One of the traditions which most evokes the slow pace of traditional rural Cambodian life is the sight of a cart drawn by sure-footed buffalo.
One community in Siem Reap province is now sharing the simple pleasure of this thousand-year-old mode of transport with its guests.
When one thinks of Siem Reap, the image of Angkor Wat, and the many other temples scattered around the province, are the first things to appear in most people’s minds. The province has much more to offer, from lush greenery, roaring waterfalls and even birdwatching opportunities in some of the most biodiverse wetlands on the planet.
It is not just the natural environment, or the magnificent works of the ancient Khmer Kings, that make the province such an attractive destination, it is the people.
There are many ways to enjoy an authentic cultural exchange with the local population, but one that is currently garnering nationwide attention is also among the most simple, yet evocative.
To the west of the bustling Siem Reap town lies the village of Chrey village, in Puok district’s Teuk Vil commune. The village is home to a community which is slowly building a reputation for taking visitors on a short trip through time to a simpler era, where the rhythm of rural life beat to a slower pace.
Each month, between 600 and 700 guests enjoy the traditional means of transport.
The Rotes Krabei Community, literally the “buffalo cart community”, resumed its operations in April last year, after a Covid-19 enforced shut down.
Bearers of tradition
Chek Thoeut, 57, is a proud member of the community. She tells The Post that two of her buffalos serve as some of the engines of the communities’ tourism activities.
Each of her buffalos earn her $50 per month, while as a staff member of the community, she herself receives an additional $120. She also prepares traditional snacks, which she sells to tourists when she is not driving her cart.
A native of the neighbouring Khnat commune, she rises early each morning for the short cycle to the community, where she checks on her buffalos, which live there. After a day of sharing her magnificent animals with curious visitors, she cycles back to her home.
Thoeut explains that she can no longer earn an income as she did in the past. Previously, farmers would rely on buffalo to plow the land and prepare for the cultivation of rice. Now, modern machinery has replaced the animals.
As she still loves to tender cattle, like buffalos, she says she will never sell off her animals, but admitted that she is proud that they are now fulfilling a useful purpose by giving rides to curious tourists.
“I am happy that I can still earn an income through this community. I earn enough to have a comfortable life, and I am playing a part in preserving an important piece of traditional life,” Thoeut adds.
Chheng Chhoam, the manager of the community, explains that it was initially started by a South Korean national, around a decade ago. He says operations were shut down for around three years due to the ongoing effect of the global Covid-19 pandemic, and only resumed in April 2023.
A unique experience
At present, the community employs 20 separate staff.
“As one of our objectives is to recall the way our ancestors lived, each of our carts is made in the traditional Khmer style,” he tells The Post.
Currently, there are 16 buffalo-drawn carts available to transport guests through villages and rice fields.
Visitors can enjoy the fresh air, learn about different aspect of farmers’ lives, and experience countryside life, much as it must have been hundreds of years ago.
Despite the centuries of distance travelled, each ride lasts just 30 minutes, with each cart carrying up to three people.
International tourists pay $20 per ride, while Cambodian guests pay $7 each. After enjoying the ride, each visitor is presented with a traditional Khmer cake.
Although most aspects of the carts are traditional, one thing has changed. While in ancient times it was common practice to have two buffalos yoked to each cart, the community employs just one animal.
According to Chhoam, the staff here earn between $120 and $170, excluding any additional income they may earn from the use of their buffalos.
“Our buffalo cart community was not just created to generate incomes for our members and their families, but also to preserve a fading Khmer tradition,” he says.
“We have even seen parts of old carts, such as the wheels, sold to neighbouring countries as souvenirs or curios, rather than pieces of a once-important part of rural life,” he adds.
Link to the past
Chhoam explains some of the ways the simple pleasure of taking a ride behind a buffalo can affect people.
He notes that elderly Korean visitors normally pray to the buffalo before they get on the cart, and again once they dismount.
“Maybe they want to say thank you, as well as sorry to the buffalo for taking them for a ride,” he says.
“Sometimes, other older visitors have tears in their eyes. Perhaps the rhythm of the cart has transported them to a time when they were younger,” he adds.
Thim Sereyvuth, deputy director of the Siem Reap provincial department of tourism, described the community was an excellent example of the province’s rich cultural heritage, and another good reason for guests to visit.
“Here in Siem Reap, we have as many as 17 tourism communities, although not all of them are officially registered,” he says.
He explains that each of them offers a different service or experience, based on their own cultural or natural resources.
Sereyvuth adds that while many of these unique communities are well known to local people, international arrival and people from outside the province may not be aware of them, meaning a marketing strategy may be necessary to increase their popularity.