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Royal oxen life of leisure

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ROYAL BEAST

51 weeks' rest

THEY may be celebrities each year at the plowing ceremony, but the royal oxen have a most aristocratic existence for the rest of the year.

Royal Ox Keeper Phum Thet says that Champa (ochre), Tnaut (palm-tree brown) and Tnaut Cha (dark brown) "are lucky beasts. On the [other] days in the year they don't [have to] do anything. They just eat grass and sleep".

After an 11am wake-up call, they are taken out by the day keeper to one of several choice grazing spots near the Cambodiana Hotel, where their most taxing chore is finding the best bit of shade. This routine seldom varies.

"But for one week of the year, just before the ceremony, they have to work," said Thet. "We prepare all eight oxen and teach them how to walk with the plow. Then the best six are chosen. We keep two in reserve in case of sickness."

Whereas cosseted cows in the west are traditionally given flower names - Daisy, Clover, Buttercup - Thet has chosen to name the oxen after their coloring. Several of the (largely brown) animals share the same name - there are three Tnaut Chas and two Champas.

However, Thet said he can tell them all apart, explaining that for the last four years, the same two Tnaut Chas have been given the prestigious role of eating from the specially prepared bowls of food at the ceremony. "They are the most 'gentlemanly' oxen" he smiled.

For both Thet and the day keeper, Pak Pich, 30, the job has family connections. Thet's uncle, who held the position of Royal ox keeper before him, was asked to help buy the current animals in 1993, the year the plowing ceremony was revived.

"My uncle worked with oxen all his life, and went to Saang district to find the best ones for King Siha-nouk's household. He was very good at his job, and when he left in 1994 they gave (the position) to me."

Pich, whose uncle also worked in the same department, is enthusiastic about his work. "I don't have any children yet," he grins, "but when I do I would like my son to carry on this job. I think it is a good job." Shooing away an over-inquisitive Champa, he added, "They are not badly behaved. When they walk back (in the evening) the cars all stop for them. But I know if I lost one, I would be in big trouble."

At half past five every day Champa and friends are led back to their night enclosure near the fairground by the Hong Kong Center. The pampered bovines never spent a night in the open. Thet makes sure they are safely bedded down inside their specially constructed cow-sheds. "They have to be inside to save them from the mosquitoes," said Thet. "It's important. They're special oxen."

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