An Adventure with a Khmer Ox Cart Vendor

Jul 20, 2010

In Cambodia, vendors continue the tradition of using ox carts as part of their survival and identity.


A pottery vendor travels slowly by straw-packed ox carts in the streets of Kandal province.

A pottery vendor travels slowly by straw-packed ox carts in the streets of Kandal province.

Photo credit: Mendhak


Many modern and stylish vehicles such as Lexus, Camry and even Mercedes Benz are seen in the streets of Cambodia, but for humble folk from rural areas the slow moving ox cart is their only way to move around cities and make some money.

Chean Chheily, 21, from Kompong Chhnang province, rides through Phnom Penh’s main centre in his two-wheel vehicle, pulled by his trusted white oxen. His ox cart is overloaded with pottery and local crafts, laid on a thick layer of yellow straw to prevent any cracks or breakage. He stops several times to call out to customers.

Ox carts are still popular in Cambodia. In the past, it was the only means of transportation for carrying people and goods from place to place. Selling pottery products on the ox cart was a common sight in Khmer’s ancient period, especially in Kompong Chhnang. The province is famous for its clay pots. In fact, Kompong Chhnang means “Port of Pottery”.

Some boys from Kompong Chhnang would spend their time during the dry season driving their ox carts to crowded places in the country to sell pottery such as water pots, vases, piggy banks and other souvenirs. Whenever their products sell out, they will immediately head back to their province to replenish their goods.

Chheily is a seasonal ox cart seller. He normally works in rice fields during the rainy season and starts peddling his wares in the cart during the dry season.

He struggles to earn a living and has no choice but to leave his home and travel far distances to try his luck. Chheily says he has been on the road for too long – twice to Phnom Penh, which is 70 kilometres from his village, and once to the northwest province of Siem Reap, more than 300 kilometres away.

“I can get more income in Siem Reap because of the tourists there. However, it is too far from my hometown. It takes me almost a month to arrive there by ox cart,” says Chheily.

The oxen would pull Chheily’s cart through some rough terrain and muddy roads as most highways in Cambodia are still in a horrendous state of disrepair.

Chheily drives his cart and stops whenever someone calls him for a purchase. Sometimes callers just look at his wares idly and walk away without buying anything. He says he does not mind it.

He has got used to it ever since he started selling in the streets of Phnom Penh.

Travelling alone, without any shelter for the night, is a major concern for him. He does not own a house in the city; neither is he able to afford a room at a guesthouse. As a mobile seller, he often sleeps alone in the cart in strange places. He also has to get up and check his belongings and wares several times at night.

“I’m really scared with this adventure but luckily I’ve never met any trouble. I always pray for good spirits to protect me. My friend used to be beaten up a lot for money. If we do not give them money, they will break our stuff on the cart,” says Chheily.

“We have to give them money if we want to come  back   home   alive.”

“I do not want to do this kind of business, but I have no choice. I left school in Grade 8 in my province,” he says.

Besides the lack of security and constant threat to his life and livelihood, rain is also a huge problem for Chheily. He has to cover his cart with plastic, while he sits out and gets soaked in the rain. The krama (traditional scarf) he wraps around his shoulders is no protection against the cold.

I also want to carry on this tradition, because without my ox cart, I will not be me.

His clay products are from wholesalers in his village. Chheily occasionally earns 20,000 riel (about US$ 5) per day. If he’s unlucky, he goes home empty-handed. He says he gets about 500 to 1,000 riels (12 to 24 cents) in commission for a product sold. With that pitiful amount, almost everything goes to his daily expenses, leaving none for his family.

In the city, ox cart businesses are banned on small streets as they can block traffic. Vendors like him are usually pushed to the fringes where selling goods is even tougher. With such limitations in the city, Chheily says he has to consider selling elsewhere.

“It is hardship I always meet, but I have to bear with these difficulties so that I can bring some money back home,” says Chheily. “I also want to carry on this tradition, because without my ox cart, I will not be me.”



This post was originally published on Blue Lady Blog in June 2010.