Arriving here I knew we were far far away from home. Tourism hasn’t really reached Battambang Cambodia yet. The tourist who have found this beautiful countryside traveled very far to get here. We took a 2 1/2 hour taxi ride here ($45.00 USD). The other option is a 7 hour boat ride down a river with stops along the way for $20.00 (USD) each person. We stayed at the Battambang Resort which is off the “main drag” from town. The resort is surrounded by villages and farmers.
There was a loud prayer and song going on for hours when we arrived. We found out someone died and this is a customary ceremony. The body is left at the house or with the family to be washed and groomed. A prayer is said to help the dead transition into the next life. Cambodians don’t believe in dissecting or embalming a body. After the 4 days (or as long as 7 days) of prayer over the deceased, a funeral is held and the body is taken to a pagoda and cremated.The person who passed away lived close to the resort so the prayer was loud and clear. Later in the day it started to sound like a horrible rap song. After two days of being here it stopped. That night we heard fireworks. This is the closing of the ceremony. We could see some of the fireworks at dinner which was fun. The very next day a 43 year old lady died of cancer one block from the resort and it started all over again. I later learned the reason the prayer is so loud. Because of the rural area, by playing the prayers loud other villagers and friends of the deceased will be able to find their way by following the sound. This is very common in villages and rural parts of Cambodia. Especially in earlier times when there was no way to give directions or get the message to others. Sometimes the prayer can be heard over a mile away.
The first day we rode bikes into the main drag of town. Seeing the small villages and shacks was a highlight. We were just as intrigued looking at the people living around the area as they were looking at us. The prices here are less than in Siem Reap. I’ve turned into a real cheapskate. Whenever I see a meal for $6.00 I think its highway robbery. I wish I could stop that. Battambang is another throwback in time. I thought Siem Reap was like landing in 1985. Battambang is more like 1979. One of the really cool things about Battambang is the kids here. They are allowed to walk alone without having to worry about being taken or abused by someone. Its fun to see two children walking hand in hand down the street without a care in the world. The playground in town has see saws and monkey bars made of full metal with a concrete floor. Just like the 1970s.
One of the fun things to do is go to a photo studio and have a picture taken as Cambodian royalty or dancer. This is offered at many studios in town. I went to the Sangker Photo Studio and had this done. The bottom floor looks like a camera store. No English was spoken here. Just pointing and using Google translate for what I wanted. Upstairs is a full costume room and photo studio. My make up artist was a lady boy and a lady with her 4 year old in tow was the costume designer and hair stylist. The first thing they did was cover my face with a foundation six times lighter than my skin color. I looked dead at first. Then added tons of eye makeup and false lashes. My eyebrows were made to look five times thicker with a brown pencil. Hair was pinned on my head and a bun was added to the top. In the end I looked kind of like a drag queen. I chose the traditional Khmer dance outfit. I was wrapped up in thick clothing which was pinned on. Over fifteen pieces of gold jewelry were added to my wrist, upper arms, ankles and a large pair of earrings. Then came this enormous head dress. I felt like a movie star! The photographer staged the poses and took about 6 pictures. The entire process took one hour. The makeup, hair, costume and 6 finished photos with airbrushing came to $25.00 (USD). There was only one problem, there was no where to wash my face afterwards. I had to walk around town looking that way until I found a store that sold baby wipes. The locals watched as I stood in the street and wiped the eyebrows and white face off in 80% humidity with no mirror.
The Phare Ponleu Selpak circus in Battambang is very famous. It’s the Cirque de Soleil of Cambodia. Most of the performers move onto the cirque shows or other similar shows around the world . This Cambodian circus was started here and has since opened a second show in Siem Reap. The theater is a tent with benches. Even though it was all in Khmer the story was confusingly fun and the performers were amazing. Fire, acrobatics, juggling, a trampoline and large bamboo rods were all used during the show. At the end they welcomed guest to have their pictures taken with the performers. The tourist had their choice of the prime seating in the center while the locals sat on the sides.
The second night we were here we saw a snake at the hotel. This is when I knew we were in the jungle. It was big, black and slithering around the black tile floor by the restaurant. The workers were a little surprised by this too. Everyone (including the owner) was scared to touch it. The snake either ate something or was pregnant. The middle of the body was bulged out. One of the waiters got a broom and swept it in a dustpan after a few moments of resistance from the snake. He safely threw the snake out of the front entrance of the resort. That was the most action I have ever seen at a resort in all my years of being in hotels.
On the third day we took a tuk tuk tour of Battambang. Our driver’s name was Sokhun and he spoke English well. His main goal was to buy four chickens and build a large chicken coup. His bother already owned a rooster for them to mate with. He needed $150.00 (USD) to make all of this happen.
The Bamboo Train (known as a Norry) was the first stop. I was thinking we were going on a train ride through the rice fields. I was dumbfounded when I saw what it really was. This runs on abandoned train tracks built from the French. A wooden flatbed is laid on two planks with recycled wheels from a tank under it. A motor was then put on the flatbed. A guy lays a mat down with two pillows for us to sit on.
We sat on the mat and pillows and he took off at about 20 mph. We rode openly with no safety straps or seat belts down the tracks through jungle bushes with beautiful rice fields behind them. It was scary, fun and shocking at one time. After about 2 miles we stopped at a small village in the middle of no where for ten minutes.
The villagers have t shirts, drinks and food set up outside their homes made of tin and wood. The pressure to buy is on once we got off. Kids and adults are begging us to please sit down and buy a drink or some clothes. Tourist are the only people they see all day and the train only runs in the morning until mid afternoon. The kids were asking us to make pinky promises that we would buy from them only. We walked past several stands until we came to the end and realized we were basically trapped. We bought two coconuts to drink from a 15 year old girl who spoke a little English. After drinking the juice we fed two skinny dogs the meat from the coconut. They were so malnourished that they ate all of it. I’ve never seen a dog in America eat coconut. Poor things.
