The Lost Stick

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Asia » Cambodia » North » Battambang
February 13th 2018
Published: November 28th 2018
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Not having to meet Chim until late afternoon I spent the vast majority of the day lazing around Battambang. I grabbed another gorgeous breakfast at Madison’s Pub and then wandered over to the internet café and its video game playing youths. Then since this was a holiday after all, it was back to the hotel for swims and naps. By the time late afternoon rolled around I was refreshed and ready to go.

To my surprise it was actually Chim who arrived and not some substitute driver that he had come in his place. I decided he liked these shorter tours as opposed to the all day drives he was used to. This tour would not only include watching the bats fly out of the mountainside at Phnom Sampeau, but a trip to the killing caves as well. But before that I asked Chim to make a side trip to see Stickman.

Who is Stickman? Basically, Stickman is the central figure of a very striking and iconic roundabout in Battambang and I wanted to take a photo of him. Stickman’s actual name was Ta Dambong. Legend had it that he was a farmer who found a magic black stick which he used to overthrow the king and take the throne for himself. Many years later the king’s son came back to avenge his father. Ta Dambong panicked and threw his magic stick at him. It missed, landing where the city now stands. The stick was never found and Ta Dambong ran off never to be seen again. The city of Battambang is actually named after the whole incident of the “Lost Stick”.

Chim was racing to Phnom Sampeau, a small mountain in the surrounding countryside. This was because Chim wanted to show me the killing caves and time was of the essence. The bats, you see, would not wait for me. As soon as they sensed the sun was going down, they would be flying out of their mountainside homes. Upon arrival Chim organized a truck to drive the two of us to the top of the mountain. Usually we would walk, but we didn’t have enough time and tuk tuk’s couldn’t make the steep ascent.

At the top were these horrific life-sized statues. They depicted all the ways the Khmer Rouge had tortured the local populace in specific gory detail. Naked people being scourged and put through every barbaric situation imaginable and unimaginable. They all seemed a bit over top and unnecessary, but I guess the idea was to shock so that the whole thing would never be forgotten nor repeated. Beyond was an opening at the ceiling of a cave where the Khmer Rouge would kill people and then drop their bodies far down to the cave floor below. Sometimes they wouldn’t even bother to kill them first and just blindfold them and toss them down hoping that the fall alone would do the job.

We then climbed down to go into the caves themselves. The bones of the dead were now cleaned away, but when Chim was a kid, born in 1980, his parents took him to the cave and he could see all the bones and skulls still littered all about. The whole place made me feel vaguely sick and I didn’t think it right to take a picture of such an eerie place of suffering.

Apparently, the Khmer Rouge was still fighting the Cambodian government forces as recently as 1997 and they have the artillery still left to prove it. For years the two sides would fire artillery shells at each other from competing hills. Up there on this mountain was a temple. It was actually this that drew the Khmer Rouge up here in the first place. The temple was peacefully serene and the views it offered of the surrounding countryside were sublime. The sun was fading fast however and it was time to greet the bats.

Back down below I found all my fellow tourists waiting in anticipation. It was quite a festival atmosphere with people sitting in chairs along a narrow corridor in the shadow of the caves. As soon, as the bats came out I moved in to get a better view. The number of bats that poured out of this cave was unbelievable. There were literally millions of bats. While, gawking upwards and watching the little fellas fly off I bumped into my buddy Sok, who was full of smiles as usual. After ten minutes of watching bat after bat fly off into the night, I decided it was time to go and beat the tourist traffic out of there. So, with bats still whizzing in the air, Chim and I hopped into our tuk tuk and headed off back to Battambang.

By this time it was completely dark. That sultry open-air tuk tuk ride, filled with the nighttime smoke of the countryside and watching the rural scenes of Cambodia pass by while listening to hypnotizing Khmer toons on my ipod will stay with me for quite some time. When Chim dropped me off at my hotel I thanked him for all he had shown me and gave him an extra large tip atop the agreed upon price. I wished him to have a good life and better fortune for Cambodia.

It was time for my last night out in Battambang. I would be smart however. Even though I was planning on it being a relaxed night I would pack everything and be completely ready for my morning departure. If the night was unexpectedly good I would still be prepared for departure and not leave myself desperately flailing. Age and experience do have their benefits.

I was all fresh after a shave and shower. I felt very pleased with myself having prepared so well as I walked out of my hotel. I passed by an atm. Hey, why not be even more prepared by taking out an extra $90 for the journey ahead. I put my atm card in, pressed a button, and nothing happened. That was strange. Then my atm popped back out for what felt like two seconds before it was cruelly sucked back in. Then a red message flashed on the display saying that the machine was “temporarily disabled”. Oh no.

