Battambang

“The shared taxi took about two hours, and was the first air-conditioning I’ve felt in months of travel.. it was so nice!” gushed Chloe, an amiable Canadian, over beers in Siem Reap. Two hours? I was scheduled to do the same trip in reverse, heading to Battambang by slow-boat, and was beginning to reconsider the much longer ride ahead.

Early the next morning a dozen of us squeezed into a minivan, me butt barely fitting on a red fold-up kiddie chair in the door-well. Bleary eyed, we were deposited at the local ‘port’, a muddy path on the banks of Tonglé Sap Lake, where we settled, again sardine-like, into a small boat. The ride, estimated at 4-6 hours, would take nine, seeing as it is dry season and the water levels are visibly low — we rode quite a ways some ten feet below land in the afternoon. Occasionally we would stop to get unstuck from the mud, or to change the rotor blades on the engine.

Despite the lack of sleep and generally uncomfortable seating, the trip was beautiful and revealed a side of Cambodian life otherwise hidden. Following the lake’s coastline, we entered one of the small tributaries, forking into the Stung Sangker river that runs through the province. Battambang is supposedly Cambodia’s ‘rice bowl’ (and evidently sister city to agricultural Stockton, CA). Cutting through farmland, we would pass floating villages, with houses and shops on the water, far below temples and other buildings on stilts. I imagine that during the rainy season these are all more or less level, but nearly scraping the bottom it felt more like a Disneyland ride, model buildings off in the distance, animatronic life repeating itself.

Villages gave way to the far ends of rice fields, cows and chickens leisurely tending the weeds near the water, and the occasional uncaged pig. The most heartwarming sight was watching the children splashing in the river, each and every one turning to smile and wave at us passengers.

Finally arriving in Battambang in the afternoon, I settled into a hotel, whose rooftop restaurant offered views of a large city darkened at night. Despite its size and daytime life, this place is very quiet at night; a wooden riverside bar, the busiest place aside from Khmer discotheques, had maybe ten people when I went. Having grown up in a large city, it was actually quite nice to ride on the back of a moto through lengthy, unlit streets, a serene feeling I have during the occasional power outages in SF.

The following day I hired a motodup to take me to a couple of the sights outside the city limits. Rolling through the rural backroads, kicking up dust, we rode past dried up rice fields, all parched and brown, puckering for the rainy season to start. Our first order of business was a ride on the infamous bamboo train, an enterprising solution to the problem of antiquated and unreliable train service. When hired, the operators place a pair of train axles on the tracks, followed by a bamboo flatbed, topped off with a small gasoline engine, whose torque is engaged using a rubber band and large stick contraption. Brilliant. I’d almost expected to ride a see-saw powered train, as I remember from my childhood Lucky Luke books, but this would undoubtedly provide more thrills. Paying an exorbitant tourist price, we fit our moto on the train and took off, speeding down tracks built by the French ages ago with all the thrilling unreliability of the back car of a carnival roller-coaster. This was some of the best money I’ve spent yet, and my only regret is setting my camera to a high shutter speed and screwing up what could have been excellent photos.

We continued on dirt roads, past schools, fields, bicyclists, pausing at a temple that is home to thousands of fruitbats, and on to Wat Phnom Sampeau, a temple sitting high on a hill above killing caves once employed by the Khmer Rouge. Prisoners would be brought to mouth of the caves, where the KM bludgeoned them before tossing their bodies down the tall vertical drop; there is rumor that the KM also ate their victims’ organs for strength. At the foot of the temple remains a large gun once used by the government in its fight against the Khmer Rouge. My understanding of the place’s history is spotty, but the juxtaposition of execution site, war artillery, commemorative placards and newly erected Buddha statue and temple summed up a spirit pervasive throughout Cambodia; one foot in the past, sometimes glorious, often gruesome, one foot progressing forward as best as possible.

A couple of evening beers, and I was off to bed, having to wake up early to head down to the coast.

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