We enjoy three nights in Battambang. It’s a pleasant city to visit with a pretty riverside park where we can enjoy meals in waterfront tent restaurants. Women take a aerobics classes in the parks. Lean muscular young men do chin ups and acrobatics on a set of monkey bars (the sort of acrobatics you see on Facebook from time to time). Children play soccer. Couples kick a hacky sack to each other. And old people sit on park benches taking it all in. It’s so pretty even the millions of bugs don’t bother me too much.
But the real pleasure of Battambang is renting a tuk tuk driver to take you around to all the many sights just outside the city. A full day cost us $US10, negotiated down from an original offer of $US25. Our driver, Tony, picked us up at 8.30am and returned us to Battambang around 8pm. We were so impressed we rented his services for a second day, which involved a half day morning outing and an evening sunset trip out to the rice fields.
Battambang Railway Station
Our journey through the history of Cambodia starts with the railway station. Built by the French in the 1930s or 1940s, the railway station was once part of the connection between Phnom Penh and Thailand. However, after running into disrepair and experiencing a number of derailments, the railway was abandoned in 2009. Now only the ghosts of the railway days remain.
Wat Damrey Sar
Tony was educated at Wat Damrey Sar as a teenager. Here he learned English in an outdoor veranda style classroom sitting at a row of wooden desks. His English is a credit to his hard work and teachers. At forty years of age he must have seen a lot in his life and I cannot help but wonder how much his old school has changed or remained the same. Young monks go about their daily chores. At the pagoda Paul is followed by four children asking for “one dollar please”. We smile and politely say “no” each time without aggression for that is not going to help these enterprising youngsters. Better to kindly refuse than to create anger in them. A carving on the exterior temple wall tells of the battle between the Thai and the French. I cannot help but wonder whether the dark figure represent the local Khmer people caught in the middle.
Battambang Provincial Hall
We return to the French colonial era. The Battambang Provincial Hallnis another French structure with Italian engineering. An old bridge spans the river. It was used in colonial days but is now closed to vehicle traffic to preserve it from damage and to prevent accidents.
We pay $US5 per person for a cart to take us down the infamous Bamboo Railway. Tony gets us to the front for the queue, not taking no for an answer from the drivers. Others just have to wait. Our cart is loaded onto the track, the engine splutters to life and we are off. Slowly and genteelly at first then gathering speed until we are roaring along at about 40kph. Clickety clack clickety clack go the wheels over the rickety rails. Sometimes we tilt worryingly sideways where the tracks have become uneven over the years. This is not an experience for anyone concerned with health and safety. But it’s not as though hundreds of carts a day don’t make this journey either. When another cart approaches from ahead we stop. One cart is unloaded, the other moves past and the first is loaded back onto the tracks. We passengers just stand there in the jungle waiting to continue. It’s all quite fun.
Back in the tuk tuk we bounce along the roads once more. Stopping every time Tony sees something that might interest us, like these fishermen and women catching small fish to make fish paste. Fish paste is an important export for Cambodia and also a critical ingredient in Khmer cuisine. Tony takes us to a local riverside restaurant for lunch. It’s clean and has a pleasant view. The hammock is also comfortable. Paul and I share lok lak (a sort of stir fry beef dish) with rice for $US4 while our Czech companions share tom yum soup for the same price. The food is tasty, the riverside hut is cool and it’s pleasant watching the people fishing. Much better than anyplace we wouldn’t have found on our own.
We roll along through the rice fields in the tuk tuk. Lotus plants grow wild in the brooks along the road. Tony takes one and lets us taste the seeds. It’s bitter to my tongue but I’d eat the nutty seed if I was hungry enough. Tony makes us hats out of the leaves. They’d be quite effective at keeping my bald scalp safe in a pinch too. We stop to talk with a water buffalo farmer. The buffalo are slowly being replaced by tractors so most have been sold to Thai buyers. This farmer wants to keep his because the buffalo make the soil soft during ploughing while tractors compact the soil. It’s hard work though, walking for miles of ensure the buffalo are fed.
Rice dries on the roadside. The harvest is just beginning here. Cambodia has two rice harvests. One for domestic consumption and one for export to Thailand and Vietnam. Some farms have turned to mechanised processes, which is affecting the job market greatly. A challenge for this fast developing country to overcome.
Banon Hill Temple
As the midday sun burns down we contemplate the 358 steps that will lead us to Banon Hill Temple. Paul gets pointed looks from local Khmer people walking down towards us. This is Asia where subtlety is not always so easily exercised. But up the steps we go and at the top we enjoy the temple proper.
Banon Hill Temple is a combination of Hindu and Buddhist temples. The complex was built in the 11th and 12the centuries and is contemporaneous to Angkor Wat. I continue our practice of giving some money to light some incense to respect local practice and contribute something to those whose lands we are passing through. Besides, I like the smell of incense and the calm feeling I get in places like these.
