The ox cart, a mode of transport in the Kingdom since the King Jayavarama VII period, is becoming an endangered species due to the introduction of engine-driven tractors, according to Ry Angaly, Deputy Director of Department of Culture and Fine Art in Siem Reap.
He added that the global community’s race to improve future technology often sacrifices Cambodian tradition and history.
Ry Angaly told Insider, “The oxcart is a disappearing vehicle in rural life.”
He said in ancient times during war the army used ox cart for fighting and for bringing weapons back. But in recent time they have of course been used for more domestic purposes, and they can cope with muddy roads.
He said traditionally there were four kinds of Khmer ox cart which villagers used in different situations.
When villagers went to the pagoda or longer journeys away from home, they used chanto carts. They used treay carts for transporting their livestock from home to the rice fields. Som pan kdar carts were used for transporting rice seed, and the som pan chrong carts were s similar to som pan kdar carts, but carved according to the maker’s style.
But small tractors are replacing the Khmer ox cart as they cost less, can carry heavier loads and can be manufactured quickly.
Ry Angaly said, “On behalf of the Department of Culture and Fine Art, I could say that we could not stop villagers using iron wheel vehicles. But we can spread the information to the new generation about their culture, about their Khmer ox cart.”
It is now hard to find a Khmer ox cart maker, because most of them have abandoned the craft for other jobs due to diminishing markets.
In Krang Khjay village, Somrong Commune, Siem Reap, 56 year-old Seav Chhan, a former cart maker who learned his skill from his father, said that after Cambodia was freed from the genocide, the use of ox carts diminished.
“I spent almost 2 months to finish one ox cart and then I could get 5,000 Riel (approx $1.25) immediately after we were free from the Pol Pot regime,” he said.
“To construct the wheel of ox cart is very hard. It had its own styles and if you didn’t have enough patience you couldn’t do it.”
But he realised not long ago that villagers had stopped using Khmer ox-carts. “People are forgetting their culture and nobody is caring for Khmer culture anymore,” he said ruefully. “If the culture dies, so does the nation.”
Ry Angaly said that carts were designed by following patterns engraved in the temples of Bayon, Banteay Chma, Preah Khan and Angkor Wat.
“The reliefs carved on the walls of Bayon Temple at Angkor reflect life there in the thirteenth century. We can see ox carts like those still used in the area.”
According to Seav Chhan, ox carts are related to the Khmer fable of Preah Bath Mhou Sot and his wife, Preah Neang Ommara,
One day, when Preah Bath Mhou Sot was working in the rice field; his wife Preah Neang Ommara brought some food for lunch. She encircled an egg with many thorns and placed a tamarind above it.
When Preah Bath Mhou Sot took the food to eat, he thought the egg and thorns looked like a wheel, and thinking that his wife wanted him to make a cart, he tried to make one as the food had shown him.
According to Seav Chhan, the carts are decorated with carvings and are now also too luxurious for industrial use.
The Khmer ox cart is made from the best Cambodian wood, including Thnoung, Chakrom and Chek.
A cart can measure up to four meters long and 1.73 meters wide. It is set on two 16-spoked wooden wheels, 1.24 meters high.
Seav Chhan said three people can make one cart in 15 days, but production can last a month if only one person is doing the work.
“The price of making an ox cart has increased because of the cost of the wood and sometimes the client has to spent more than $1,000 for a cart.”
He said the construction of ox carts probably will be lost soon, and young Khmer don’t want to learn the trade. “Most of them said that it is too hard to learn, and they could not endure sitting around for almost one month to make only one ox cart.”
Ry Angely noted that a new market for old carts has emerged – neighboring countries are trying to buy old Khmer ox carts for reasons he hasn’t yet identified.
“Some villagers who don’t clearly understand the value of a cultural item have sold their old ox carts to people in neighboring countries. I don’t know clearly know why people in neighboring countries are buying them, but maybe they would like to preserve an old culture or maybe they just want the carts for the value of the wood.”
Some provinces in Cambodia such as Prey Veng still conserve the Khmer ox cart and promote awareness of it by holding Khmer ox cart racing as part of special ceremonies during the Khmer New Year.