Saturday, December 6, 2014

Battambang Surprises

On the bamboo railroad

We enjoyed bustling Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but sleepy Battambang quietly stole my heart.  After luxuriating in our deluxe room that first morning, and enjoying coffee on our terrace, I sent Kent down to find out about buses to Sihanoukville and figure out what there was to do and see, while I finished the Thanksgiving Day post and worked on the rest of our trip, 

We had been so tired after our all-day boat trip, that after a bit of wandering and a quick dinner in the nearby Eden Cafe (O.K., but not inspired food), we had fallen asleep at once, and we were still feeling a bit worn out.  Kent returned with Information about two bus companies, and he had made arrangements with a tuk-tuk driver to see some sights the next day.  Name?  He didn't ask.  Time? 8:30 or 9:30, he couldn't remember.  Cost? $20 (too much, I said).  Was it the rather hang-dog, desperate-for-more-business driver who had met us at the the boat?  He wasn't sure.  But, he did speak fairly understandable English.  Oh, well.

We booked our bus to Sihanoukville with Golden Bayon, $20 each.  Nine hours, they promised although the listing at the hotel said eight.  I read reviews of the mini-bus options.  All sounded like hair-raising trips, more or less so depending on the driver, and perhaps on the familiarity of the reviewer with Cambodian road trips. We looked at the colonial buildings, mostly obscured by sleazy storefronts, and I watched children playing at the playground in the riverside park.  We had a nice light lunch at Bai Jaan, a clean-lined white space with a whole bank of young western women engrossed in their MacBooks.  Later we had drinks at Madison Corner on Battambang's "pub street" -- nothing like Siem Reap's noisy, crowded one -- and dinner at Khmer Delight.  We would return to both of the restaurants the next day.  Most of the time in Battambang I was wondering, "Where is everybody?"  

I don't know what this man was doing with these green bottles of river water.

The next morning, Jack, our tuk-tuk driver was there shortly after 9.  I immediately recognized that he had been our driver from the ferry, so I wasn't expecting much.  Kent and I had had a conversation in Phnom Penh when Sam, a somewhat older and ugly fellow was our driver from the boat to hotel.  He left us his phone number, which we never called.  Outside the hotel were many eager, handsome, and charming chaps who called to us every time we entered the street (which was a lot of times since the door to our room was around the corner from the FCC's entrance).  I'd told Kent that I'd rather ride with one of them, but Kent said it was the Sams of the world who needed our business, and he was right.  Jack, with whom I'd been initially so unimpressed, turned out to be a real treasure.

He took us first to the bamboo railroad, partly by way of quiet back roads after a stop at a traffic circle where there was a huge statue where many people were leaving offerings.  Jack explained that it was the first quarter of the moon, so many people came to pray on that day.  I realized that it had been just eight days since we'd witnessed similar offerings and prayers on the Quay in Phnom Penh, which must have been at the time of the new moon.  I put a small donation in the Red Cross box at the altar.  

The bamboo railroad is unique to Battambang, and is well-described in the tourist literature.  It is used to transport freight, although I think it now exists mainly for tourists.  For $5 each we got to ride to a stopping point about 20 minutes away, and back again.  A tour bus group just ahead of us went only one way.  The cart, a bamboo platform on wheels is driven by a small motor.  When one cart meets another, the cart with the fewest number of people has to be taken off the track to let the other cart pass.  Both meeting drivers helped move the pieces of the cart, so all we had to do was jump off and on again.  It was a fun ride, the tracks were far from straight, and we bumped and lurched along through the pastoral countryside, at what felt like great speed since we were so close to the ground.  On the way back we had to dismount at least 4 times to let others pass, always an occasion for merriment. 

This vendor was such a good actor, I told her she ough
t to be in movies.  She was happy i paid too much for one scarf, but she had hoped to sell me six.

