Leaving no stone unturned...
I seem to be doing a lot of writing here in Cambodia after considerable slacking off in Thailand. There is a lot to see, and so much history, and I’d like to get it all down before I forget it.
After Siem Reap, we went to Battambang. The interesting thing about Battambang (pronounced “Bahtambong”) is that people seemed, on the whole, to find it a bit odd that we were there at all. The town sees relatively few tourists compared to Siem Reap and the beaches of Sihanoukville to begin with, and there is little—okay, nothing—for children to do. We saw no other tourist children at all. For that matter, we’ve seen few other families anywhere in Cambodia.
Arriving from Siem Reap, we headed into the market area of the town to have a look around and get some dinner. We found a place called The Smokin’ Pot, which is supposed to be known for great food, cooking classes, and, yes, ingestible weed. And the menu makes no attempt to disguise it, either; there is actually a pizza you can get with some “special herbs” on top, and in case you’re too dim to figure out what that implies, the description spells it out for you: “…with mariwana on top.” Yes, it really was spelled that way! We skipped that offering and went for veg curries.
Stepping out in the dark and wondering what we should do the next day, we bumped into a tuk-tuk driver named Irellen (he pronounced it more like Ai-Lin) who spoke English quite well and had lots of ideas for us, with photos to back them up. We agreed on a price for him to show us around for a day and a half.
He was very eager to please, perhaps too much so; having overcharged us slightly (as we found out later), he seemed determined to earn his keep by taking us to every monument, site, activity or attraction that could ever have interested anyone in Battambang. I’ll offer up the laundry list here but will limit photos and detailed descriptions to the handful of places that were truly memorable.
In no particular order, he took us to Wat Ek Thom, a ruined temple that apparently predates Angkor; to Phnom Banan (“phnomh” means hill), where we walked up 358 stone steps for an excellent view and to poke around yet another ancient temple; to visit a family that makes rice paper for spring rolls so we could see how it’s done (it’s gruelling assembly-line type work that pays very little: about 50 cents for each batch of 100 hand-produced sheets); to another “factory” where people spend their days making fish sauce by fermenting fish of all sizes in big vats of salt (this made a particularly strong impression on Mark, who has since sworn off all fish); to Cambodia’s only winery, where we received free samples of grape brandy, rose, and another red that was described to us only, mysteriously, as “grape wine”; to a century-old Khmer heritage house constructed of now-rare hardwoods and furnished with beautiful antiques, where the current owner spoke to all of us in French about his family and the history of his house; and to the old train station in Battambang, which hasn’t been in operation since the war and the large clock at the front has been stuck at 8:02 for years.
Here is Ciaran heading up the 358 steps:
The winery was quite a strange situation. We stepped in past the grapevines and welcome signs and right away noticed a pungent, unpleasant odour. The owner greeted us and explained in Khmer to Irellen, who translated for us, that she hoped we would excuse the smell, which was hanging in the air because the workers were in the process of, as Irellen put it, “changing the bat shit.” Due to Irellen’s accent, it came out sounding like “bat sheet.” Right, the winery uses bat droppings as fertilizers (there are massive fruit bats nearby and so of course there are people whose sole job is to collect this fertilizer). We had the good fortune to arrive just as the old bat sheet was being replaced with newer, fresher bat sheet – lucky us. We tasted the three drinks on offer, and bought a bottle of the rose just to say thank you.
In fact, most of the day went that way – Irellen bringing us into what appeared to be people’s homes (but were also, in fact, their place of business) so we could poke around and satisfy our curiosity without paying anybody anything. Of course, we always felt obliged to leave a little something behind, whether by buying something or making a small donation. The exception was when he took us to a crocodile farm. We pulled up alongside a metal gate off a dirt road. Irellen hopped out and slid the metal gate to one side, ushering us in. The first thing I noticed was a woman lying in a hammock across from an infant who was lying in another one. There was a piece of rope attached to the infant’s hammock, and the woman was pulling on the rope to rock the hammock and put the baby to sleep. Following Irellen’s lead, we simply walked right past her, with a friendly nod, and onward to where the crocs were kept. The woman didn’t so much as shift her weight in response. Rather than being a crocodile zoo aimed at tourists, this place was a bonafide crocodile farm where the big beasts are raised for their meat and skins, hence the lack of an admission fee. On the way back out, we went right past this woman and her baby again, giving them a friendly wave. No donation or other contribution. It was very bizarre.
I would say the two highlights of our time in Battambang were the ride on the bamboo train and the trip up Phnomh Sampeau to see the killing cave.
