The killing caves and temples of Battambang

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May 30th 2009
Published: June 1st 2009
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We had heard that the boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang was very attractive but when we were told that it would entail 9 hours in an uncomfortable wooden longtail boat we opted to get a comfortable and relatively speedy bus that would only take 5 hours instead.

When we arrived we felt like celebrities at a premier as the Battambang bus station staff had realised foreigners don't like being hassled by touts the second they get off a bus and had set up a barricade that the rather aggressive touts were camped behind, shouting and waving at us as we collected our bags from the hold. We had a shortlist of hotels we thought sounded ok in The Lonely Planet and when we saw a tout from one of them we went to speak to him. He found us a tuk tuk driver and we set off, leaving the tout to harrass more potential victims.

Our driver was a really nice guy and introduced himself as Phi Lay before chatting to us all the way to our hotel, surprising us with a good knowledge of English politics and excellent spoken English. He offered the ride for free if we booked onto a tour of the local area with him the next day. We were already planning on sorting out a tour so agreed and he agreed to meet us the next morning at 8.30am.

Phi Lay dropped us at the distinctly unregal Royal Hotel and we paid 6 dollars for a small room with a fan and a miniscule tv. Not bad for the price, and fairly clean, but definitely not worth of the title of Royal Hotel. I would have loved to see The Queen and Prince Phillip try and check in. We dumped our bags in the room and went straight out in search of some food.

We had read in The Lonely Planet that Battambang is Cambodia's secondly largest city and a haven of well preserved French architecture. However, this wasn't immediately apparent to us as we walked through the city and it looked somewhat run down. We found the river and walked south along it towards a couple of restaurants and bars that had sounded nice. As we got a little further south we did find a more attractive colonial area with some impressive buildings and statues, including one rather cool looking five headed snake that was made of old dismantled weapons. We found a nice restaurant and sat down for a nice lunch and a couple of beers before heading back to the hotel for a shower. That evening we had dinner in the hotel's rooftop restaurant with it's spectacular view of abandoned buildings and tower blocks before turning in.

The next morning we had breakfast at a really nice local cafe that served excellent coffee and bagels (well, you can't eat Asian all the time!) before meeting Phi Lay outside our hotel. He was just as bubbly as the previous day and we set out in his brand new tuk tuk that he was clearly very proud of!

First stop of the day was at the Battambang food market where Phi Lay led us through the winding alleys and stalls that were piled high with all manner of fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. He very helpfully explained what some of the more bizarre items were and showed us some of the local specialities such as the very powerful prahoc (fermented fish paste) which can presumably smelt from several miles away. The market was crazy, far more so than the one we visited in Chiang Mai on our cooking course and I'm pretty sure we were the only foreigners there. The fish and meat section would have had Dad and Kathy in fits as local women butchered animals on the dirt floor and flies were absolutely everywhere. I think Amy may have even considered going back to the dark side of vegetarianism again, and to be honest, I couldn't have blamed her.

After leaving the pungent market we got back in the tuk tuk and headed out of town to see Phnom Sampeau. Phnom means hill in Khmer (Phnom Penh is the hill of a lady called Penh) and Sampeau means sailing boat, making Phnom Sampeau literally Sailing Boat Hill. We drove for half an hour or so through the red dirt roads that lead out of Battambang and were very glad that we'd brought our kramas with us to shield our faces from the dust that Cambodians call red snow. It gets everywhere and I don't think we'll ever leave home without our kramas again!

When we arrived and started walking up the hillside Phi Lay started to tell us about his experiences with the Khmer Rouge. It sounds ridiculous but, even though Phi Lay looked about 50 years old we simply didn't connect that this would have meant he was around to see the attrocities of the 1970s in Cambodia. When you hear about such awful crimes you don't ever think that you will meet somebody who was directly affected by them and suddenly here we were, chatting to a charming middle aged Cambodian guy from Phnom Penn about how his father, older brother and 6 other family members were killed by Pol Pot's regime and how he had barely survived himself. He had even been a student at the infamous school that was used as a Khmer Rouge prison, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Musuem. Phi Lay told us about how he was captured because he was from a wealthy family and forced to work in the rice fields outside Phnom Penh for 12 hours a day with no rest or food and explained that he survived by secretly eating insects and selected leaves that he found in the fields, a crime that was punishable by death. He found an example of the shrub that he used to eat and offered us a leaf to try. It was exceptionally bitter, almost unbearably, and we both winced and washed our mouths out after eating it. Phi Lay said that he owed his life to it. As we walked further up the hill he told us more about his utterly fascinating life, including his year long stint as a monk in his childhood, how he had driven trucks for the UN when the situation in Cambodia had started to get better in the 1980s, had been a policeman for a short time in Phnom Penh after that and had then moved away to Battambang to be a moto driver about 10 years ago. He had finally saved enough money last month to upgrade to a large luxury tuk tuk and we now understood why he was so proud of his new purchase.

