Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Day 86 - 87: Battambang

We only really came to Battambang for a ride on the bamboo train. Considering it's the second most populous city in Cambodia, it may as well have been a small French village filled with tuk-tuk drivers, as the centre was practically dead. We got instantly mobbed by drivers speaking English to us as soon as we got off the bus, attempting to get us into their hotel. The one with the better English won out, and we ended up at the Royal Hotel. Basic digs, fan-only, large room; we couldn't really complain too much at $9 a night.

Wandering around town yielded a handful of restaurants, a big market and Cambodians who were very interested in where you were going and what you were doing. Since Battambang isn't the thriving hub of activity like Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, it doesn't see nearly as many visitors. Consequently, a tourist is a prime target for tuk-tuk services, and we got invited for a tour around the area more times than we could count. The first day though, we just wanted to relax and explore. The exploring part took about 30 minutes. There really isn't that much of interest in the city. The relaxing part was easier, with 50 cent beers and reasonably priced food everywhere. That night we ate at Smokin' Pot, where I had a DIY barbecue where you cook the meat at the table. I managed to pull the brazier off the (very unstable) hob and onto the table in front of me. I have no idea how I didn't get burning fat on me, but I somehow managed to jump back and avoid third-degree burns. Attempted self-immolation aside, the barbecue was pretty good, but Gilly's fish was a bit bland.

We'd agreed to meet our tuk-tuk driver, Rich, at 7pm in the hotel so he could talk us through a tour of the area and see if we wanted to go with him. He must have been in his early 20s. Unfortunately, we didn't get back until 8pm and he wasn't there. I'd read about a decent tuk-tuk driver who hung out at the Royal Hotel, and asked reception to book him for the following day. However, when we came down the next morning, the guy had apparently been booked out. We spoke to another driver in his 50s named Philay, who in an odd twist of fate turned out to be Rich's dad. We decided to jump on his tuk-tuk and let him lead us around the area.

Before anything happened, we stopped for petrol. Since petrol is fairly expensive for locals, they instead import it from Thailand and then sell it on in 1 or 2 litre bottles at the side of the road. We'd first come across this in Ho Chi Minh City, where we noticed honey-coloured bottles sat on the pavement with a guy in a chair near them. I thought it was some sort of Vietnamese tea, but no, it must have been petrol. They obviously do something similar in Cambodia - you pull up to a food stall or similar, and someone comes over with a bottle or two for your bike or tuk-tuk, and pours it into the tank via a funnel:

First on the agenda after fuelling up was the local market, where Philay showed us the various offerings on sale, including fish, fruit, vegetables and pig's heads:

As it was a weekend, Philay then took us to a fish-fighting tournament. This occurs only on Saturday and Sunday, is illegal (as it involves gambling and the government see none of it), and is very bizarre. First, the fish are weighed and their weights marked on jars. Then two of them are dumped in a big jar whilst their owners look on, and the fish have at it. The "fight" as such is basically both fish going nose to nose and pushing each other until one swims off. 

Some points to note:

- The fish look identical. The owners have to keep a close eye on their fish in order to see if they are winning or losing. 
- The fights can take up to three hours to decide a winner. 
- Therefore, a fish-fighting contest is effectively two people staring at a jar of two fish pushing each other for three hours until one has been deemed the winner. 

Soccer Saturday, this ain't. Oh, and the whole illegal operation is run by a guy in the police force. Well, naturally.

Battambang translates to "lost stick", and there are various myths going around about a usurper who used a magic stick to win the throne and then...lost it. No, I'm not kidding. Here he is, looking pretty angry, and he hasn't even lost the stick yet:

The bamboo train was our next destination. This is essentially a table-top made out of bamboo reeds, on wheels. There's some wood thrown underneath too, possibly for safety, but who knows. You sit on the bamboo train which is one single railway line, a guy attaches a petrol engine which propels it forward at around 30km/hr and that's pretty much it.

