Battambang - out into the dust

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January 9th 2009
Published: January 27th 2009
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Friday 9th January

As yesterday was quite hectic, we decided on a more relaxing day. We headed for a stroll crossing to the less busy west bank of the river. On the bridge we gave way to a column of orange clad monks heading in the opposite direction with their begging bowls. Crossing the roads is quite an ordeal. Strangely very few locals seem to cross the main road as pedestrians. We jokingly think that they are born either side of the main road and never cross to the other side unless they own a moped. We strolled a considerable distance ad felt we deserved our breakfast at the White Rose. (It was a little offputting to see a sparrow nibbling on someones's omelette as it sat waiting to be served). Service is a bit slow but the portions are generous and worth waiting for. We passed may small 'beauty salons' and Jen decided to get her hair dyed. It caused quite a stir when we walked into one as they are not used to westerners as customers. I shamelessly abandoned Jen and headed back to the hotel via some camera shops to get some prices for replacing my broken camera. An hour and a half later any grey had disappeared and she had been transformed into a startlingly red headed woman. After a siesta we headed for the Smokin Pot for evening meal and arranged a tour of the countryside outside Battambang for tomorrow.

Saturday 10th

Awoke to chanting from a nearby wat. Cambodian towns are seldom quiet - if its not monks it's loud music from the multi day wedding celebrations. We'd arranged to meet our 'guide for the day' who goes by the name 'Nick' actual name Sambath Chhim at the White Rose where we intended having breakfast. However it was closed for a private engagement party breakfast so we headed to the Sunrise for a delicious breakfast. Eventually found Nick and his friend who were going to take us on their mopeds for a tour of the countryside. We set off out of town initially following the river north. Almost immediately the road became a dusty track. Jen was on the back of Nick's moped and I on the back of Neil's (sadly I didn't write down his Cambodian name). Nick is very vocal but Neil was a bit more reserved and spoke only occasionally. We passed through a Moslem area. Nick says the minorities get along well. Our first stop was to see a remnant of French colonialism. Boules is still very popular and we stopped at a village where a very intense match was taking place. A bizarre difference from the French version was that sometimes instead of throwing the boule it as pushed with the foot. Alongside the boule pitch a game of Khmer chess was taking place at a frantic place with much advice coming in from bystanders. It was a great scene to see the Khmers at play. We then stopped at a roadside place where some locals cut bamboo into short lengths and after charring them in burning coconut husks scraped it clean with cleavers and then filled the short tubes with sticky rice with black seeds for flavour. It was surprisingly good. Apparently it is used as a snack food by workers in the paddy fields. This area we were told produces the best tasting rice. Next stop was a village by a bridge over the river which is the limit of navigation during the wet season as the river gets so high that boats can not get under the bridge (making it the nearest boat stop for Battambang after leaving Siem Reap). The village specialises in producing fish paste and died fish. The drying fish is left out to dry (the waste bits such as heads, tails and fins are used for stock or as processed for pig or chicken food). There are vast vats of slowly maturing fish mixed with salt which have quite a powerful smell. The paste is mature for up to a year and is exported to many countries. Part of the village had pots boiling away to produce fish oil. The village was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge but has been rebuilt. Next stop was a village specialising in producing rice paper for spring rolls. It is a very cottage industry and incredibly skilful but laboriously repetitive. The track became very rural passing through lovely rice paddies. The people were incredibly friendly and seemed delighted to just see a westerner and wave and smile. It was a lovely experience to be greeted so warmly. The only problem was that the bumpy roads made our bums incredibly sore. Nick got us face masks to prevent us ingesting too much of the red dust. Half way along a track the motorbike I was on got a puncture. We stopped at one of the many roadside 'stalls' that service the mopeds even in these remote parts. In this village there was a tremendous thumping music and whilst the tyre was repaired Nick took us to its source which was a village wedding preparations. The band composed of local instruments plus a singer and electric guitar were already in full swing. There was a huge set of amplifiers and speakers pumping at huge volume. The bride and groom were not there yet but loads of relatives and friends were lounging about waiting whilst food was prepared and tables and chairs arranged.. Puncture mended we sped on to the 'Killing Caves'. On the way my moto man told me that he was from a family of thirteen (not sure if this meant his extended family or just siblings). He said that he never knew his grandparents because they were killed by the Khmer Rouge before he was born. A series of hills suddenly spring up from the paddy fields. It is a scene of one of the many Khmer atrocities. Many were assembled here to be killed. We secured one of the schoolchildren who act as guides at this site. He