To escape air pollution and noisy neighbours in Phnom Penh, six expats who share the love of horse-riding founded their own stable in Arey Ksat, just a ferry ride across the Chaktomuk River from the centre of Phnom Penh. Now they are worried, as they tell Taing Rinith, that their stable could be jeopardised as natural surroundings of the commune disappear fast due to hastily planned urbanisation.
A trail, branching off to the right from the dirt road just a short distance northeast of the ferry dock in the Arey Ksat Community Centre, leads to a Khmer rural house on the left.
From the outside, the house, which stands between a mango orchard and a small banana plantation, is no different from the other rural dwellings in the area. In fact, only a few people know that it houses a stable, run by a group of multinational friends who are enthusiastic about riding horses and getting along with nature.
The house’s compound, filled with tropical trees and vegetation, offers a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere. Two friendly short-furred dogs are always found there, getting ready to play with or be petted by visitors. A shelf on a wall contains horse-riding gears, such as saddle and bridles while six horses and ponies, mostly of Cambodian breeds, are kept in a stable at the back of the house.
The stable was originally owned by a French entrepreneur, who could not make a successful business out of it. When it was closed around three years ago, six regular visitors – four from France, one from the UK and one from Germany – decided to buy it so that they could continue using it.
Each of them bought a horse for the stable, which is big enough for 15 mounts, and has shared the expenses, including the house rent and the stablehand’s salary.
“We did not want to stop riding because it is our hobby and we also like getting out of the city,” says Elsa, a French lawyer for an international organization and a member of the “Arey Ksat Stable Community”, as they called themselves. For personal reasons Elsa only wanted to be known by her first name
“It is a nice place, with a forest and the field, and fresh air. And it is also very quiet,” she adds.
Several times a week, Elsa leaves her apartment in Phnom Penh with James, her pet Dalmatian, boards the ferry at Koh Pich and heads toward the stable to ride Sambo, her brown horse. For hours, she will be riding him on the banks of the Mekong River, under mango trees and lush fields.
“All the people in the area know me now,” says Helene, another French member and a nutrition specialist based in Phnom Penh. “They called me Barang Jis Ses (The French Horse rider).” Like Elsa, she, too, only wanted to be known by her first name.
However, horseback riding is not the only activity of the Arey Ksat Stable Community. When they are not riding, they also socialise with one another and the local people, read books, drink coffee and eat brunch together or simply relax in the peaceful atmosphere. Sometimes, some of their friends and relatives visit the place, and they always fall in love with it.
“Of course, this is not a business,” Helene says. “We do not want a hundred of visitors to disturb our peace. But, we welcome those who want to bring their horses and join our community.
Chhoun Chanthy, the 26-year-old stablehand, has to follow a strict timetable. She has to walk, feed and clean the horses at certain times of the day as well as to take care of the house and the two dogs. Yet, she enjoys the work.
“My husband is a professional horse rider, and I have worked as a stablehand and horse groomer for many years,” says Chanthy. “For me, it is not a hard job, and I really love them (the horses).”
Despite all the feel-good stories, the Arey Ksat Stable Community also faces several challenges in Cambodia. One of them is in seeking professional equine veterinarians and farriers, or horseshoe makers. So far, the only one they can go to is the Cambodia Pony Welfare Organisation. Another problem is the changing landscape of Arey Ksat, due to increasing development and construction projects.
“People are building houses and building on the fields, forest and plantations in this area,” Helene says. “We’re afraid we may lose our greenery here in the future, so we can no longer find food for our horses. (More importantly) we may have nowhere to ride them.”
Till today, the only way to reach Arey Ksat from Phnom Penh is by ferry, or a circuitous road trip using the Prek Tamak Bridge about 15 kilometres north of the capital. According to real estate specialists, the expectations that two bridges will be built to connect Arey Ksat to Phnom Penh has driven up land prices in the area by 10 to 15 percent. Many “Land for Sale” signs are found in the green side of the area while the constructions of several boreys are already underway.
“We always think about what would happen in two or three years,” Elsa says. “It is a nice place near the city and we do not want to lose or relocate the stable.”