Kampong Chhnang, once bustling with activities thanks to an abundance of tourist visits has taken a turn for the worst, no thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The smiles of the villagers here have long gone. They used to beam with happiness as they welcomed visitors and people to the Kampong Tralach Leu community. They were happy to provide transportation for tourists who arrived through river cruises.
A highlight of tourist visits was the experience of travelling on oxcarts as they visited century-old temples. But all that is now a distant memory.
The port has gone quiet. Cruise boats don’t dock at Kampong Chhnang anymore. The oxcarts are just left under their houses built on stilts. Many have sold their oxen or cows as the tourist dollars have dried up.
The tourist transportation activities completely stopped after the government announced the temporary closure of the border between Cambodia and Vietnam to stem the Covid-19 outbreak after Cambodia found cruise passengers infected with the novel coronavirus.
Kampong Tralach Leu’s Oxcart Association director Teuk Troeung tells The Post that after the closure of waterway between the two countries, some 140 cows in the community were left in their sheds.
“Villagers now sell their cows to slaughterhouses because, aside from transporting tourists, the animals had long not been used to plough farmland,” said Troeung, who used to lead his community in transporting tourists by oxcart at least three times a day.
Siem Reap’s Chhreav Agro-tourism Cambodia used to have as many as 350-400 visitors a day under various programmes.
Activities included shopping at the local market, visiting local schools, buying some local vegetables, learning to cook Khmer cuisine, bird-watching, enjoying food with local families and riding on oxcarts to experience village life.
But all these have also come to a standstill.
Krouch Ly, the president of the Information Centre for Cambodia at the Chhreav Agro-tourism Cambodia says: “From dawn, tourists used to catch amazing sights and take pictures of beautiful birds flying in from various places to land on green rice fields in Chhreav and Pea Reang Lake.
“After this, waiting oxcarts transported them to explore the villages. As part of the routine, the oxcarts parked next to the people’s backyard plantations to get a glimpse of how they farmed their land.”
Each day, between 20 and 30 pairs of oxcarts worked to offer tourists such experiences they couldn’t get anywhere else. And the villagers in Chhreav’s community enjoyed their company too.
But now, with tourism practically non-existent, the animals are sold for their meat.
Troeung said the situation became dire as the villagers could not afford to feed their adult animals without getting back any benefit from their existence.
So with the money they now earn from selling their cows, the villagers have enough for their subsistence and to buy some calves to raise for better times when the oxcarts once again transport tourists.
“An adult cow that weighs between 300 and 400kg costs about $500. A pair of them we can sell for about $1,000,” says Troeung.
Troeung, who also has a pair of cows, says a calf needs between 18 months and two years to grow to adulthood and be sold for meat.
Aside from Kampong Tralach Leu’s Oxcart Association and Chhreav Agro-tourism Cambodia, many other communities and resorts had offered such oxcart services to tourists as traditional transport.
While the cows have been put up for sale, the carts are left to wither away through the ravages of time.
The Oxcart Association in Kampong Tralach Leu village was founded in almost two decades ago to preserve this centuries-old transportation and promote Khmer culture to local and international tourists.
They used to arrive at the Ka’am Samnar checkpoint through boat cruises, mostly from Vietnam, Phnom Penh, and Kampong Chhnang’s Kampong Tralach Leu village.
After their visit, they usually continued along the Tonle Sap Lake to Pursat and Battambang provinces before heading back.
“Though our oxcart drivers charged between $4 and $5 per trip for each ride, we are happy to take our passengers to explore and visit old temples for a tip,” says Troeung.
He adds that some high-spending tourists used to give them tips ranging from $10 and $20 per trip, which is a tidy sum.
Troeung says sadly that if they don’t have tourists visiting, they not only lose a large chunk of their income but even more devastating is that the oxcart culture can fade away.
Kampong Tralach Leu village is located just 60km north of Phnom Penh. And Troeung is hopeful that after Covid-19 has run its course, things will get better, “and who knows, we might even rebuild our tourism from local visitors from Phnom Penh and nearby areas”.
Covid-19 has not only affected the national economy, but the lives of people across the Kingdom and around the world.
It is important to continue social distancing, staying home more and doing all the things advised by the Ministry of Health for one’s safety and protection.
This is the only way to put an end to new infections and ensure the economy and the lives of all those affected are put back on the track to normalcy.
Failing this, more jobs and livelihoods will be lost, just like those of the oxcart drivers.