Over 2 weeks have flown by once again and it’s time to update you all! Scrap that, I tried to post this last week and ran out of internet and time, standard Cambodia.
When I last wrote, Trish and I were setting off for our first travel adventure into the unknown Cambodia, more specifically to the little quiet town of Battambang (or Battambong, take your pick.)
We travelled up on the Saturday morning with the kiwi Anita and also Karina who is from Denmark. It was so nice to spend some time with those two, as often it really is just me and Trish (luckily I’m not sick of her… yet! 😉 After about 4 hours on a much nicer bus experience than our Phnom Penh to Siem Reap journey, we pulled up into what was vaguely the centre of town. Hilariously, all the tuk tuk drivers were holding up signs and banging on the side of the bus, especially to us, as white skin of course means lots of money! (I wish.) It was pretty much a battle to get off the bus and find the guy who was holding our hotel sign up, when we carried our stuff over to him you could tell the guy thought christmas had come early (or the Cambodian equivalent anyway!)
Our hotel for the weekend was the Sen Hout hotel. Pretty standard and just a cavernous space with hundreds of rooms that not many people seemed to be occupying… However it was the family holiday ‘Pchum bem’ which is when all the Cambodian families gather together to respects dead family members. Cheery stuff! It actually meant that the whole town was even more quiet than usual, not exactly a partying weekend, but more of a photo op. kind of holiday. We had a wander around the ‘centre’ of town which all pretty much looked like the outskirts of Siem Reap. The people were amazingly friendly though and we were hardly harassed compared to SR which was a breath of fresh air! No shouts of ‘Lady, tuk tuk?!’ whilst walking down the street was actually kind of eerie. There is one small market there which has the unmistakable stench of rotting fish and veg, probably not a place to sit al fresco eating your lunch but me and Trish managed to locate some of the most ‘gap yah’ clothes imaginable. Tie-dye t-shirts. OH YES you read that right! We are now the proud owners of some oversized tie-dye clothing, and will show you photos so you can feast your eyes upon these amazingly stylish garments as soon as is humanly possible.
The main event of our Saturday was something called the Bamboo train!! We tuk tuked out of the town into the lush countryside. Once we arrived at a pretty shackled together station, the bamboo train was laid before us in all its glorious mechanic wonder. Basically it’s a plank of bamboo which rests on two metal bars, with what looks like a small boat engine attached. They use the abandoned rail tracks left from the French colonial period, so the health and safety of the thing isn’t exactly UK standard to say the least! Clambering, somewhat apprehensively aboard our bamboo carriage we were whisked away into the thick foresty jungles of Cambodia. Surprisingly the ‘train’ goes really fast so we were all screaming for about the first 5 minutes, but settled down after we realised that the person driving does this a lot and we weren’t going to plummet to our deaths in the jungle. One of the strangest things about these bamboo trains is that when two meet each other on the single tracks, going in opposite directions, one has to be dismantled temporarily whilst the other passes it. This means we got up quite a few times to let people travelling back down the tracks go past. An interesting solution to one set of rail tracks!! The whole experience was just awesome, the views were unbelievable. Rice paddies stretching out for miles under a low sun that cast a golden halo on everything it touched. This was the real Cambodia, rural and untouched. We took about a million photos and filmed the journey so I’ll have to find a way to share it with you. When we stopped for a break halfway, this old Khmer man took us into his hut thing and gave us a seat. Then a load of children swarmed on us! We instantly worried that they’d try to sell us things and make us uncomfortable, but instead and to our happy surprise, they made (very much free) grass bracelets and rings for us! Mostly they just wanted to practice their English and laugh at our windswept hair. I remember thinking how peaceful the place was, just the set of railway tracks next to some small huts in the middle of nowhere. Beautiful but so remote! After we got back to the hotel, we headed out to grab some food and managed to each have a huge plate of pancakes. Pancakes = happy Lucy. For main I had fish amok, not sure if I mentioned amok before but it’s this amazing coconut curry sauce that’s just incredibly good and insanely cheap. That basically sums up Khmer food in general.
On our way back to the hotel, we spotted what looked like a film showing. This was really strange considering about 80% of the shops or places on the street were closed, so it stuck out massively. It turned out to be a French gallery showing video art! Hello Lucy’s pretentious dream of an evening. Me and Trish decided to stay and watch some seriously cool pieces before heading back and nearly being mugged by what seemed to be a drugged up 17 year-old. Not exactly our best end to an evening but we ran the rest of the way home, so some great exercise… ? Haha! Laughing at those kinds of scary situations together is really the only way to deal with them.