was about 10 years old and called Pee. He was very bright and spoke good English. Together we strolled up the steep hillside to the caves where the murder occurred. The solemnity of the site is destroyed by the avariciousness of the authorities that have built temples on the site with 'requests' for donations for temple building every 20 meters and the names of donors plastered everywhere. I can't believe so many people donate to building absurd religious monuments when there are for more deserving causes for funds on every street in Cambodia such as the landmine caused amputees or the people blinded by measles. Instead of being moved at a site of mass murder I was just angry at the religious authorities for exploiting such a site. The actual caves are banal in the callousness of what went on there. According to my guide book many victims were bludgeoned or had their throats cut before being thrown into the caves. Many skulls and bones have been collected and placed in a glass case by a stupa. I couldn't help noticing that some of the bones were obviously those of children. I'd like to think never again but from what I read similar atrocities are happening in the Congo at the moment. It seemed especially poignant to be shown around the site by a ten year old. The view from the hill is magnificent as it dominates the surrounding flat paddy fields. (It was used as a gun emplacement because of this - the rusting guns are still present) We saw what looked like red squirrels and a stall holder had a catapult which he used to scare away stealing monkeys. After descending the hill we had a simple noodle lunch at a restaurant run by a friend of Nick's who used to be a tuk-tuk driver. The highlight of the trip then came. We headed to Nick's remote village and met Nick's elderly Mum and his extended family of brothers/sisters nieces and nephews. His brother has a primitiveTV/radio repair workshop where everything is covered in a layer of dust. We gave his mum some tangerines as a small gift. His mum chewed betel nuts combines with a white paste which she spread on leaves - not sure what it was - but she spat the whole concoction out after a few minutes. From what we could gather Nick's mum and dad are separated. Nick as eldest son has huge responsibilities on his shoulders. He even says that it is his responsibility to look after his unmarried sisters child. There is a very obvious and touching closeness and mutual support in these extended families but a huge burden on those who have to support them. We set off again on yet more bumpy dusty roads. We came upon a brilliant sight - a convoy of five fully laden oxen carts. Nick explained that they were taking the rice stalks to a small processing plants where the rice was separated from the stalks (we'd seen this happening on a small scale as we passed through the villages). We stopped at a big tree near a wat. Nick pointed out about 200 fruit bats in it. He disappeared off behind the tree and we wondered why. Then we became aware that he had lit a small fire. The smoke irritated the bats who took fright and to flight so that we had 200 fruit bats circling over our heads. Whilst at the tree a group of about a dozen small schoolboys cycled past. They were hysterical with giggling. When we asked Nick why they were so amused, he said it was Jen's newly bight red dyed hair The route back to town took us back over the river. We saw the 'bamboo train' which is simply a wooden platform with a motor bolted on which the locals use on the local railway. There is only about one real train a week at the moment so the locals use this as a convenient means of transport. It has become however a bit of a tourist gimmick although it did look fun. I was particularly amused by the way the guy nailed the motor to the wooden platform. Apparently if two meet, the one carrying the least cargo is disassembled in a few minutes to let the other pass. It had been a wonderful excursion but we were pretty glad to get back to Batambang and hop off the bikes and stretch our legs and give our bums a rest. When we checked out ourselves we were incredibly encrusted in dust. My rucksack was saturated. Never has a shower felt so good when we got back to the hotel. I don't think my white t-shirt will ever recover from the red dust. We went coffee, shake and sandwich as a charity cafe called Fresh Eats which is tucked down a lane behind the hotel. It supports street kids and Aids victims. Sadly it wasn't very busy. I think because of their tucked away location they need more publicity. Later Jen was too exhausted to head out again but I went out alone for a meal at the Smokin Pot. I had a delicious sweet soup with rice called Khor which was fish in roasted palm sugar with garlic and pepper. Whilst sitting there alone I saw the most distressing sight yet - a woman beggar of about thirty with both legs missing was dragging herself along in the dust of the road with a baby under one arm - followed by a toddler two steps behind. It's impossible to give to every beggar and perhaps counter-productive but scenes like this tear out your soul. There is a lot of ostentatious wealth on display in Cambodia - 4x4's seem to be the main expression of status. I own one so I must not be a hypocrite just because I normally live thousands of miles away. Guiltily, I bought a couple of cans of Black Panther stout on the way to the hotel. Strangely there was a stage set up for an event sponsored by Revlon. It was a big draw to the local youngsters. What I assume was a minor celebrity was acting as compere in her shiniest party frock and local youngsters were up on stage performing awful karaoke to thumping music.


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