How Do You Fit An Elephant In A Refrigerator?

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February 22nd 2012
Published: February 22nd 2012
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AFTER SIEM REAP WE MADE OUR WAY to Cambodia’s second largest city, Battambang. We decided to visit Battambang because we wanted to visit a more traditional Cambodian town and we had heard the surrounding countryside was beautiful. We could feel the difference immediately upon arrival – the pace of life was slower, the streets a bit dingier, and the scenery not as picturesque. At first sight it was a little disappointing but after walking around it became clear that this was a much more authentic version of Cambodia and I was happy for it. Since there are no large monuments or attractions in Battambang it doesn’t see many tourists, which means it has a very local, almost provincial feel. A frothy brown river runs through the center of town with small, open face storefronts on both sides. The restaurants showcase fried bugs, whole chickens and skinned frogs rather than the tri-colored pastas of Siem Reap.There are no frappuccinos, only cokes served in plastic bags.

We were only in Battambang for two nights so we got right to work seeing the sights. On our first day we wandered through the streets, threading our way through the open air market, past the brightly colored fruit stands, pungent food stalls and barking dogs back towards the railway tracks. Side stepping large heaps of trash we walked through the knee high grass towards some old, abandoned railway cars. While Travis walked off to photograph their rusty skeletons a couple of little boys in tattered clothes approached me. I stopped to talk to them of course, as always communicating mainly through smiles and gestures. They smiled up at me – beautiful wide smiles and sparkling eyes – and then, quite abruptly began to pull on my purse. So unfair! First, they woo me with their innocent smiles and then when they know I am under their spell they try to steal from me! Different variations of this scene have occurred throughout Asia over the course of our travels. Travis and I would be walking down a street somewhere when a child would notice us from afar. They would walk right past Travis as if he wasn’t even there and up to my side, as if I were emitting some kind of maternal pheromone. Generally the routine involves asking my name, where I’m from, telling me I’m beautiful and then asking me to buy something from them. Other times they would simply make a gesture as if they were eating, their way of asking for food – this always being the hardest for me to ignore. This time however, they went straight for my purse (which contained only 1 plastic water bottle, a small bottle of advil, chapstick, and a half roll of toilet paper). Fortunately, I was ready for them and yanked it back in time. They didn’t let go though and we were momentarily caught in a mini tug of war until I finally pried their hands off of it and walked away. While this was a little unsettling, even hurtful, it only took me a second to remember what I look like in their eyes; and thus any sense of blame I had placed on them quickly dissipated. Survival is bred into these children from the time they are born. They grow up sharing the burden of poverty and hunger with their parents. As babies they sit in their parents laps while they beg for money, and as soon as they are old enough to walk they are put to work themselves. Questions of stealing, of what is right and what is wrong, are inconsequential when your belly is hollow.

The following day we hired a tuk tuk driver, Mr. David, to drive us around for the day. Generally we prefer to explore on our own but since we only had one day left we decided this would be a more efficient use of our time. He picked us up bright and early and immediately began reciting all the English sayings he knew in a happy, animated voice, looking to us for approval after every one. “Ready, Freddy!?” “Lets hit the road Jack!” As we settled into the tuk tuk he launched into a series of “jokes” yelling them over his shoulder at us over top of the traffic noise.

Mr. D: How do you fit an elephant into the refrigerator?

T and C: I don’t know. How?

Mr. D: Piece of cake.

Mr. D: How do you fit a giraffe into a refrigerator?

T and C: Uhh…I don’t know…How?

Mr. D: Piece of cake. You open the door, take the elephant out, put the giraffe in.

Yup. I’ll leave you to ponder that for awhile.

Our first stop was at a statue of a large naga (serpent) which was constructed from the melted down parts of machine guns that were collected after the civil war ended in the 1990’s. I loved this statue, not necessarily for its aesthetic appeal, but for what it stood for – it took instruments of destruction and turned them into art. Incredible. Next, we drove to the center of town and stopped at a tall statue of a man holding a large stick. On the ground in front of the statue several people were kneeling and praying at an altar. There were offerings of fruit, rice, flowers, dead chickens, and two whole pig heads. Shrines are ubiquitous throughout Southeast Asia so the food and flowers were very familiar, but the huge, hulking head of a pig roasting in the blazing hot sun was a bit of a curve ball. Mr. David explained that the statue is a very auspicious place for locals as it symbolizes the origins of Battambang. The story goes like this: a farmhand was working one day in a field when he found a stick and quickly discovered that it wielded special powers. With the help of it’s magic he overthrew the current king and became the new ruler. Years later the rightful prince came to claim the throne and the king threw the stick at him in defense. Rather than hitting the prince however, both the king and the stick disappeared, never to be seen again. The prince took his rightful place on the throne and all was well again. Thus the name, Battambang was born (pronounced ‘bat-dambong), – “bat” means “lost”, and “dambong” means “stick”.

Next, we drove away from town and into the countryside; past fields of wispy green grass and freshly tilled soil with the green blades of rice plants peaking through, and down a red dirt road to the site of Cambodia’s indigenous bamboo train, known as the ‘nori’. The nori was created in the aftermath of the civil war when the country was trying to recover. The rail lines built during French colonialism were in such a dilapidated state that they could no longer be used to run the large steel train cars. As a result Cambodians created the nori – a bamboo platform that is lowered down onto salvaged train wheels, and powered by a small petrol engine. As we approached the rail line a smiling old man who was perched on the platform in the sun greeted us. For a small fee he agreed to take us on a ride to the nearby village and back while Mr. David waited for us there. We climbed up and took a seat on the bamboo panels just as it lurched into motion. As it rolled along the rusty tracks it produced a horrific screeching noise. We barreled through the jungle with ferns and palms spilling over onto the tracks at about 30 mph. Every few minutes there was a horrendous jarring motion. It felt like a really dangerous, rickety wooden roller coaster. We loved it. After a short break at the nearby village (where a little girl made me a bracelet and a ring out of long blades of grass) we headed back. A few minutes in we noticed something coming towards us on the horizon – it was another bamboo car. We quickly stopped, climbed off, de-constructed our car, let the other car pass, and then got back on and continued on our way.

After our ride we went to visit the hilltop temple of Phnom Sampeau, dedicated in part to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. After climbing up a steep rocky road (Nepal flashbacks all over again) we reached a peaceful plateau blanketed in tall pines. Nestled in the woods stood a colorful Buddhist temple and a series of Buddha statues. We continued along a shaded path until we reached two deep, cavernous caves. These caves were one of the sites where the Khmer Rouge took it’s victims. They would walk them to the ledge and push them off one by one, letting them drop into the dark crevices below. We climbed down a staircase to the floor of one of the caves. It was very peaceful inside, devoid of any sound. To the right a brilliant golden Buddha statue sat on top of a cage filled with the victims’ bones. Directly behind us was another 5 foot tall cage filled with skulls. It was hard to believe that this serene, beautiful site was the scene of such horror. We offered our respects to the deceased and left in silent introspection.

On the way back from the caves we stopped at a winery and got to taste four locally made wines. We took this opportunity to talk with our driver, Mr. David, and find out more about his life. Just as everyone else in Cambodia, he too was directly affected by the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent civil war. In fact, he was raised in a refugee camp on the border of Thailand for most of his life. We talked about the after effects of the war, the current state of the economy and how tourism plays a role in it’s revival. He explained how fortunate he was that he could speak English, as being a guide or driver for tourists is one of the most sought after jobs and English is a requirement. This was probably my favorite part of the day. I learn so much more from talking to locals about their life than I would from reading a thousand books about a country, or even visiting the local sites.

To see more pics from Battambang check out:

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