There's a fairly big caveat - since there's only one railway line, people are coming in the other direction too. Priority therefore goes to the train which has the most passengers on. The "losing" train gets quickly disassembled, and then reassembled once the "winning" train has gone past. Here's a quick example:

We bought a coconut and a can of Coke and set off back down the track, stopping once to pick up a random kid who wanted a lift. Then it was back into the tuk-tuk, and Philay took us to a vegetable farm where they grew mimosa, pumpkins and cucumbers:

We were taken to Battambang's "Golden Gate Bridge" next. Philay had his tongue firmly in his cheek, methinks. He spotted a kid fishing by the river and got him to cast the net so we could get an action shot. Well, he actually did it twice as I managed to screw up the first attempt (that's right, I'm treating you to a no-holds-barred, behind the scenes look at how a very amateur photographer works):

Next item on the itinerary was a stop at a winery. I wasn't expecting Napa Valley, so was fairly pleasantly surprised. We got 4 drinks to try - grape juice, ginger juice, a glass of red wine, and a glass of brandy.

The juices tasted like juices, the brandy tasted excellent, and the less said about the red wine the better. Bearing in mind it was barely 11:30am and we'd had no breakfast, alcohol probably wasn't the best thing to have on a day where the mercury was over 30 degrees. We decided to get some munchies at our next stop, Prasat Banan, before climbing up the massive flight of stairs leading to the wat proper.

It's dubbed a "mini Angkor Wat" which is stretching things a bit, but I can see the faint resemblance. Also, the area around the wat (which is basically jungle) is unsafe to go into as there may be unexploded ordnance there. We concluded the post-lunch exercise by walking all the way down the steps again before moving on to Phnom Sampeu. 

This is the more sombre portion of the trip, as Phnom Sampeu is home to the "killing caves" where hundreds of men, women and children were killed and thrown down a hole into the cave and left to rot. Some of them were thrown down alive. The bones of many of the victims are on display in a fairly gruesome shrine of remembrance in the cave itself:

Further up the hill on Phnom Sampeu (Phnom means "hill"), there are a couple of Buddhist temples:

At the top was a fantastic 360 degree view of Battambang.

After we got down from the temple, Philay told us his story. He was only 19 or 20 when the Khmer Rouge took control. Almost all of his family died, except for one of his brothers and sisters who took the side of the KR. He isn't aware of the fate of some of them, he lost some to starvation, and barely made it through the ordeal himself. He ate leeches, rice discarded by KR militia, and anything else he could get his hands on. He was worked mercilessly for endless hours, with no free time. He contracted malaria at least twice. He lied about his family's work and said that he was a tailor (intellectuals such as teachers, and anyone in government were usually killed immediately), and that helped to save him. He worked in hospitals, in the fields, went wherever the KR told him, and kept his head low. Like so many Cambodians, he lost so much during that period but came out dignified and upbeat. The strength of this people never ceases to amaze me.

Our last treat for the day was experiencing a million fruit bats leaving their cave in the side of the hill, an amazing sight.

On our ride back, we then got to see swarms of them flying into the sunset - incredible. 

We arrived back at the hotel, and said farewell to Mr. Philay:

After getting some food from the fairly average Khmer Delight restaurant, we booked a 10am bus to Phnom Penh for the next morning.


offtogreatplaces said...

We love following your blog, Rob- such great detail and descriptions! We are still in Siem Reap, heading to Battambang in two days... we keep missing you guys! How long will you be in Phnom Penh, and where to after that??
Cayleigh and Patrick

Jacob B.C. said...

Just browsing your pictures on google and reading some of your captions. Really glad you're enjoying your time in Cambodia. I just got back to CA 3 days ago and miss Cambodia very much. I only stayed there for one month, but it was my first time back in 33 years, since I was 8 months old. I've got Khmer Fever now, and have watching Khmer music videos, and listeninging to Sin Sisamouth CDs I bought while driving, and already planning a trip back next year, either with friends, or the rest of my family (Mom, siblings), since I only went with my father this time, and met up with my aunt, who's currently teaching English there for a few months. Safe travels...