Battambang, Cambodia

14 Aug

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Battambang, Cambodia

After spending a few eye-opening days in Phnom Penh it was time for us to continue our journey through Cambodia, and so we took the 5 hour bus ride to Battambang. While the bus wasn’t the worst we’ve seen on this trip so far, it was far from the comforts that can be found throughout South America, in Australia and in Malaysia. The vents for the A/C dripped and the seats are much closer together and also a lot smaller. It was more like riding in economy on a budget airline.

As our bus pulled in to Battambang in the early evening, locals ran alongside it energetically waving signs that advertised various local hotels. We had booked our lodging in advance and found a guy holding up the sign for  Royal Hotel. He offered us a free ride and when we arrived we were offered the opportunity to stay 200 meters down the road at their new affiliated hotel that had just opened for the same price, Asia Hotel. We decided to give it a chance and it was really clean and had much more of a hotel feel rather than hostel or guesthouse.

As J.J. checked us in at Hotel Asia the tuk tuk driver who had driven us there started into his pitch to be our driver for the following day. He brought out a map to show me all of the places he would take us for $9 USD each. He was very sweet and a university student and so we didn’t even bother to negotiate price with him, though I’m sure we could have gotten his driving services for cheaper.

We got settled and while I Skyped with my family J.J. headed out into town to pick up some take away for dinner. He returned to the hotel very impressed at the freshness of the food – so fresh in fact that he had to wait while the owner of the restaurant headed out to the nearby market to purchase the necessary ingredients to fill our order. During our time in Battambang we found this to be quite common.

In the morning we had a fresh breakfast at our hotel before our tuk tuk driver was to arrive to pick us up for the day’s adventures around town. We were surprised when our university student friend from the day before didn’t show up, but instead had his father come to take us. His father explained that his son’s English wasn’t yet good enough to be able to recount the history behind the things we were going to be seeing that day and that that was the reason he had come in his son’s place.

We hit the road, passing some of Battambang’s amazing colonial buildings, their well-manicured lawns and the old French bridge, bound first toward the bamboo train. When we arrived our tuk tuk driver arranged with one of the train operators for J.J. and I to take a ride along the uneven railway tracks. The train operator set out a bamboo mat that J.J. and I were to sit on while he stood on the back of the 3 meter long sideless wooden car to drive.  Off we went traveling along at about 15km per hour, occasionally being hit in the arm or sometimes even the face by branches  of the lush green foliage we passed. The trees and bushes lined both sides of the tracks but still allowed us to peek through at the rich fields that went on for ages just beyond. The scenery was beautiful.

We soon encountered the question that I’m sure all tourists ask when riding the bamboo train for the first time: what happens when 2 cars are travelling towards each other meet? Both trains stop, one car of passengers disembarks, both drivers lift the car off the wheels then lift the wheels of the track. The driver of the fully in-tact car drives it just past the car that has just been removed from the tracks and then returns to help the other driver re-assemble his car on the tracks. The journey then continues.

We arrived at our destination, a small village, about 20 minutes after we had departed the station. There were a few stalls set up where local village people were selling coconut milk, cold drinks, snacks and small souvenirs to the tourists. Local children ran up to us immediately wanting to take us to the field just beyond the tracks where they showed us large flowers growing wild. Back at the village stalls, the children showed us how they had made rings, bracelets and origami-like grasshoppers out of coconut leaves.

2 little boys, eager to practice their English while on holiday from school, asked if they could show me around the nearby brick factory. Their tour was very cute as well as informative and I did give them each $1 USD for their time. They were thrilled.

It was then time to head back to the station. On the way back we weren’t alone as a young girl of about 4 years old from the village hopped on for the ride. She was extremely quiet and shy but lit up when we showed her a large grasshopper that we found on the car. She took it in her hands and held on to it until we got to the station where she gently set it free. I know I say this in every country, but Cambodian kids are so darn cute!

We climbed back into the tuk tuk and continued on with our sight seeing, travelling along the bumpy red dust road. We stopped at the bridge that the locals refer to as the Golden Gate Bridge, or the San Francisco Bridge. It’s essentially a very, very small scale version of California’s Golden Gate Bridge but it was interesting to see what people would carry on their motorbikes across the bridge that is barely big enough to stand 2 people wide. Everything from gas cans to families of 5 to full bushels of hay to baskets of fruits and vegetables to wire cages piled 4 high and 2 deep filled with live chickens.

