two days in Battambang, Cambodia…

(Buddhist monk receives his morning alms donation of food – on the street in Battambang)

After Japan, arriving in Cambodia is a bit like falling down the rabbit hole and arriving at the Hatter’s tea party. Where Japan is order, precision and peaceful meditation, Cambodia leaps at you with chaotic traffic, blaring loudspeakers and all the colour and smells of the tropics.

Following two days in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, I had journeyed by bus to Battambang, a small city in the countries Northwest. The thermometer hovered near 40 C as I checked into my hostel and I just had time for a quick bite, a short walk and a cooling shower before retreating to my air conditioned dorm room for the night.

The next morning began with coffee on the hostel’s rooftop terrace. Already at 7:00 am the air clung thick and hot to the city, and an orchestra of engines, horns and birdsong filled the streets. Below me, in the courtyard of a Buddhist temple, monks clad in bright orange robes performed morning ablutions.

I had arranged for a tuk tuk to pick me up at 8:30 a.m. Promptly at 8:50 it arrived – its driver – the friend of a friend of the smiling young man at the hostel’s front desk – turned out to be the affable Zokor.

Now ladies, when preparing for a day riding around in the back of a tuk tuk, forget about your hair. The wind, dust and clawing heat will conspire to make you look much worse than something the proverbial cat dragged in. So that is how I look while sitting here writing this, but oh how I wish you could have had my day.

Zokor (despite his winning ways, five children and a wife who prefers money to flowers – wouldn’t any mother of five?) did not drive one of the better tuk tuks in this country. Ours was a slowish putt putt through the streets and into the countryside of Battambang, complete with pushing said tuk tuk at one point ( past a waving crowd of well wishers), shopping for a new front tire, and waiting in the comforting shade of a frangipani while the tire was duly changed. This interlude was well spent, however, in answering Zokor’s English vocabulary questions and in asking some Khmer language questions of my own. Language lesson and new tire complete – off we trundled.

The horrors of the Khmer Rouge (1975 – 1979) found Battambang and the ancient temple of Wat Somrong. Mostly women and children were imprisoned and tortured here, and some 10,000 died. A Khmer motto was “If we keep you, it is no gain, if we kill you it is no gain.” Truth held no value, and the lies devalued people until they also were valueless. Today a monument to the dead stands on the temple grounds, its inscriptions dispelling the myth that hatred ever leads to a better world.

(Memorial at Wat Somprong. The stupa is filled with bones from the mass graves unearthed here. The inscription on the panel above reads ” If we keep you it is no gain, if we kill you it is no gain”)

It is wedding season in Cambodia and Khmer wedding music ricocheted off my eardrums at regular intervals as we puttered along through the outskirts of the city visiting various cottage industries. I witnessed the making of kro lan, a staple Cambodian fast food made from sticky rice, coconut milk and beans and sold at roadside stalls.

(Making kro lan. Families rise at 1:00 a.m. to cook the sticky rice, pack the rice, beans and coconut mixture into bamboo and roast it over hot coals and have it ready for sale at dawn)

We also visited women making rice paper wrappers and something called “Cambodian cheese” which is open barrels of rancid fish and salt left to ferment in the heat for one year until it is a grey mass. Truly a health Canada nightmare. I declined a sample therefore cannot report on taste.

The thermometer hit 37 C as we reached Wat Ek Phnom – ruins that predate Angkor Wat, it’s more famous cousin to the south -an adjacent giant stone Buddha and its 10 carved sentries. A toothless older woman and two young boys offered to guide me which consisted of pointing and saying “see.” Cambodia is a country of ever visible poverty and children are everywhere selling trinkets or guiding the way.

I wasn’t going to ride the bamboo train, the remnant of a larger network built by the French, but was persuaded because, as a tourist attraction, it supports a broad local micro economy – and it ended up leading me to Sukre. I clamoured onto the Nori, (a straw mat covered bamboo rack that sits atop two sets of metal railcar wheels) with a fellow traveller from Britain. The staccato engine roared to life, drowning all conversation, and we shot forward, the wind blast-furnace-hot. Judging from the scorched fields that surrounded us, crop burning is done here, a practise where, after harvest, instead of tilling the stalks into the soil, they are burned. It leads to soil nutrient depletion and the need for synthetic fertilizers. Rib jutting white cattle trudge the thirsty landscape.

Our mobile bamboo mat roared 15 min out into the landscape then stopped at a posse of makeshift huts offering drinks and souvenirs. Enter Sukre, proprietor of a hut. She had a great smile and really wanted to sell me something. I chose a tshirt. Sukre was happy but not ecstatic and began to wheedle in a theatrical sing-song that was half cry, half laugh. We looked at each other then burst out laughing and her mother joined us. Then we were hugging and still laughing. The British tourist snapped our picture, no doubt believing we were all nuts. Sukre gave me a final hug and said, “Something else for you Canada?” as I boarded for the return journey.

Our final stop of the day was Temple Banan, a 12th century temple ruin at the top of a daunting (in this heat) vertical climb of 350 stone steps. But first – lunch!

(Top: Temple Banan beckons in the shimmering heat. Middle: the lunch kitchen. Bottom: lake with water supply for lunch kitchen and homes of locals)

Local entrepreneurs have constructed a restaurant shantyville at the foot of the temple and lunch was a tasty affair of noodles and veggies that had me praying that my Dukoral vaccine would do its job. It wasn’t the cooking or the cook (a lovely shy woman) but rather the local water supply that had me worried. (I am glad to report that Dukoral saved the day).

I arrived back at the hostel to find a power blackout (thus no A/C. The heat has the grid under severe stress throughout the country). I grabbed my bathing suit and headed to a local hotel where for $5 you can swim in their pool – heaven! The power returned later while sharing a drink with fellow travellers on the rooftop patio (big happy roar) then failed again (big sad shout) then returned (happy roar again) to give us A/C for the night.

My final day in Battambang, the power was out again, so I wandered. I do not feel afraid in this country and find people friendly. The children holler “Hello!” and the women return my smiles. Wandering lead me to the small but beautifully curated Battambang Provincial Museum stuffed with priceless artifacts from Cambodia’s past (fortunately the Khmer Rouge did not destroy most of the country’s treasures). I also found a wonderful temple complex, Sangke Temple, not listed in any guidebooks. (Battambang is like that. It is not yet a tourist staple and is filled with little discoveries). While browsing there, a young Cambodian man asked me where I’m from. It turned out that he is a teacher who volunteers time teaching the children of poor families who care for the temple grounds. He showed me the little school, and when I asked him if I could give a donation for the school, he declined, saying that he had everything he needed. I asked if any of his students needed supples and only then did he agree to take money to buy something for them.

(Top: Humble and well spoken volunteer teacher. Middle1: Dog at temple gate. Many dogs take refuge in temples. Middle2: Colourful paintings tell a story in a Buddhist Pagoda. Bottom: Spirit house in a yard. To keep ghosts away)

At 2:00 p.m. I boarded the bus for Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat) – 3.5 hours away.

But before we leave Battambang, let me tell you my favourite part. On day one, after visiting the victims memorial, Zokor and I strolled into the grounds of an adjacent school. After the sober brutality of the Khmer Rouge, the children’s voices floated over us like a refreshing breeze. Cries of “Hello!Hello!” filled the air. Some of the children grabbed my hand and pulled me with them (while throwing clouds of talcum powder into the air!). And in the shadow of the memorial, their little smiling faces gave me hope. May we never forget.

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