Sunday, December 4, 2011

Out and about in Battambang

Though we had 2 nights in Battambang, one of Camodia's largest cities (small though it is), that meant only 1 full day to enjoy the sights. To maximize our time we hired a tuk-tuk for the day through our hotel, spending the big bucks: $25 for a full day of touring in an around the city.

No idea what this says...but I love the writing system

Our guide/driver was the wonderful Mr. Lucky. During the course of the day we asked him how he got his name. He quietly told his story: when he was 6 years old he fled with his mother to Thailand after his father, brothers, and sister were killed by the Khmer Rouge. He was the fortunate one, so his mother named him Lucky. He lived in a UN camp on the border until he was 15 (his mother died while he was there, making him an orphan), when he came back to Cambodia, met his future wife, and moved to Battambang. He has a 2-year-old son, and he and his wife are expecting another baby in January. Listening to him and seeing the subdued way he related the story brought some reality to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. What a terrible time that was for this lovely country and its people.

When the story was over, Lucky resumed his happy, joking demeanor as he took us to see the highlights of the area. First stop was the famous bamboo railway, which Lonely Planet accurately describes as "all aboard, everyone off, all aboard, everyone off!" This crazy little rail line to nowhere involves a 12-km roundtrip on a small bamboo platform that runs on 4 wheels on a single track. The rails, which are also used for big, normal trains, are wavy and a little off kilter, so when the bamboo train gets going fast, as it does, there are some hard jolts to the passengers. (This being the Land of Uncomfortable Means of Transportation, we were not really surprised by the discomfort!) The car flies along the brush-lined corridor, giving occasional glimpses of vast rice fields on either side.

The railroad to nowhere

When we encountered another bamboo train coming the other way, the one with the fewest passengers had to stop. The passengers then got off, the two train drivers took that little train apart, our train was driven past it, stopped, and the two train guys put the other train back together to continue on its way. Hard work, actually, since the iron wheels and their associated iron bar were very heavy--like lifting really heavy barbells.

Putting the train back together again

When we got to the end of the line we had a 15-minute break at a little refreshment stand (bottled water: 25 cents) where we chatted with the friendly owner, an older guy who spoke a bit of English. We also got a "tour" of the local rice mill, led by 4 young girls who spoke good tourist English (donation: $1). The oldest (Julie, age 14), the leader of the pack, told us she was no longer in school because her parents couldn't afford it and needed her to work as a guide to earn some money for the family. The youngest was a cheeky little girl (Jae, age 10) who was full of energy.

Our tour guides at the rice mill

Rest break over, we reboarded our little piece of bamboo and sped back to the starting station. The ride cost $10 (plus a $2 tip for the driver, who the old man at the rest stop said "really needs the money") and was one of those fun, quirky things that make a day special. The bamboo railroad, unfortunately, is slated to be closed down sometime in the near future when (if) the train line is renovated for the official train.

All the parts needed to make a bamboo train

Land mines are still a problem here
Battambang also has several temples, including a couple from the Angkor period. We visited Phnom Sampeau, Phnom Banan, and Wat Ek Phnom. To get to the first we each climbed aboard the back of a motorbike and were driven up a steep hill to the top. Besides the newish Buddhist temple built at the site, there's a cave called the Killing Cave. Here the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned people to death and threw their bodies down into the cave from above. There's a glass box filled with skulls and bones; next to it is a golden reclining Buddha. The yin and yang of life in Cambodia.

Buddha in the Killing Cave

Before making our final stop, at Wat Ek Phnom, we visited Cambodia's only winery--a small vineyard whose owners make serviceable red wine (out of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz grapes), a pretty decent brandy, grape juice, and ginger juice. We tasted all four but didn't buy.

Rice paper drying; our tuk-tuk is parked on the road

Wat Ek Phnom is about 13 km north of town, and to get there we drove past small villages and a neighborhood of home businesses making rice paper (to wrap spring rolls) and banana chips, which dried on big slats in the sun alongside the road. The temple itself is from the Angkor period and hasn't been restored at all, so it was interesting to see that in comparison to the refurbished temples in Siem Reap. As we left the temple Lucky had a stroke of bad luck--a part on the motorbike that drives his tuk-tuk broke and we were stranded. No problem, though: he called a friend, unscrewed the broken part, and we headed back to town in the friend's tuk-tuk where he was able to easily get a new part (that's the great thing about having thousands of motorbikes in a city--parts are readily available).

The Stick Man of Battambang

A great day in a country that's quickly becoming one of my favorites.

Next stop: the capital, Phnom Penh.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this blog Anita, really brings home the horror and futility of war and the fight for survival. Great pictures, I'm really enjoying my virtual tour of the East from a very cold UK.