After the bamboo railroad we drove through more picturesque back roads to two suspension bridges for pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles.  Jack accompanied us across the bridges and answered many questions for us, about the river's flow and what we were seeing.  A group of women, all conservatively dressed in long dark skirts and white blouses, were returning from the temple, carrying stacked tin dishes (some looked like they may have been made of elaborate silver) in which they had carried offerings of food for the monks.  They stopped to rest in a shelter by the bridge, and I was surprised to see one light a cigarette.  Nearby in the brush on the riverbank was something that looked like a mailbox with a cup of coffee or tea and a dish of seeds or nuts on the open door. A satchel of some kind was at its foot.  Jack explained that this marked the place of a serious accident or death, and people left offerings there as at a grave.  I was reminded of New Mexico's descansos.

We stopped to walk through a fishing village centered around a mosque, where many of the women wore headscarves, and the children played in the water.  We finished up at a couple of trees full of enormous fruit bats, and finally made a stop at a winery.  We paid to sample the wine, but the only one we really liked was the grape juice, which was very expensive, so we didn't buy anything.

Waterfront at Muslim fishing village

Fruit bats

In late afternoon after lunch and a rest, Jack took us to a bat cave and a mountain with a temple on top, and offered to climb the mountain with us.  It was quite a climb in that intense heat and humidity.  I was relieved that I wasn't the only one drenched in sweat.  

As we walked we'd pause to catch our breath and Jack told us mythological stories about the origin of the mountains.  At the first summit we came to a temple that had been used as a prison under Pol Pot, and nearby there was a chilling and somber cave, where men on one side and women on the other had been pushed through holes in the ground to their deaths, or killed and then pushed into the holes.  I hadn't known we were going to  see this. The cave had at one time been full of decaying bodies and bones.  Some bones remain in the lower regions of the cave.  We walked only a little below the temple with a reclining Buddha, now in a space that had once been a theater, and later the scene of massive and horrible deaths, now a memorial as well.  We shone our flashlights into the depths, but I had no desire to go much farther.  One tall glass box in the temple area held bones and skulls.  I felt compelled to pray there, in this place of suffering and death.  I took off my shoes, knelt, and made an offering before the reclining Buddha.  I lit a stick of incense, and the old man in charge tied a red thread around my wrist.  I was heartened to see that many more people followed after me, as there had been almost no one praying there when we arrived.

After we climbed back out, Jack took us through small overgrown paths to stand at the edge of the two holes through which victims had been pushed into the cave, one hole for women and another for men. We would not have gone there without Jack. I looked down and tried to imagine what it would be like to die there.  Higher up hill, by another Buddha statue, I asked Jack if he had lived through any of this time.  It was a bit hard to understand everything, but he told us he was born in 1972, so he had lived through the entire Khmer Rouge period.  Once when he was a child out selling rice, soldiers had captured him, but his father cried and pleaded and the soldiers had let him go.  Later his father was killed by the Khmer Rouge.  Jack still lives with his mother.  I asked if he had never married, as one of his friends had been teasing him -- his Khmer names means banana, and they were joking with him, calling him Banana.  He said he had liked many girls when he was young, but they had not liked him, and besides his family was very poor.  They had been rice farmers in the countryside about 10 km from Battambang.  There was much more we talked about.  

We finished our climb to the highest part of the mountain, then walked down many many steps to the bottom and on to the mouth of the bat cave, which we reached just before the bats began pouring out at dusk, just as they do at Carlsbad caverns.  These were small insect-eating bats, not the large ones we'd seen earlier.  A huge crowd of people and tuk-tuks had gathered for this evening event.  Everyone oohed when when the bat stream widened and flew right across the half moon.

Our day with Jack had been well-worth $20, and we gave him $5 more, to help him afford a wife, I told him, and he laughed, $5 for a wife!  I told him not to give up, that some young women chose older husbands, and that I had done so once myself.  We were truly sorry to say good-bye.

Jack and Kent

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