Killing Cave and Mount Sampeu
We reach the base of Mt Sampeu. Tony cannot take us further so we transfer to a jeep to drive us up the steep roads to the Killing Cave and Sampeu Temple. We bounce around the benches in the open back of the jeep as he revs his way up the ramshackle road.
The Killing Cave is sobering. This is a place where the Khmer Rouge tortured thousands and threw their dead bodies into the cave. Today there’s a reclining golden Buddha in the cave along with a memorial. Outside there’s more golden Buddhas. I feel a little overwhelmed at the thought of what humans do to other humans. And feel sadness that this still happens in parts of the world today.
The second peak of the mountain houses a beautiful golden temple. Perched on the edge of a cliff it’s a typically Buddhist place where Mother Nature is powerfully apparent. We walk into a cave and into a cave within the cave to see some shrines. It’s so peaceful and I can’t help but ponder this fact of Buddhist places. They are places to which I am strongly drawn and in which I feel quietly contemplative. I even want to walk up the steps to reach them because it feels somehow important. Something for me to ponder, I guess.
The jeep bounces us down the mountain and we meet back with Tony who has organised us prime seats at the cafe / restaurant. From here we can watch the bats leaving the cave. We each buy a drink (I have a fresh coconut for $US1 and Paul has a Coke for the same price; beer is $US1.50 a bottle) and sit in comfort for an hour waiting for the bats then watching as the millions of bats leave the cave in a zig zagging line. We also watch the other tourists – especially those who quite rudely try to sit on the chairs but refuse to buy a drink. I know we’re all on a budget but there’s a fine line between being budget conscious and being ignorant or rude. But then, that’s just me. I save money on airfares and accommodation so that I can have a little extra to pay locals for services if the price is fair (I would not have paid $2 for a coconut, for example).
Well of Shadows
The Well of Shadows is a sobering site. This is the place where over 10,008 Khmer people were killed during the Pol Pot regime. The memorial tells the story of those unimaginable years. A period of history that many Khmer people today still remember. I am struck by the kindness of Khmer people despite the trauma of war and torture. They could have chosen to be angry and bitter like some other cultural groups who have suffered but they haven’t. Rather, this is a peaceful country where people are friendly and helpful.
Industry of Battambang
We stop at a small shed. A machine that could have come out of the ark is pulverising rice and then smoothing it. This is the first stage in making rice noodles. The second is totake the pulverised and moistened rice flour and pushing it through a big metal noodle maker and boiling the noodles. Wood is expensive so rice husks are burned to boil the water. It’s labour intensive, hot and dirty work.
Our next stop is a guava vendor. She sits on a wooden platform with her fruit piled neatly in front of her. The guava is tasty so I buy a kilo. It’s all grown locally along this road, harvested and sold right here. This is hand to mouth living without any guarantee of income. I feel grateful to have been born in the West. The lottery of birth is something that travel makes clear.
The rice wine making shed is next but, not being drinkers, we don’t stay to taste it. The fermentation process takes place in buckets that serve as vats. Fruit, snake, scorpion and spices make up the brew that is said to make men very powerful (if you know what I mean).
Not much farther along is a row of rice paper shops. I made a video because the process is so simple yet effective. These ladies make 3,000 rice paper sheets every day during the dry season. During the wet work has to stop because there’s no sun to dry the papers. I buy some fresh spring rolls, which taste good.
I wonder what it would feel like to have tourists observing your work on a daily basis. To know people who earn more in a day than you might in a year are photographing you out of curiosity. Is it ethical or responsible? Does our purchase of food and drink at their store justify our gawking? Without us this family might remain in greater poverty but our money might make it possible for families to make headway. I know what I’d do for my family if it came to it. I’d let tourists take photos if it were the difference between a subsistence future or having food in our bellies.
Wat Ek Phnom
Wat Ek Phnom suddenly appears before our tuk tuk. The giant Buddha is impossible to ignore. It dominates the landscape. Behind it lie the 11th Century ruins of Wat Ek Phnom. There’s no steps to climb – just a rocky ruin to scramble over. An old lady and a young man’s without use of his legs ply their trade here. They try to encourage tourists to follow them then ask for 1,000 riel ($US0.25). The man crawls. The lady hobbles. For all our complaints about the social security system in Australia, at least this isn’t the lot of our elderly and disabled populations. At home this man would have a lightweight wheelchair, a disability pension, access to education and workplace training, and the protection of anti-discrimination legislation that requires potential employers to make reasonable adjustments to allow him access to employment and workplaces. Our system is not perfect but at least we have something in place.
If you are in Battambang and want a good driver who is friendly, knowledgeable and speaks excellent English, Tony can be contacted by phone on 012 213 541 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.