First, the bamboo train: these are an ingenious local solution to the dual problem of single-track lines and a defunct railway system. While no passenger trains run in Cambodia anymore (at least not yet—plans to restore the system are in the offing), there are still places where local people travel short distances via the bamboo train. A bamboo train is essentially a 3-metre long wood frame covered in bamboo slats which rests on two barbell-like bogies (we were told they came from tanks), the rear of which is connected to an engine via fan belts. It all sounds very rudimentary and benign, so when we climbed onto a bamboo train near Battambang, I wasn’t expecting the engine to roar to life and propel us down the track at speeds that would put a roller coaster to shame. But that was exactly how it felt and sounded—all the way to a village called O Sra Lav, about half an hour down the line.
From time to time, we would see another bamboo train coming at us headlong down the track. This was alarming the first time it happened, given the speed, but there is a simple solution: whichever driver is carrying fewer passengers must have them disembark while he disassembles the train, removing the wood-and-bamboo frame from the metal bogies and then lifting those off the tracks as well, and placing the entire assembly on the ground beside the tracks. When the oncoming train has moved on, the driver reassembles the train, everyone gets back on, and off it rolls again. This happened to us at least half a dozen times during our half-hour journey.
I can say that for the kids, this was certainly the highlight of their time in Battambang. It certainly beat Phnomh Sampeau hands-down, for them. Here are some photos (in the third one, you can see the train being taken apart):
Phnomh Sampeau is a mountain near Battambang that offers stunning views over the town and surrounding farmland. But most people visit because of its role in Cambodia’s history. During the late seventies, it was a Khmer Rouge stronghold, and the Khmer Rouge had no trouble putting a few of the mountain’s natural caves to gruesome use.
To get to the caves, you can walk a kilometre up a hot, dusty concrete road, or you can hire a boy on a motorcycle to drive you up. We went with the motorcycles – me and Chloe on one, and Mark and Ciaran on the other, each with a driver. Mark’s driver doubled as our guide.
The first cave he showed us began with some stone steps carved into its entrance, then tailed off downward into blackness that we chose not to explore. Our guide explained that this was where the Khmer Rouge would toss people to starve and/or torture them to death. Our guide didn’t pull any punches with his descriptions, either, and went into some detail on the methods used—forcing children to shoot their parents, slicing open the bellies of pregnant women, driving nails into people’s skulls, often bludgeoning them to death to save precious bullets.
Once people were dead, the Khmer Rouge would throw their bodies down through the skylight of a separate, nearby cave. This is what became known as the killing cave. We went into this one; from inside you can look up and see the skylight and imagine the bodies raining down. It’s a good 25 metres from top to bottom.
When the war was over, efforts were made to gather the bones of the many people who died in the caves. These were piled into a rough memorial made of metal and chicken wire. Thanks to donations, a newer memorial with a glass door was created in 2007, although the old one remains in the cave and still has a few skulls at its bottom. The new one is packed with skulls and bones from top to bottom, clearly visible through the glass.
The cave is now also graced by a large, reclining golden Buddha with all the requisite incense, flowers and decorations. During our visit, the man who painstakingly collected all the bones for years after the Khmer Rouge left sat in front of the Buddha, meditating; our guide said he is often there.
Too much for the children? Probably. Ciaran thought the skulls were kind of cool and didn’t pay any attention to the history. Hear no evil, see no evil. Chloe refused to enter the cave at all, and we didn’t try to encourage her. They mainly enjoyed the motorcycle ride up and the view from the top.
The last really interesting place we visited in Battambang was our tuk-tuk driver, Irellen’s, house. His wife had just had a baby two weeks ago, and the proud father wanted to show off his first born, a baby girl. At the end of the day he drove us there to show her off and meet his family. It was an awkward encounter; we were honoured and happy to be there, but at the same time awestruck by the obvious poverty. Irellen appears to be well put-together, with clean, attractive clothes, decent shoes, a cell phone, an excellent command of English, a working tuk-tuk and even a Toyota Camry for clients who prefer to ride in style. So we weren’t expecting his home to be, essentially, a hole in the wall of a crumbling, decrepit railway building. He and his family are literally squatters there; he expects the government will move him when the trains start to run again. The building itself is literally crumbling out from under itself, with cement supporting beams that in some cases don’t reach the ground anymore; the only roof is a tarp.
We offered congratulations and best wishes all round, and then Irellen brought us back to our hotel, where we spent the evening feeling very fortunate indeed. Instead of stewing over the fact that he had charged us a good $5 to $10 over the going rate, when we said goodbye to him we gave him a top-up.