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Published: January 9th 2009
Early start, breakfast at 6:30am ready for 7:00am pick up. The pick up by tuk-tuk from the hotel is always included in the very reasonable price of the bus ticket (e.g. Siem Reap to Battambang $6) so you have to be ready at your hotel half an hour before the scheduled bus departure time. The bus normally departs from a dusty depot on the edge of town and each bus company seems to have its own depot. On this occasion the tuk-tuk took us to the bus company office just 500 yards away. Here they indicated for us to get on a local bus to take us out to the depot. They indicated that we should take our rucksacks on board, so heavily laden we mounted the busy bus and had to make our way to the only empty seats right at the back. At the bus depot we transferred to the Siem Reap bound bus and waited - only about 4 westerners on board. Bizarrely the bus eventually set off back to the bus company office so one and a quarter hours after leaving the hotel we found ourselves 500 yards from where we'd set off from. Today is the 30th anniversary of getting rid of the Khmer Rouge so is a national holiday - this meant there seemed to be a large number of children travelling. On the seat in front of us was a local man and his 3 kids occupying the two seats. Eventually we did head out of Siem Reap. For 10 minutes the road was slow but reasonable but then the road became so bumpy and dusty that we crawled amazingly slowly. The dust somehow got into the bus and was choking. It was the most horrible travelling experience for a long time. With the aid of my map I calculated that the 38km from Siem Reap to the town of Sisiphon (where the road became tarmacked) took 1 hour 36 minutes which equal 15mph or if the false start is included 38km in 2 hours 51 minutes which equals 8.3mph. Cambodia is not a country for those in a hurry - which is of course one of its many charms. At a wee stop many of the locals bought small cooked birds about the size of blackbirds for a snack. One of our fellow westerners bought a banana leaf packaged sweet rice bundle which he returned because it was off and crawling with ants. I stuck with the more safe bunch of sweet tangerines from a stall. We reached Battambang and a busy bus depot after about 5 hours. Straight by $1 tuk-tuk to our selected hotel. Usual plot - Jen waits outside in the tuk-tuk with the rucksacks whilst I dash in and check out the room before committing ourselves. This time I as very impressed - a huge bright corner room with fan and en-suite for $8 a night. After a quick shower headed out for a reconnoitre. We were immediately taken by Batambang - the people are more friendly and less tourist oriented. The kids especially are great - they think it is great fun to say hello to a westerner and giggle when you reply. Often a tiny child passing on the back of their mum's moped will call out. It is a busier town than say Kampot but seems just as nice. The centre is quite compact - there is a river running through the centre which is not particularly picturesque with its concrete embankments. We wandered along the river passing an intriguing peace monument depicting a 'naga' a Hindu cobra god made entirely of old gun parts. (The naga features in many of the temples at Angkor and is a common symbol elsewhere for example on modern bridges). In the evening we headed for a happy hour beer at the Australian owned Bus Stop before a tasty and cheap Khmer meal at the busy White Rose restaurant.
We booked for a morning's Khmer cookery class at the Smokin Pot. It was a wonderful morning. First the 9 of us (3 Americans, 2 French. 2 Australians and us) plus our chef Vannak Robie set off to market to buy the ingredients. It was fascinating as he explained the ingredients as he bought them from the small stallholders. The market is strange in some places in that the stallholders are kind of behind bars as though they were in jail and pass the bought products through the bars. We bought fresh shredded coconut, various fruit and vegetables such as long beans, eggplant, and herbs and spices such as sweet basil, fresh turmeric, galangal, fresh and dried red chillies. We also bought fish paste which is fermented - we bought the month old one but some ferment for up to 9 months and are very strong. We bought oyster mushrooms. We also bought beef and the ghastly highlight snakehead catfish. These were alive when bought. The lady smacked them over the head with a cleaver but they continued to wriggle as she scaled them alive. It was gruesome - more so as I was handed the bag to carry and they continued to wriggle to such an extent that one escaped the bag briefly. Thankfully we didn't buy the large terrapins that were on offer swimming in a bowl and by the time we walked back to the restaurant the fish were dead. On the way back we passed a big wedding in progress - part of a street was full of food being prepared in huge boiling pans. One was apparently full of a freshly slaughtered goat. There were about twenty piglets hung up ready for cooking. Back at the restaurant we began our preparations armed with a chopping board, cleaver, pestle and mortar. The smell from the ground spices was delicious and we chopped and ground the ingredients. Vannak speaks good English and has a dry sense of humour and is very enthusiastic about Khmer cooking. We transferred to a gas heated wok each - it was all very well organised with his wife working behind the scenes and his shy little daughter Rosa occasionally putting in an appearance. We prepared fish amok which we consumed before starting a stir fry (fish for us - beef for the others) and a lovely salad. I slightly over chillied mine and I thought my head was going to explode despite copious amounts of water.
At the end of the session we were each given a bound sheaf of recipes. It was a great morning and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who finds themselves in Battambang. After a relaxing afternoon we headed for a charity performance by a children's home that puts on a weekly circus. Part of the fun was getting there. We'd arranged earlier with the Smoking Pot to pick up a moto there but only one was available so, Jen and myself headed off on a single moped. Quite a squeeze but a common sight on Cambodian roads. He went at a restrained speed so it wasn't too scary but felt a bit unusual. Jen was wedged in the middle and I clung to the bars at the back. We turned down a dusty track to a village just out of town. The circus is held in a big tent beside the children's home which also provides meals to non-resident kids. There's also an art exhibition by the kids. The performance was exuberant and skillfull. Circus acts such as juggling are woven into a humorous tale based on a ghost theme accompanied by a little band playing Khmer music on local instruments. The children really seem to enjoy performing and it was a great evening. ( A little dampener on the evening was meeting the Australian couple from the cookery course who told us that their camera had been stolen whilst at the cookery class). We set off back to town on the same single moped and had a late meal and a beer at the Gecko cafe. The town closes down early and the restaurant and streets were virtually deserted by the time we finished about 10pm.
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