We board our chariot at 8:30am. We are trusting Tony, our driver, to arrange a good day out because tuk tuk countryside rides are what you do is in Battambang. We will not be disappointed.
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.
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.
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.
When Tony collects us from the far side of the bridge he asks whether we wil agree to some other people joining our tuk tuk. We can still pay $15 he offers “kindly”. We laugh and tell him we will pay $10 and he can make a separate arrangement with his other passengers. He accepts and we agree he can pick up the two girls from Czech Republic who will be our traveling companions. I would never begrudge a person the opportunity to earn a fair day pay for a fair day work, nor the chance to save a few dollars myself. Some would say it was a ruse but all reports I have read are that a tuk tuk with a good English speaking guide costs $25 a day so our $10 arrangement is a bargain.
Czech girls on board we head to the Bamboo Railway. $5 a person buys us a cart. Yes, you can get it for $10 a cart but meh – if it were just me and Paul it would cost $5 each for the cart anyway.
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.
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.
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.
Rather than race to the Killing Cave we roll along unsealed farm roads between the rice paddies.
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.
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, again, I 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 views are always magnificent too.
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).
Tony drops us in Battambang near the river. We eat at a small outdoor eatery before walking to the Seeing Hand Blind Massage that Tony showed us. $US6 buys us each a one hour foot massage with no threat of being offered a happy ending. The perfect way to end a long day. It’s 9:30pm when we walk back into our room.
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.