members having no option but to sell their oxen.

Fortunately, the reopening of the Kingdom saw the return of tourists, and Sopheap is once again able to support his family.

“Personally, I enjoy the work of driving an ox cart. It is not tiring and we do not use much of our strength. We don’t have to spend anything on the oxen, as long as we can find grass for them to graze on. I’m always happy to speak with my passengers, and I think we learn a lot from each other,” he said.

“It sometimes occurs to me how strange it must be for people who live in modern, fast-paced cities to find themselves rattling along in a low-moving cart pulled by oxen, surrounded by the sights and sounds – and smells – of nature,” he jokes.

Sopheap says that while he does not earn a fortune, he makes enough to provide for his wife and children. He is also pleased to work with his animals.

“I think it’s important to remember that although there is very little demand for oxen or buffalo in the agriculture sector nowadays, they have provided us humans with centuries of service, so we should celebrate them,” he adds.

The association reborn

Tek Kreung, chairman of the ox cart association, says that when it was established in 2007, there was very little demand, but it gradually grew into a viable business for the villagers. Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, the association ceased operations and sold off almost all of its animals.

He tells The Post that after the disease tapered off, the association began to regroup its members. Each member owns his or her own cart and oxen.

At present, he estimates that the association sees from 50 to 100 passengers travelling on its carts most days, noting that the vast majority are international tourists travelling with a tour guide, with very few Cambodian guests.

The association charges $7, which includes the driver’s fee. He said many of the tourists arrive via boat from Siem Reap, while some arrive by bus from Phnom Penh. The villagers are more than happy to meet new arrivals at the port and carry them to the pagoda.

He explains that aside from the simple pleasure of being carried along by the simple rhythm of an ox, the guests are usually fascinated by their glimpses into the daily lives of the villagers, and also astonished by the ancient pagoda, with its thrilling paintings which appear to come alive to the viewer.

Once the foreign visitors have admired the pagoda and its paintings, many of them make offerings to the Buddhist monks, receiving blessings – and a red thread tied around their wrists – in return. This way, the association makes money, while the pagoda also has an income.

“I and my fellow villagers are trying very hard to preserve our way of life, because we are afraid of losing our traditional Khmer identity. Nowadays, most people use machines instead of cattle, but we do not want to abandon our culture,” says Kreung.

The association has been singled out for praise by the Kampong Chhnang provincial tourism department.

Provincial pride

“The province is home to 24 registered tourist sites, 14 of them natural attractions and 10 others cultural or historic. Wat Po Rukkharam is one of the most popular,” says Seng Saly, director of the department.

He explains that along with the pagoda, most international tourists want to admire the provincial pottery community in Andong Russey village in Rolea Ba’ier district’s Sre Thmei commune.

Saly notes that domestic tourists seem to prefer the province’s natural attractions, like the waterfalls at Thmor Kral or Sre Ampil.

“I believe that every one of our tourist destinations have the potential to attract more and more domestic and foreign tourists, and will continue to grow steadily. These areas have increased the living standards of the locals, and also reduced poverty to some extent. International guests also get the opportunity to learn more about our traditional culture,” he says.

Sok Thuok, director of the provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts, explains that aside from being popular with foreigners, Wat Po Rukkharam is the oldest pagoda in the province, being built in the 17th century. 

“I believe that providing our guests with the chance to ride in an ox cart is an excellent idea, as it demonstrates a Khmer tradition which dates back to ancient times. We commend the ox cart association for maintaining this tradition, and hope that many more tourists will enjoy this unique form of transport,” he said.