Ox races draw eyes to school

Ox races draw eyes to school

Plumes and carvings decorate carts. Photo by: ROTH MEAS

Teams of decorated oxen wait before the event’s start. Photo by: ROTH MEAS

FOUR hundred people gathered to celebrate the end of the rice harvest with an ox-cart race in a field near Prek Ta Ok village, Kampong Speu province, about 40 kilometres from Phnom Penh.

Besides the fun of seeing the beasts dressed up in embroidered headdresses, some sporting elaborate plumes and Cambodian flags, the event had a serious purpose.

Race organiser Pok Saoly says he wants the races to attract people to his village so they can see for themselves the problems that local children face.

The nearest public school is three kilometers across a muddy path that floods in the rainy season, he points out. So last year he established two unofficial classes in his village to teach local children about Khmer literature and basic English.

About 63 children from the age of four to 14 come to his classes, so he saw the ox-cart races as a way to draw attention to their efforts in organising an unofficial school.

“I don’t just plan to hold ox-cart races to attract more visitors to the village, but also stage other interesting events during the year. When outsiders come, they can see our children and help support their education,” he says.

About 20 oxen were dressed up in their finery for the races last Sunday, which coincided with the village’s rice harvest festival.

Cart racer Chab Ra, 39, says he loves racing his oxen, which he has taken to run in events all around Kampong Speu province. Races in his village started only in 2007, but he has taken part each year since.

“We train our oxen to run faster for about a month before the race, and we even sharpen up their horns a little to attract more interest from the audience.”

He sees the races as not just entertainment, but a boost to his income. “Now that we’ve held races in our villages for four years, the price of oxen has risen as people like to buy fast and healthy animals. One pair of oxen can cost up to US$3,000,” says Chab Ra.

Race committee member Phat Meas, 53, says that the race is reviving old traditions that disappeared during the Khmer Rouge period in the 1970s. “It’s a legacy handed down from our ancestors. We raise animals and we like racing them. My father and my uncles were always ox-cart racers.”

He says his village doesn’t have tractors yet, so oxen play a very important role in transport and farm work. Most families raise three or four cows, he explains.

After the weekend’s events, Prek Ta Ok’s ox racers can relax until it’s time to start training their animals for the next races in the village, scheduled for April 13, during the Khmer New Year holidays.

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