After the bamboo train Sokhun took us to a village that makes fish paste and dried fish. The smell was horrible but it was my favorite part of the tour. The river runs along Battambang. Most of the fish is from the river but there are other fish brought in from other places. There was fish everywhere and all of it was unrefrigerated. Huge piles of fish were on the streets and large flats of fish were drying in the sun. There was also huge wooden crates full of small fish in salt curing for days before turning into fish paste. Some of the fish is exported to inland towns. The salt keeps the flies from laying eggs and destroying entire crates of fish with worms.
Under a tent were people cleaning fish. It was like a never ending pile next to each person. The knives used looked like they were from the stone ages. Just cutting and gutting fish all day long. We wondered to ourselves if that smell ever came out of their hands. Flies were everywhere.
We also went to one of the killing fields in Battambang. Unfortunately there are a few areas in this small town where this atrocity happened When the Khmer Rouge took over from 1975-1979, they killed 10,000 men, women and children just in Battambang. The story was horrific and was very hard to listen to. Seeing the area and the bones was even worse. Historical Wat Somrong Knong was used as a prison. At night people there were led to field 200 meters away. This field is where they were beaten, tortured and then thrown into mass graves to die. Wat Somrong Knong has been closed down and a beautiful new Wat (temple) has been built across from it.
The Well of Shadows monument is in the field where the people were executed. Inside the monument are piles of skulls and bones of people found in that area.
As a sign of respect, many of the dead were left buried and undisturbed. Some of the skulls had big holes in them from being beaten. Most of them were unidentified victims. Written in stone with illustrations around the monument, is the story of the horrors.
Another stop was in a village that made sticky rice in bamboo. A piece of hollowed out bamboo is filled with sticky rice, black beans and coconut milk. The bamboo is placed on a large metal pole that is laying over fire and turned for hours until the coconut milk is soaked into the rice like a pudding. Once it’s done, the bamboo is peeled back and a tube of sticky rice is exposed. It’s eaten like an ice cream cone. It was surprisingly really good. The ladies who make the rice start at 4am and then sell them to other people who resell them at markets. They were like the wholesalers. When we got there around 11am there were only a few left. Since they were watching us closely the pressure was on to eat the whole thing.
The last stop was a village that made rice paper. This was interesting. I’ve seen it sold in stores but never knew the process. Everything is done by hand. It’s amazing how much is produced each day. Sokhun told us there were 35 families who make rice paper but the place we were at was the “best”. We got to try it plain and fried in a spring roll. At first it was like chewing plastic but it really grew on me and I ended up eating at least 10 sheets.
A paste is made from rice and hot water, then its spread on a flat surface like a crepe. Then using a large flat metal utensil its lifted off the surface onto a round piece of bamboo. Another person takes it off the bamboo and lays it on a rack to dry in the sun. Many racks were full of these drying in the sun. All of this is done without electricity. I asked Sokhun how they roll the egg rolls after being so hard from the sun. He said they “throw them on the grass in the morning and the dew makes them soft again”. I can’t see that happening in the United States but it makes sense.
The local market was fun to see. Meat, vegetables, fish and fruits were sold everywhere. I enjoyed walking through the market but couldn’t imagine eating any of the meats sold there. No refrigeration is used. Seeing meat sitting out in the heat made me wonder if anyone ever gets sick. The spices were beautifully displayed. All of the spices were grown from the local farms in the area. I started to wonder if the restaurants we ate at bought their meats from a market. What I don’t know won’t hurt me though. But I did think of this every day eating the bacon at breakfast.
The last day we toured the Killing caves of Phnom Sampeau and a nearby bat cave. The story was just as horrific as the killing field. At the top of this huge limestone karst is where the horrors happened. Cambodian people were bludgeoned to death and then thrown into deep holes in the mountain.
This happened during the Khmer Rouge genocide attacks from 1974-1979. A stairway has since been built leading down to the bottom. There is a small memorial full of skulls and bones in the cave. A reclining gold Buddha is built into the wall of the cave.
This area isn’t even the actual bottom. The cave goes even further down. There were stairs leading further down but it was so dark I didn’t go. I looked around and realized we were the only ones in the cave. I got a scary feeling and literally ran back up the stairs to get out. It was a very sad and eerie experience.
A few monks live next to the killing caves all year around. Many statues of Buddha are around along with a couple of leftover artilery from the war. Its a peaceful but sad place. It was comforting to see the monks there.
A highlight from all of the sadness here was seeing the monkeys that lived nearby. This was probably their home first. The killing caves were very high up on the top of a mountain in jungle terrain. The monkeys came out around sundown and hung around on on top of the temples there. The locals don’t welcome them but the tourist treated them like little stars.
At sundown we went to the bat cave at the bottom of Sampeou Mountain. This is one of the tourist attractions in Battambang. People lined up with their iPhones and cameras all waiting to see one million bats fly out for the night. The cave was huge. The locals told us they would be out at 6pm that night. They were right on time. As soon as the sun went down, bats came flying out. There were so many bats the sky looked like a black smoke cloud. None of the pictures could capture the moment. I just had to take it all in. After about 10 minutes the smell of bats was in the air (like a pissy diaper). The trail of bats was never ending. Tourist were leaving by the bus loads and bats were still flying out. We left before it was over. The driver said it goes on for an hour! I’ve never seen that many of anything at once.
I’m sad to leave Battambang. Even though it’s a small village town, they have really fun things to do here. I learned a lot from seeing life here. The people here live peaceful lives. They don’t have much in the way of material things but they are rich in kindness, family values and helping each other. Hopefully I can return here again one day.