The next day we had a trip, first to a small café to have the unhealthiest fry up imaginable, and then to Phnom Sampeau which is just outside of the Battambang town. This was my favourite day because it combined riding a moto with amazing views, temples and seeing a crazy load of bats! We arrived at the base of the mountain on a beautiful day, hopped on the back of mopeds and drove up to the sight of miles and miles of Cambodian countryside. It seems to stretch on forever, I mean I call this place a ‘mountain’ it was hardly a blip on the horizon. The whole country is so flat that you get this kind of permanent panoramic feeling when you look at the sky, it swallows up so much of your vision. The moped journey itself was hilarious, as I’m not exactly the kind of person who would usually sit on the back of a fast moving 2 wheeled thing- especially when it was travelling up 95 degree angle, bumpy slopes and jumping over potholes at crazy speeds. We made it unscathed to the first part of the mountain and went into an intricately painted new pagoda – every surface was covered in colourful inscriptions and scenes of the Buddhist texts. So so striking and unusual, it looked out onto the panoramic views I described earlier.
We then ventured down to the home of the ghostly ‘killing caves.’ Even by the name of them I didn’t think they’d be a happy place to visit, but it was so chilling. The caves were used by the Khmer Rouge to bury a lot of the dead and also a place of mass executions. There was the main cave used for burying the old people, and hundreds of skeletons were recovered after the terror of the regime ended. The caves themselves are huge and actually amazingly beautiful, natural places. Leaves and vine wind their way down the ragged edges as light from the sun dappled the interior, giving it a spiritual feel. However once we knew the real use of the caves originally, the mind takes over and manipulates every shadow into the most terrifying symbol. There were cases of skulls and a giant golden Buddha lying on its side, situated inside the cave itself. Once we clambered down the steps we each gave a donation and were given a red bracelet of luck, to take as a reminder of our visit. The worst part of the trip came as we headed back up to the temple. Our moto driver who doubled up as a kind of free tour guide (again a chance to practice English) showed us a much smaller opening to cave we couldn’t see into. He then describe in almost too graphic detail how this was used as the ‘baby cave’. It’s worse than you think, it wasn’t only used to bury dead children but also a place to execute them. The Khmer Rouge would take the babies, usually aged 1 or under and kill them with the rocks by the cave’s entrance before throwing them into the pit below. Unbelievably horrific and sad to find out so many young, innocent lives were wasted there. Each time we visit somewhere, some of it has been touched by the suffering of Cambodia’s all-too recent past, which seems to taint so many beautiful places.
As long-term travellers here, we have to learn to take these kinds of horrible sites in our strides, accept it has happened and move on. The knowledge is enough to remember and commemorate what happened but if we dwell on the subject emotionally, we’d pretty much be in bits all the time. So with that attitude in mind, we all headed further up into the mountain. This is when we reached the highest point we could travel and stumbled upon the beautiful golden pagodas. Their tips touched the skies and the whole place was indescribably full of a kind of magic atmosphere. We wondered in awe around the temples barefoot, snapping the carvings and statues of gods, which again looked out onto spectacular views. There were families worshipping as part of Pchum bem and the smell of rich incense filled the air. We found a small cove which looked out onto this huge cliff face, the whole place was a geographer’s dream (even Trish had a nerdy moment about the stalagmites.)
It was then time to speed back down the mountain to watch the bats! This is another event Battambang is infamous for. Every night at twilight (god why does annoying Edward Cullen just have taint that word now…) thousands of bats fly out of the mouth of a cave high up the mountain which you can see from a spot right down below it. Lots of tourists and locals alike were gathered to watch as a slow stream of bats poured from the rockface, thickening as the light faded to dusk. Whilst marvelling at their crazy flying skills, we started to get rained on. Oh well, standard Cambodia. But wait. Turns out it wasn’t rain at all… It was bat pee! Lovely. I made sure I had a really hot shower when we got back to the hotel is all I can say.
Battambang is certainly a pretty deserted town centre, I don’t think they have many actual bars or clubs but then again why do you need that for a weekend break? We go out in Siem Reap when we can, and it was more a chance to escape somewhere new. The town is a crumbling collection of post-colonial architecture which should probably be pulled down and built again, yet that’s part of the charm. It seems like a place time forgot (pretty much stole that phrase out of lonely planet, I’ll be honest.) And when we headed home on our 6 hour scenic boat journey – it got a little too scenic at quite a few points and I thought we’d never see dry land again – I felt like we’d really recharged from the chaos of volunteering. Lastly I forgot to mention, on the boat trip we saw loads of floating villages! Shops and houses built of rafts that just sit on masses of open water and marshes, amazing stuff and definitely some good photos (although with really dodgy toilets that are just holes into the water…)
I’ll do a big Siem Reap update next weekend as otherwise you’ll never be released from my over –adjective-filled descriptions. As a summary: just finished a first proper full week of teaching, without any public holidays; me and Trish had food poisoning last week; Sue had her 70th birthday; we swam with the kids last Sunday, I nearly drowned under the weight of 4 children andd we ate loads of cake. Again.
The only other news is that I had a bit of a bum week last week cause I was ill for 3 days! But a set of antibiotics later, I’m feeling much better. 🙂 Hope I’m not too shattered next week so I can fulfil that promise to blog, but thanks again to everyone who gives these ramblings a read.
Much much love to everyone, from a much sunnier Cambodia