Saturday, December 22, 2012

Battambang, Cambodia: Wooden Bridges, Stone Steps

Hitting the "create new post" button has never felt better. Funny enough, I believe this will be the first time I've written a blog from the confines of my Toronto home. That is perhaps why I struggled a moment ago when Blogger asked me the security question, "From what city do you usually write from?". That is a complex and tangled question in my case, and would require a paragraph, not a sentence. As it happens, I'm actually appreciating the crisp, cold Canadian weather, which provides me with instant relief from the perennial Southeast Asian sweating. I've got a lot of catching up to do when it comes to writing about destinations that I've visited, but I'm determined, and slowly but surely they'll appear on here. Kindly excuse the several month break I took on writing posts, but I assure you that it was the right decision, and usually the internet I came across didn't afford me the opportunity. Today, I'll rewind my clocks several months and situate myself in Battambang, Cambodia. I encourage you to do the same. Luckily, I've got my trusty Moleskine notebook with thorough notes, and a memory as well, albeit an average one.

Battambang, Cambodia

I never did manage to come across anyone else while travelling who had visited Battambang. The city proper isn't anything to marvel over, but the surrounding area is a treasure trove of interest. Bri and I rented the services of a tuk-tuk, which was driven by a young, ambitious Cambodian man. We had deep political conversations that shed light on the situation in Cambodia for me, but also had the potential to send him to the dark confines of a Cambodian prison. Past or present, dissent isn't appreciated by the ruling government in Cambodia.

The highlight of my stay had to be an eventful ride on The Bamboo Train. It's not exactly a "train," but rather a bamboo platform situated on two relatively unstable train axles, with a small, loud engine thrown into the mix. It is every bit as fantastic as it sounds, and also every bit as dangerous.


Make no mistake - these things can fly. And that's precisely what we did. I'm fairly sure that the rails were initially a product of French colonial rule, but they're still in decent enough shape to utilize. Cambodia doesn't currently have a national train system in place, and it's unfortunate because it's a relatively flat country that could use the infrastructure. Alas, Cambodia has a dark past, and the rampant corruption doesn't exactly help with public projects either.

As I was saying, we took this "Bamboo Train" straight into the heart of rural Cambodia, passing sketchy bridges, cows, villages, and even trains coming directly at us. This was probably my favourite part, as whichever train had less people on board has to dissemble the train on the spot. These are the things you remember from a long trip, not just the sunsets in Thailand.


Wat Banan was constructed roughly around the same time as the famed Ankgor Wat (which I'll be blogging about in a few posts' time), and it is often referred to as a mini version of the illustrious temple. For me, the most memorable part was the experience of climbing the ancient stone steps through the dense forest. At the top, you'll find the conical Khmer era architecture in abundance, complete with an active Buddhist shrine. The structures were astonishing and the fact that some of it was in ruins almost added to its majesty. I kept thinking, "This is definitely not Canada," and I love it when that thought pops into my head.


Phnom Sampeau, situated on the outskirts of Battambang, is known for several reasons. Firstly, it's known for the stunning views it offers of the surrounding area. There is also a complex of temples located near the top of the mountain that are worn, but perhaps rightfully so.


As with many things in Cambodia, the sight that attracted the most people had a dark, troubling history. I'm referring to the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau. A winding staircase leads you down to a dark cavern where a sleeping, golden Buddha lies comfortably on his side. There's a hole in the top left of the cave where the Khmer Rouge killed their victims, then proceeded to throw them into the depths. I apologize if that's too graphic, but how else can we describe such merciless behaviour? Beside the buddha is a case filled with the skulls of far too many victims (around 2000), which serve as an important reminder of what human beings are capable of. The lighting wasn't conducive to photography, but the following photos should paint an adequate picture. The third being the case in which the skulls found their commemorative resting place.


It's also worth posting a very short video of the insect bats that flee from another cave around Phnom Sampeau nightly around 5pm to search for food. We were told that this stream of bats goes on for hours, and there are several million bats that exit in that time period (I'm not totally sure on that, but it's somehow believable). The video isn't the best quality, but it's what I could manage in the midst of an all too common Cambodian rainstorm.

video

Honourable Mentions

The Prassat Banan Vineyard is the only one of its kind in Cambodia, and they make a mean brandy. Their wine, on the other hand, is a little sweet for my liking. The actual property itself isn't something I'd paint a picture of, but it's pleasant enough for an afternoon stroll.

Driving around on the tuk-tuk itself was an experience worth mentioning. Infrastructure isn't Cambodia's strong point, and the roads in and around Battambang tended to reflect that. Our wonderful driver, Smey, persevered throughout the day like he wasn't trudging through monstrous mud piles, being peppered with rain, and inhaling a relatively large dosage of smog and smoke from scattered garbage fires. He was as kind as they come.


And you know, that's what Battambang was all about for me. You don't go there for the wealth, but for the warmth. And I'm not just referring to the temperature. These people don't have much, but I get the feeling that they'd give you the shirt off their back. People were generally pleased to meet me, and not just my wallet. Battambang may not be on National Geographic's list for places to visit in 2012 or ever for that matter, but neither will a lot of places that you may find out will provide vivid, real, and lasting memories.

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