We then headed midway between Battambang and Phnon Banan where we visited Prasat Phnom Banon Winery, Cambodia’s only wine-making facility. J.J. and I shared a tasting of the locally produced ginger juice, grape juice, Banon brandy and red wine (the label on the bottle doesn’t distinguish whether its contents are a cabernet sauvignon or shiraz). The ginger juice had kick, the grape juice tasted of unsweetened grape juice, the brandy was a bit shocking (that stuff will keep you warm all winter long!) and the wine was decent.

On our way to Phnom Banan (a temple) we made a couple of pit stops. The first to see a large number of enormous fruit bats hanging upside down in a tree. Our driver, attempting to show us their wingspan, proceeded to throw sticks and rocks at the tree hoping to scare the bats into flight. Needless to say I stayed inside the tuk tuk, peeking out just long enough to decide I was ready to move on to the next pit stop. The second stop we made was to see peanuts being harvested in a field. People were collecting the nuts and bagging them, at which point they were spread out to dry on large ground sheets placed on the grass in the sun. We were able to taste some peanuts and to our surprise they weren’t so much crunchy as they were damp and crumbly.

From the peanut field we headed to Phnom Banan, noticing many groundsheets laid out in the sun drying both peanuts and chillies along the way. We arrived to Phnom Banan in the height of midday heat where we faced 358 reasonably steep steps that we would have to climb in order to get to the top. Once we’d conquered the steps we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the Prasat Banan countryside as well as the 5 stone towers that date back to the 11th century. We wandered around for a while, examining the carvings in the stone as well as taking photos of this site that locals believe was the inspiration behind the design of Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat.

By the time we’d descended the 358 steps (but who’s counting?) the afternoon had grown cloudy and we decided it was time to take a lunch break. Our tuk tuk driver drove us to a nearby family-owned restaurant. There we ate with the family’s son who was in his early teens and on holiday from school. When we asked him how he spent his holidays he said he worked as a driver of a motorbike taking tourists up to the nearby Killing Caves , temples and view points and also engaged in the popular Cambodian sport (his words, not mine) of napping in hammocks.

After lunch we had this guy and his father drive J.J. and I up to the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau. We walked past a temple under repair located high on a hill overlooking the fields below to the top of a stone staircase leading down into a cave that looked like something out of a Magic School Bus book that I remember from my childhood.

At the bottom of the staircase lies a large golden Buddha statue next to which is a memorial built of glass walls that houses the bones and skulls of yet more victims of brutalities inflicted upon them by the Khmer Rouge before they were thrown down into the cave from above. We also discovered once we were inside the cave, a man sitting peacefully in front of the glass memorial, as his job was to maintain the cleanliness of the cave. I can’t imagine reporting there to work every day, constantly being reminded of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge committed against the Cambodian people a mere 32 years ago.

As we were leaving the Killing Caves it began to rain. We got onto the back of the motorbikes and headed further up the hill to a higher viewpoint overlooking the countryside below. Though it was grey and the visibility wasn’t great, I could imagine how beautiful it would be on a sunny day, even amidst the construction taking place at the surrounding temple.

By the time we headed back down the hill to the tuk tuk we were pretty damp and ready to head back to Battambang where we had planned to take an evening cooking class at Nary’s, a restaurant close to Asia Hotel.

We met at Nary’s and we began by following our instructor, an abrupt Cambodian man with a passion for cooking, to the nearby market. There he showed us the local fruits and vegetables as well as the different kinds of fish available. I gagged my way through the fish section both because of the smell as well as at the sight of a woman selling fish from a bucket in which her dirty feet were submerged. Lucky for me, I don’t eat seafood and I’m happy to say I didn’t see anyone with their dirty feet in a bucket of chicken.

After purchasing some of the necessary ingredients we headed back to the kitchen at Nary’s where we were taught to make fresh spring rolls, chicken/fish amok and beef lok lak. If you’re in Battambang, I highly recommend the cooking classes (offered twice daily) at Nary Kitchen. The dishes they teach you to make are delicious – we would know because the best part is enjoying the fruits of your labour at a sidewalk table in the restaurant once you’ve completed the class.

Exhausted after a jam-packed day and with an early travel day ahead we called it a night close to 11pm.

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