So, frankly, this experience was a bit weird. I wanted to support the local community by doing, it but it was a distinctly awkward encounter. It was undoubtedly beautiful going out to see the sunset across the lake at the edge of the paddy fields, but you couldn’t escape just how contrived the whole thing was.
So just to be clear about this, for those of you who haven’t been concentrating, this ox-cart ride was offered to us as an ‘optional’ activity as part of the homestay experience. I wasn’t over-keen on this, but our guide explained that it would be a really good thing to do for the local community. It is their way of raising money. The ride is $5 a time, and a proportion of this is set aside to go to a communal fund that pays for expenses that are shared. It might be for example medical expenses, or a low-interest loan. It is a way to support local people. Plus, it was a way to tour the local village and get to see a sunset over the paddy fields, and you have to admit that it offered up some stellar photo opportunities too.
So after we’d done some reading with the kids – more of that later – a procession of four ox-carts appeared. Eight of us were off for the ride. I ended up partnered with the young Australian and we were allocated the cart at the front. These oxen were quite feisty, plunging around in a slightly lethargic way if such a thing is possible. It turned out they were just a year old, and only being trained. Good to have us along to experiment with. Even a fiesty and plungey ox is pretty slow it seems. I felt a bit sorry for them, they seemed confused.
The cattle themselves (question, when is a cow and ox and vice versa? no idea) looked healthy and well. I suppose they are an investment for the family. These are working animals. A rope goes through their nose much as it would with a camel or bull, which looks rather brutal. The older cattle seemed placid, and lumbered on in line behind us with our more erratic ride. It was still pretty slow motion. Our local guide and trip guide tried to follow us on bikes so that was entertaining as it was nigh on impossible over the rutted fields. We made slow, but picturesque progress. You could easily walk faster to get to the view-point, but where would be the ‘authentic Cambodian rural experience’ in that.
It was fun, but contrived fun. I like the smells, and sounds. The drivers had no English, but were genuinely friendly, and didn’t mind being photographed. I’m still unsure about this, I do always ask. With children and younger people they are not just up for it, but falling over each other to get in shot. With older people I’m less sure if they are really ‘happy’ or just ‘tolerant’ because they need the tourist money. Maybe it is true a bit of your soul goes with every photo? I hope not. I didn’t feel that here though, it felt fine.
After we arrived deep in the rice fields, we disembarked and picked our way along the edge of the fields to a view-point on a bank where we could watch the sunset. The sun plummets out of the sky rapidly, so we had to put on a bit of a sprint to get to the perfect spot our guide had lined up. It was indeed beautiful. A fisherman in the foreground, sun setting behind the trees. Very fine indeed.
Our giggling guide finally caught up with us, and there was some posing for photos, before we picked our way back to the ox cart to be returned to the school gates to pick up where we had left off, except not with English teaching anymore, but with ‘soccer’! Oh joy!
Rather sweetly, on our way back I saw the little girl I’d been reading with earlier on, furiously pedaling home with her younger sibling balanced in front. She waved in joyful recognition when she saw me. I felt very honoured. It is sad that the tourist dollars are so desperately needed by this community, as it is a measure of their need. However, the consequence is that there seems to be a real appetite to welcome visitors, and harness that potential income stream. I suppose because it is an off the beaten track rural location, we are at present, relatively few. They want more, the welcome is therefore absolutely sincere albeit it is one born of economic necessity. It would be better if they had more choices. I hope at least by parting with our cash and engaging with the children there was some reciprocity there, but who knows what they are really thinking. I keep saying it is humbling to experience this because it is. These people have hard, hard lives, and very few choices. Working in the tourist industry, and learning English are pathways out of what is otherwise an essentially subsistence existence for many.