I calmly or was it frantically pressed buttons at random hoping for a miracle. This being nighttime in Cambodia there was a security guard posted outside the atm. I tried to tell him that the atm ate my card and that he needed to call someone. It took a while, but finally he humored me by calling someone. Probably his mother. He pointed to a sign in English that said that the bank would open at 8am tomorrow. That didn’t exactly help me considering that my bus left for Phnom Penh at 7:30am.

After about five minutes the temporarily disabled message disappeared and the atm went back to displaying the normal “Welcome to Bank Hell” message. I tried buttons again. Nothing. At this point I tried throttling the atm, rocking the beast back and forth. This caused the security guard to take a step forward and meekly motion me to desist the throttling. Looking back, it must have been an anxious night on the job for him. He having to deal with a gigantic irate foreigner who had just lost his atm card.

I marched back to the hotel. I do not travel with a cellphone so I needed to make some calls from my room. I tried to dial, but all I got was the front desk. The voice said that I needed to come down to the desk if I wanted to call out. This was getting annoying. The overnight guy at the desk appeared to be about 20 years old. When I got down there, he presented me with an old cell phone to use. When I explained that I needed to make an international call. He took back the phone and said that this was not possible. Oh god.

Even though it was well into nighttime I decided to try my trusty internet café. Sure enough all the video gamers were in there playing the night away. I squeezed myself among them and fired off some “Help! I’ve lost my atm card” emails back home and researched how to get a replacement. I still had around $80 cash so I was by no means penniless and I had a friend arriving in Cambodia the next night, but I would need to find a way to get money soon.

The internet café was about a 15-minute walk away from my hotel so by the time I got back I was drenched in humid Cambodian sweat. Back in my room I was totally unable to sit still. I changed into some new dry clothes and headed off for Madison’s Pub. I was now a highly motivated drinker.

Travelling solo definitely has its benefits, but sometimes you need someone to talk with. This was definitely one of those times. I sat down at the bar, ordered a beer and immediately struck up a conversation with the French bartender and the guy next to me, who I had never met. I told them how my atm card was brutally consumed by the vile mechanical agent of the Canadia Bank-Battambang branch.

The guy next to me was great and even bought me a beer when he had heard my tale. He was reassuring and he actually had some good ideas about how I could access my funds. He was British and a veteran of Cambodia travel, this being his tenth trip to the country. He wound up giving me some great trips about my upcoming destinations, like Kampot and Phnom Penh. Gotta love the traveler’s network. Beers were drunk and by the end of our conversation I was no longer fired up about losing my atm card, instead I was fired up in a festive way.

During my conversation with the British traveler, a small party was beginning to form made up of local expats, the French/Cambodian staff, and a few local Cambodians. The French bartender, who I had become friends with by that point in my stay, came over and said that I should come join them.

It was like being back home again. Home for me was being part of an expat community in Asia. I was drinking and laughing with all sorts of characters like it was old times. It felt like I fit perfectly in that scene and yet it was only my 5th night in Battambang. I was fitting in so well that the young French cook had thought I was actually a local expat. It was the kind of thing that ironically never really happens in your home country, only in foreign lands. And in my experience the stranger the country the quicker and stronger are the bonds that are formed.

I was having a great time talking with everybody. The friendly Khmer barmaid kept smiling and leaning over to say “Cheers!”. After a while the French owner motioned to fill up my glass from the large beer tower in the middle of the table. It turned out they were getting an early start on celebrating Chinese New Year. I wouldn’t have to buy another beer for the rest of the night, which was good because....well you know.

I wound up sitting with some Khmer girls. They put up Khmer karaoke on the big projection screen and began singing right there. The party was going off! The owner even got up and began dancing with a Cambodian staff member.

There was also a young Cambodian guy who wandered in. He put on some really good Khmer music. By this time the French bartender and the Cambodian barmaid, who was sitting in his lap, were getting quite handsy with each other. The Cambodian guy said if they were going to do that then the bartender should marry her. The bartender just smiled. By this time, I had befriended an American guy who had just brought in a whole pizza. He offered me a couple slices and we talked about the Asian expat experience. He lived in Vietnam and was visiting for the holiday weekend.

The party began to wind down. It was now late and time to go. The earlier strife of the evening had no more meaning for me, but my unavoidable early wakeup in a few short hours did. I said goodbye to the staff and thanked them for making my time in Battambang so memorable.

As I walked back to my hotel the Cambodian guy, who was perhaps the drunkest person at the bar, came zooming by on his moto. He stopped short and asked if I wanted a ride to my hotel. “No thanks. I’ll walk”. I had survived one misfortune that night. I had no desire to add a fiery crash and a broken back to the mix.


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