Jenny\'s Southeast Asia/China Adventure

Cambodia-Travelogue  |  Travel time: February - June 2004  |  by Jenny Chu

Cambodia: Battambang


Friday, 3/19/04
Day 45, First day in Battambang

At 7 am, we arrived at the Shell station that also doubled as the taxi rank for long distance rides.
Before we even got out of the car, a crowd of drivers started running towards us in hopes of luring us as customers. Here in Cambodia, forms of transport include: being shoved into the back of the pick-up with 50 other cambodians, and their sacks or rice, two chicken, three kids, etc; being shoved into a white Toyota camry taxi; your own seat on a big bus; shoved into a minivan; or a boat. Well, Anna and I didn't fancy traveling 3 hours in the back of a pick-up truck going down a dusty road, so our only other option to Battambang was via Toyota Camry taxi.

Lucky for me I am petite, so I bought one seat for $6. Anna while slim, is 5"10 so she opted to buy out two seats in the front. Two seats? With Cambodians being as small as they are, the shotgun is considered two seats. And if the driver wants to make more money a person even shares his seat! And up to four people and one small kid share the back seats. So, all in all, one small Camry in Cambodia can carry 9 passengers. Wowsers. After waiting for an hour for the taxi to fill up, we finally departed. Sitting with me in the back were two old Cambodian ladies, one old Cambodian guy, and one little boy probably 5 years old. Anna and the driver in the front. Our car count for today: 7.

Only five minutes into the trip, we soon discovered that people don't lie when they say Cambodia has some of the worst roads in the road. The road we were driving down was unpaved, dusty, and rocky. But, I didn't mind that I was being jilted up and down, left and right - I was too busy looking out the window and experiencing sights and sounds that I have not yet seen on my travels elsewhere. For instance, at one point Anna and I did a double take as a pick-up truck passed us with of course, a million and one people and things crammed in. But, sitting straight up between his fellow Cambodian passengers, was a human-sized monkey! Also, for twenty minutes we weren't even driving on a road. When the driver realized that one of the little bridges ahead of us had collapsed, he simply took a detour straight into the dry barren fields - the tractor trails now serving as our runway. Luckily, the driver knew his way around (bridge collapses must be common?) and skillfully maneuvered us back onto the main road leading to Battambang.

While squished, I also was enjoying the company of my car mates. The little boy turned out to be quite a chatter box. He babbled on non-stop even tho I couldn't understand a word he was saying and continued on as the others started to doze off. And when the others were awake, they generously offered us a taste of their food.

Anyway, about three hours later we finally arrived in Battambang, dirty, tired, but in one piece. Again, before we got out of the car a throng of motorbike taxis ascended upon us. We each hopped on one and off we went to the Chaya hotel. For $5, we got a huge room complete with cable TV.

But the day was young and Anna and I left our comfortable digs to explore the city. As soon as we hit the streets we instantly became curious onlookers to a Cambodian wedding being held next door. The wedding, was no less an extravagent affair attended by well-to-do Khmers. Guests were arriving by the minute in fancy cars and in even fancier outfits, especially the women who were wearing the most colorful party dresses one could imagine. Lime, purple, red, electric blue - it all reminded me of Skittles. Inside the huge tent, the wedding party was in full swing with a live MC, alcohol, and of course dishes and dishes of food.

At the Cambodian wedding.

At the Cambodian wedding.

Although we could have continued watching, we moved on. Our next stop was an old temple. Sure enough, before we found a place to sit we were greeted by a group of novice monks wanting to practice their English. We did a bit of cultural exchange with the kind monks and learned that they had their very own "monk" boy. This monk boy or rather monk man, lives with them at their monastary and does errands for them like buying them smokes and other snacks. Hmmmm interesting. This monk man also opened the doors to the temple to let Anna and I look inside. At the end he wanted us to leave a "donation" not in the donation box mind you, but on the table. Hmmmmmm. Okay. Anna left a few thousand riel, but I was not going to pad the pockets of this weirdo we kept yelling to us, "Do you understand what I am saying?."

Chatting with the young monks.

Chatting with the young monks.

Back outside the sun was hoTT hot hoT. And we found ourselves accidently in another wedding. Weddings in Cambodia obviously are not soley held on weekends as today was Friday. Taking another break from the heat, we shared a watermelon by the river. A little boy and girl wanted to sell us more fruit, but instead Anna offered them some of the watermelon. They were shy at first, but after a bit of insisting they gladly ate the fruit. While we have been in Cambodia for only three days now, we have seen countless kids working menial jobs instead of being in school. Quite a depressing sight.

At the end of a few hours of wandering we discovered that while Battambang is Cambodia's second largest city, it moves at a snail's pace. The city is also not so large in size and not so developed. Most building are no taller than two-storeys, and the handful of decrepit but still-standing French colonial buildings add to Battambang's charm. Yes, we decided, we do likey Battambang.

A late lunch was eaten at the Smoking Pot restaurant. Fruit shake quenching my thirst, a curry meal satisfying my hunger (even tho I ordered a veggie version of the Cambodian amok - a traditional fish dish simmered in a cocunut lemon grass flavoured curry and got instead a Red Thai curry, it was still delicious). Walking back to our hotel, we realized surprsingly we did not see any other Farangs during our day. Seems like most tourists limit
themselves to Siem Reap and Phenom Penh.

