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The master oxcart makers of Sarika Keo

The master oxcart makers of Sarika Keo

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Master craftsman Pich Keo engraves a Khmer design onto the crosspiece of an oxcart shaft.

B

uilding oxcarts is a tradition common to cultures around the world. In many countries

the knowledge of and necessity for making carts has disappeared, but not so in Cambodia,

where the tradition is still alive in Sarika Keo village.

Fiftyeight-year-old farmer Pich Keo says he has no idea when Sarika Keo villagers

began making oxcarts. He watched villagers making them in his youth, and knows its

traditions stretch back well beyond that.

"I learned to make oxcarts when I was 15," he says. "When I asked

my father who it was that taught him, he said his father had. In my village I saw

old people teaching the youngsters how to make oxcarts, which shows that this is

a custom that has been handed down from one generation to the next."

In the hot hours of the afternoon, Pich Keo works in painstaking fashion to chisel,

carve and smooth the slowly spinning wheel of an oxcart underneath his home in Phum

Sarika Keo village, Oudong district. It is the job he has done his entire adult life.

Sarika Keo lies around 30 kilometers north of Kampong Speu provincial town. All of

the village's 100 families supplement their farming income in this way. Sarika Keo

is renowned in the region as the best source of oxcarts and makes hundreds of them

each year.

Most farmers in Cambodia's countryside rely on oxcarts to transport their crops.

Oung Von, director for the Cultural Heritage Department, says that their use is a

Khmer tradition the history of which stretches back to pre-Angkorean times.

"There are carvings of oxcarts on the walls of the Angkor temples such as Bayon

and Banteay Chhmar. Cambodian people have been using oxcarts since the seventh century,"

Von says of the long-lived profession.

Keo says that the village's reputation resulted in the Khmer Rouge choosing the village

as a source of oxcarts during the late 1970s. The oxcart-makers were moved to Kampong

Speu town to supply the community .

Keo was one of those chosen. He says the Khmer Rouge ordered them to make oxcarts

for distribution to neighboring provinces, adding that those who were unable to meet

the quota of one cart per month were killed.

Keo says his manufacturing skills saved his life; those who worked hard were given

more liquid porridge and palm sugar.

"The Khmer Rouge admired me because I was good at building oxcarts, but I was

not happy," he says. "They didn't allow the people to use the carts for

their labor. Instead they took my oxcarts for joyrides."

After the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, Keo returned to his village where he carried

on his traditional business. He was so skilled and so well taught that he developed

a reputation of his own: his customers included farmers, rich businessmen, government

officials and even the Royal Palace, only one of two cartmakers in Cambodia selected

for that honor, he says.

"My customers recognize the good quality of my carts. Before they ask me to

make the cart, they design it with decorative styles such as Yuveavang and the Hang

bird tail," he says.

Keo explains that a good-quality oxcart takes around one month to make. The preferred

trees are Thnong and Sokrom - exotic woods that allow a cart to last 20 years.

Despite the good reputation of the village, however, the business of making oxcarts

is not what it once was. With the cost of a cart running at about $350, Keo makes

only a minimal profit. The high price of the now scarce exotic woods has dealt a

heavy blow.

"During the sixties there was abundant wood. Each oxcart cost about 3,500 riels

and I made a good living then," he says.

Another problem is that farmers no longer want to buy traditional style carts. Most

orders Keo receives are from restaurant owners or rich businessmen who want an oxcart

for display at home.

Bin Trang, 46, is another oxcart builder in Sarika Keo village, and he too has noticed

the decline in demand. He says that farmers cannot afford the traditional oxcarts

and have instead turned to the newer tire-wheel oxcarts. Trang says the tire-wheel

cart is cheaper and takes a bigger load than his wooden-wheeled variety.

Trang says that in the 1980s he had to travel as far as Takeo and Kandal provinces

to sell his carts, and even then people did not always buy them. Now his reputation

means his customers come to him.

"Before I could not sell a cart for months, but that changed when I tried to

make my carts look more attractive," he says.

Trang only started learning the trade from his father in 1980, but despite his relatively

late start, his reputation has gone further even than Keo's. In the past few years

the Royal Palace has bought some of Trang's carts for exhibition.

Although the new carts are less in demand, a change in tastes has meant that the

old, abandoned oxcarts of past years are now highly marketable. Som Thao, a 67-year-old

oxcart builder in Kandal Steung district, Kandal province, says that Cambodian middlemen

frequently visit villages to buy old carts from villagers, although he was unsure

why they wanted them.

Oung Von at the Cultural Heritage Department says the demand is driven by Thai

businessmen who turn the antique oxcarts into luxurious furniture.

In an effort to combat this Von has visited the provinces along Cambodia's borders

educating people about the importance of the country's oxcart heritage, and asking

them not to sell their old carts.

"The government should take measures against this illegal business of old oxcarts

being sent outside the country. It should rather buy them and keep them in the country's

museums," he says.

Back in Sarika Keo, Trang says that despite his good reputation, there is simply

not enough money in making oxcarts. As a result, he says, his son will have to do

something different.

Pich Keo is worried that the problems they all face mean that the knowledge of this

ancient trade could vanish. None of his six children, he says, is interested in carrying

on the business.

"I am an oxcart builder, but my children are repairers of motorbikes,"

he laments. It seems likely that Pich Keo will be the last in his family's line of

oxcart craftsmen.

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