Discovering the old Kingdom on oxcart

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As tourists arrive at Neakta Hang village in Kampong Chhnang province by boat, oxcarts take them to an ancient pagoda where they will experience first-hand, traditional Cambodian culture. Hong Menea

As tourists disembark the boat that has brought them to Neakta Hang village in Kampong Chhnang province, the cows, unaware that they will be their next transport, peacefully graze the field.

Some excited, some playful and some nervous, the tourists get on the oxcarts that take them to an ancient pagoda where they will experience first-hand, traditional Cambodian culture.

While oxcarts are becoming an increasingly rare sight on Cambodian roads, one association is embracing this old-fashioned transport to give tourists a taste of traditional Cambodia.

“Today, we have visitors coming from three different boats. We are expecting about 60 visitors in our tour to Pothi Rokha Ram pagoda,” says Teuk Treoung, director of Oxcart Association. He says they have prepared 23 oxcarts to ferry the tourists.

The 100m-long oxcart caravan gets going, treading along dirt paths and asphalt roads to the centuries-old temple.

The Oxcart Association, founded in Kampong Chhnang’s Tralach Leu, was established almost 20 years ago. Members of the association, the oxcart drivers, hail from two villages – Neakta Hang and Tralach Leu. In total, they account for about 70 carts.

During the tour, tourists are introduced to basic Buddhist concepts – including what to do and not do in and around temples – and are taught a little history about the area and the pagoda.

After a 20-minute journey, the caravan reaches its destination.

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Venerable Men Tot says centuries-old murals in the pagoda detail the life of Buddha’. Hong Menea

Tourists are welcomed by the sound of chants from Pothi Rokha Ram pagoda’s chief monk, Men Tot. As tourists enter the temple and admire its murals, Tot ties bracelets made out of red thread around their wrist for luck.

“These centuries-old paintings detail the life of Buddha’s so that the younger generations can know more about him,” Tot tells the visitors.

Kampong Chhnang’s Tourism Department director Seng Saly says that Pothi Rokha Ram (also known as Tralach Leu pagoda) is more than 100 years old.

The paintings that adorn its wall are important artefacts preserved by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and cannot be restored.

“No renovations are allowed in the temple except with the permission of the ministries of Culture, and Cults and Religion,” says Saly.

An old dining hall in a ruinous condition is supposed to be the next attraction on the list, but tourists dare not enter lest it collapses on them.

While cows are everywhere in the Kingdom, the particular kind of ox used in these tours is larger and not as common anymore. As oxcarts are replaced by motorised vehicles and agriculture modernises, this specific species face an uncertain future.

However, due to demand from international tourists, Tralach Leu’s residents continue to raise it for transportation.

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The pagoda’s chief monk, Men Tot, ties bracelets made out of red thread around a tourist’s wrist for luck. Hong Menea

“If we didn’t have tourists coming in, we would definitely sell the cows and even the oxcarts because we no longer need them to work the fields,” said Treoung.

“In the past, only a few visitors would come each week, but now the flow of tourists is increasing. We used to get three ships per week, but now we get as many as 16.

“A lot of cruise ships stop by every day, except when the water level in the river is too low, mostly in May and June,” says Treoung, adding that bookings pick up again in July.

Though mostly popular among international tourists, Oxcart Association also welcomes Cambodian visitors.

“Many Cambodians have never ridden an oxcart. Those days are long gone, and this generation only uses motorbikes and cars,” says Treoung.

Pothi Rokha Ram pagoda is in Kampong Chhnang’s Tralach Leu village about 45km from Kampong Chhnang town or 61km from Phnom Penh.

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