As we woke up from a much needed nap, there was lightening outside. Ohhh, I don't even remember the last time it rained in S.E. Asia during my trip. There seemed to be a buzz of excitement among the denizens of Battambang as well, for who knows when it was the last time it rained here. While we ate our dinner at the White Rose restaurant (recommended - good and cheap!), kids were playing outside as it started to dribble. Anna and I noticed too that women were wearing their matching pajama tops and bottoms in public.


Saturday, 3/20/04
Day 46, Countryside Exploration

We woke up early to meet our guides who would be giving us an all-day introduction to the countryside located on the outskirts of Battambang. My guide was an older Khmer by the name of Sokha Nhok(you can ask for him at the Chaya Hotel), whose eyes revealed the soul of a most gentle and kind man. Anna's guide was a younger, chubby easy-going Khmer guy. Hopping on the back of their motorbikes, we soon departed the city and embarked down a narrow dirt path that brought us into an area dotted with simple Khmer homes, many made only from bamboo.

Anna and her guide.

Anna and her guide.

Sokha was turning out to be a great guide with his excellent command of English and thorough knowledge of the area. He showed me that surrounding these humble homes were a variety of different crops; corn, huge jackfruits, cocunuts, pineapple bushes, and trees whose huge seeds revealed a cotton-like material when opened. Nearby, the Sangker river slowly drifted alongside the rice paddies.

Altogether the scenery seemed to jump straight out of a National Geographic piece-especially when we stopped at a village to take a look and discovered a group of children who happily stopped their game to say hello and have their picture taken. Their genuine curiosity and excitement indicated that tourism had not reached a level where village life was too often disrupted by visiting Farangs - def a good thing. Our next stop was ruins of Wat Ek Phnom, a 10th century Angkor-like structure. It was a steep climb consisting of what seemed like a million steps, but up on top, the view made it worth it.

The ruins of Wat Ek Phnom.

The ruins of Wat Ek Phnom.

Afterwards, Anna and I got seperated by miscommunication as my guide brought me to a local restraurant where I had the most amazing fried rice with loads of veggie and chili sauce and coke for $1. We met up again at the bottom of the hill where the killing caves were. Sokha led us up a steep hill where we were met by some very white looking Cambodian teenagers. Apparently, they had been splashing talcum powder on each other - perhaps getting ready for the Cambodian New Year the following month. They thought it would be funny to share this custom with us by giving us a good douse. Oh well at least now we smell better!

Entering the killing cave.

Entering the killing cave.

Entering the killing cave, Sokha proceeded to explain to us that this seemingly peaceful cave was once used by the Khmer Rouge during their reign of terror. They would line up their victims on the edge of the cave, feets and hands tied up in rope, and shove them down into the dark crevices. Other parts of the cave were used as torture chambers. Altogether, thousands of innocent people (est. 10,000) fell to their deaths here. Some skulls and bones are kept in cages as ghastly reminders of what had happened only a short time ago.

As we sat in a somber silence, Sokha slowly revealed a bit of his life story. He once had a good life growing up in the capital, but when the Khmer Rouge rolled in during 1975, he and his 13 brothers and sisters along with their parents were sent to the countryside to work in forced labor camps. From sunrise to sunset, 365 days a year, for the next four years, they worked the fields. Meanwhile, there was no money for medicine, and food was rationed in meager amounts. At one point, the Khmer Rouge wanted to arrange a marriage for Sokha, but he got out of it by falsely proclaiming that he was too busy working towards the goals of the Party (couples were set up and married by the hundreds on the same day - to produce babies - more labor for the Khmer Rouge).

Somehow Sokha managed to survive and moved to Battambang when the country was liberated by the Vietnamese troops in 1979. It has been 25 years and he has not yet heard of any news about surviving family members. As I listened to this and imagined how different Sokha's life would have been if history had been kinder (perhaps he would have been a professor like his father instead of a tourist guide), I brushed away my silent tears, feeling sad yet thankful that I was able to learn firsthand, this time in history ignored in my previous schooling. Since the Khmer Rouge has yet to be charged by the world tribunals, sharing the bitter truth with outsiders is the only form of solace that Khmer Rouge survivors can aquire.

After an eventful outing, we got back in town around 5pm. I had Anna take a picture of me and Sokha, who thanked me for taking a picture of him. While the tour was only $6, Anna and I both tipped our guides $4. Sokha smiled in great appreciation and said that I must have enjoyed my time. And that I did. As we went our seperate ways, I knew that I would always remember this day and the friendly Cambodian man offered me an invaluable glimpse into Khmer life, past and present.

My guide Sokha and me.

My guide Sokha and me.

© Jenny Chu, 2004
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The trip
 
Description:
Follow my travels through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and China..........
Details:
Start of journey: Feb 02, 2004
Duration: 4 months
End of journey: Jun 02, 2004
Travelled countries: Asia
China
Thailand
Laos
Cambodia
Vietnam
The Author
 
Jenny Chu is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 15 years.
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