Phnom Sampeau is famous for it's part in the Khmer Rouge killing machine. There are a network of caves in the hillside that were used as detention centres and execution chambers. At the entrance of one of the caves was saw a glass box exhibiting the bones and skulls of the victims whose remains were never claimed for proper funerals. Rags retrieved from the many bodies who were taken away by relatives had been strung across the entrance as a memorial. Phi Lay then took us to a different cave that had been used as an execution chamber. We climbed down steep stairs to the bottom of the cave and Phi Lay pointed out a hole in the ceiling about 30 metres above us that opened up to the sky. He explained how the Khmer Rouge would push their victims through the hole and let them fall to their death on the rocks below to save money on bullets. It was a horrific thought and I doubt many people survived the long fall.

Outside the caves was a simple, small wat that had been used to keep prisoners in. Phi Lay explained that the tiny building had held up to 100 captives at any time. We went inside and Phi Lay paid his respects to the buddha images before we climbed further up the hill to see the many wats and the Hindu temple that dotted the path to the top. We also passed by an old abandoned Vietnamese field gun. At the top we got some great view of the Cambodian countryside which is remarkably flat, with the exception of a few unusually shaped hills that are named after things they vaguely resemble. Duck Egg Hill and Crocodile Hill were two particularly amusing examples that I remember.

When we got back to the bottom of Phnom Sampeau we had lunch at a local food stall before driving to Wat Banan, an ancient temple from the 10th century that locals claim was the inspiration for Angkor Wat. On the way I looked at the guide book to see what they had to say about the temple and read that you have to climb 359 steps up a hillside to reach the wat at the top. You should have seen Amy's face fall. When we arrived the hill towered duantingly above us but we started up the rough crumbling steps to the top. The climb seemed to go on forever and at one point I started thinking this might actually have been the same hill that Uma Thurman climbed up in Kill Bill 2. Eventually we reached the top and saw five very cool looking towers that have stood the test of 1,000 years in the Cambodian climate surprisingly well. We sat down to catch our breath and look at the towers before beginning the long trudge back down again.

On the way to our next stop Phi Lay stopped at a local wat where hundreds of fruit bats live in the surrounding trees. Despite telling us that the monks look after and protect the bats he then proceeded to walk underneath a tree that had loads of sleeping bats in and started clapping his hands and whistling. Loads of the poor critters woke up and flapped around our heads in a daze for a few minutes before settling back down again. It felt somewhat unfair to the bats but was quite a cool sight!

Finally we went to a rather bizzare local creation. A stretch of basic rail runs through some of the surrounding villages and the locals have built their own contraption to run on the tracks. The vehicle (and I use that word loosely) was just a pair of old tank wheels with a bamboo platform laid on top and a petrol motor stuck on the back. We were told we could have a go but it would be 10 dollars each so said we'd just watch the locals zoom off down the track. Madness.

Phi Lay dropped us back to our hotel tired, utterly covered in dust and pleased with a day that had been sad, beautiful, horrific and fascinating. We had a shower and then went to the rooftop restaurant for some food before an early night and a bus back to Siem Reap in the morning.

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1st June 2009

Better and better
Well you've done it again, how you find such interesting. fascinating and amazing places and people is brilliant. Phi Lay sounds a top man for having survived what he did and perhaps help others understand a little better. Just great stuff on the blogs you two. Steve
2nd June 2009

Ah Battambang
I stayed there for about 6 weeks a few years ago, teaching at a nearby school... did you go to the abandoned Pepsi factory? There was still a newspaper with an evaporated cup of coffee next to it in the staff chaging room. All the bottles were lined up on the conveyor belts. Left in a real hurry. Anyway...brought back some great memories of my time there... Hope you are having fun!

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