Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cambodia - Day 2: Battambang

Our room in Phnom Penh was nice and the hotel was so new that everything was exceptionally clean. Our breakfast of fruit, bacon and eggs wasn't too bad, but made disappointing with instant coffee. Still, we were enjoying breakfast in a breezy, idyllic courtyard in Cambodia, and excited about really getting started on our journey. After eating, we loaded our luggage into a cab and headed north for Battambang. Jet lag didn’t seem to be an issue.
Streetside shrine.

The road was full of bicycles, cars, horse-carts, motorcycle-pulled carts crowded with passengers that served as makeshift public transportation, mopeds and motorcycles with anywhere from one to five passengers, trucks, tractors, tour buses and vans. Anyone that could sell something seemed to be selling something along either side of the road seated behind small tables in drafty wooden stalls or from carts that they had wheeled into position. Almost everyone, despite whatever else they were selling, was also selling gasoline in 1.5 liter glass bottles. Many homes or businesses displayed small shrines on pedestals about one meter tall—gold and red or gold and green or gold and gold or gold and white—little four-walled miniature temples with pillars and roofs topped with the curved spires typical of the real ones that we saw on other buildings as we were driving out of Phnom Penh.

The city was an abundance of colors: red Angkor Beer umbrellas and billboard signs; blue Cambodian People’s Party signs—wide ones with the emblem of the party and big ones with the Prime Minister and two other parliament members—brown-grey stilt houses along the river; dust-covered bicycle tires in piles wrapped in foil paper and hanging on wooden poles; pink lotus flowers with great green floppy leaves poking out of ponds and standing water; everywhere piles of trash, plastic bags flapping in the wind, smoldering piles of rubbish and branches on the red-orange earth with the green palm jungle in the background backed with mountains and a real blue sky. After about a five-hour drive with a brief stop for seaweed-flavored potato chips and water, we finally arrived at our home for the next couple days, the La Villa Boutique, an old French colonial villa across the street from the Sangker River and a short walk from the center of Battambang.

The Dining Room at La Villa Battambang.
Situated next to a Wat Kandal temple, the yellow-walled villa with old black-and-white photographs and maps on the wall was beautiful and really hearkened back to another time. Before going up the cement spiral staircase to our room, which was a restored attic, we ate lunch in the faded yellow and black tiled dining room. It was a little late in the afternoon and no other guests were dining as it was near the end of the lunch service, and the kitchen was just about to close. There was a quaint wooden bar stained dark red with a black-and-white marble top and a few tall wooden chairs around it. All of the doorframes were white, as were the window frames, sills and shutters. The back wall looking out onto the manicured patio draped with orchids and shaded by palms was all glass, as was the ceiling, from where old aluminum fans were suspended. Vito played with the resident dog and cat that were wandering around while we waited for the food that we had ordered. Lunch was adequate, but didn't stand out, and we settled down in our room for a couple hours after lunch needing some time to recover from the long drive and whatever jet lag was wearing us down. Angela and I geeked out on our portable devices, nodding in and out of sleep, and Vito, unaccustomed to TV, settled down to watch cartoons.

When we had had enough rest, we ventured out on foot and crossed the bridge over the river. After losing ourselves in the relatively small city center and wandering through a neighborhood temple, we stopped at a little streetside restaurant for something cold to drink. Afterwards, we meandered through a cluster of street food vendors and booths with crafts for sale along the river. It was quite festive with lights and many people eating and lingering about, almost Christmas-y.

Our wandering wasn't without purpose, however, and for dinner, we sought out Jaan Bai, which wasn't too difficult to locate; it was a restaurant that had been highly recommended to us by some good friends who had traveled to Cambodia the year before.

The small sparsely decorated restaurant had about eight wooden indoor tables and three or four low ones along the outside wall in the alleyway next to the restaurant. The food—pad thai, papaya salad, fried spring rolls and coconut ice-cream—was outstanding. To our surprise, the power cut out at least three times during our meal. The staff scrambled around bringing tea lights to all of the tables, which made it a little more special for us and, otherwise, did not impeded the enjoyment of our meal in any way. When we were finished, tired after the long day, we caught a tuk-tuk back to the hotel. Even though we were serenaded by karaoke from the mega-hotel next door, it didn't seem to stop any of us from drifting off to sleep.

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