03 November, 2009

Pottering around: travelling the nation's roads by oxcart

TO fuel up his delivery wagon, clay merchant Ton Sophas simply pulls his cart into a field on the side of National Road 5 and lets his animals graze.

It is for this reason that oxcarts still can still be found steadily clomping their way along the busy highways around the Kingdom.

After leaving his home province of Kampang Chhnang, Ton Sophas and his fellow clay merchants will take about four days to make the journey to Phnom Penh. But for Sophas, if he can unload his wagon it will be a worthwhile trip.

Kampong Chhnang’s Rolea Bier district is famous for its clay pots, cookers, vases and toys. Though Phnom Penh is the biggest market for the goods, the old oxcarts make their laborious deliveries throughout Cambodia.

Ton Sophas can spend up to a month at a time on the road, peddling his goods in Kampong Cham, Takeo, Battambang and Siem Reap.

Although he doesn’t make the wares, Ton Sophas is part of a production and sales partnership that goes back generations. Villagers make the pots in Kampong Chhnang, and the oxcart fleet takes care of the logistics.

Ton Sophas isn’t the only person in his family making the long slow trips.

“My father does this job, and I just want to follow him,” he says.

But it can be an unpredictable life on the road, he adds. “It can be both a fun or a suffering life selling clay pots and cookers by oxcart.”

A good trip can net him 1 million riels (about US$250), but problems with his ox or cart eat away at his profit.

“Sometimes I earn money, but sometimes it shocks me when my oxcart breaks or my oxen get sick.”

And unlike motorbikes or cars, you can’t push an ox to an mechanic when things go awry. A few years ago in Takeo province, Ton Sophas’s oxen fell ill, and he was forced sell the sick animals and return home with only the cart.

Ton Sophan says he sleeps wherever he happens to be when the sun sets, and relies on locals to keep an eye on the clay creations.
“I have never been robbed, but my relatives faced gangsters who destroyed all their clay goods,” he says.

Phnom Penh is a prime location for Ton Sophas and his comrades to peddle their goods, but it’s not an easy market to penetrate. Police often prevent him from taking his cumbersome cart into the city.

Like many merchants in the Kingdom, Ton Sophas prefers to haggle on a sale-by-sale basis.

“If I see them get out of a car, I charge 3,500 riels (US$0.80) for a set of small clay toys,” Sophas says of his sales technique. “They usually ask for a discount of 500 ($0.12) – but I still get a higher price than a normal sale.”

After a few days of sales in Phnom Penh, Ton Sophas and his team head back to restock their wagons.

The empty wagon makes the oxen’s task a whole lot easier, and within a couple of days, Ton Sophas and his fellow clay men of the highways are back in Kampang Chhnang. (Souced by Phnom Penh Post Website)


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