Friday, December 19, 2014

Cambodia - Day 3: Battambang

The next morning, we sat down to a fairly typical American-style breakfast of bacon and eggs, grilled tomato and potatoes that came with a basket of sliced French bread. There were also small, round, whitish, flour-dusted rolls of Cambodian bread along with various homemade fruit spreads, which were really special, and we gobbled down every crumb. We were eager to get the day started.

After a short walk back across the bridge, we rented bicycles and rode them out into the countryside to find the Bamboo Train, which, knowing that we had to entertain Vito, the manager of La Villa recommended. Even though we had been advised against looking for the place on our own, and despite discovering the lack of signs along the dusty roads that seemed to wind every which way but loose, we eventually found what we were looking for, parked our bicycles near a tree where a man wearing a uniform told us to, bought a couple bottles of water and paid the $5 fare. 'Train' was really a misnomer as we boarded a wide and thin bamboo pallet resting on what looked like the wheels of an old mine cart. There were a bunch of men standing around eating and gambling and watching us, and everything seemed awkward and disorganized. I wondered if our bicycles would still be where we left them when we returned, but we did what we were told to do, trusted the system, and everything seemed to come off without incident.

Vito's assessment of the Bamboo Train.
Seated on small cushions at the front of the train, our driver boarded at the rear of the platform and inserted a long wooden stick into the small motor to set the train in motion. Trains going in either direction used the same track and, when they met, the drivers simply lifted off the bamboo pallets and switched them.

As for the ride itself, I expected something relatively mild, especially considering the dubious construction of our mode of transportation; however, it was a bumpy, clackety-clack, hair-raising, wild ride on a long straight-ish track out into the Battambang countryside. There was absolutely no development, none that we could see, anyway—no telephone wires or houses or motorcycles—just wide green fields and palms and bushes and more blue sky and butterflies. It smelled deliciously clean, which was not something we could really say about any of the places we had visited so far in Cambodia. At the end of the track, there were numerous souvenir stands selling cold beverages, t-shirts, straw hats, bracelets and cotton elephant-print harem pants, but we didn’t buy anything. Small clusters of women sat around tiny tables eating or making things and children accosted us with various items for sale. We stopped for about ten minutes before heading back. There wasn't much else to do. It was a fun experience, worthwhile for a glimpse of the untouched countryside, and Vito was over the moon about it.

Grilled banana anyone?
After the approximately one-hour train ride, we retrieved our bikes, safe where we had left them, and pedaled back along the dirt roads out of the countryside and back onto the paved roads that led into town, stopping along the way to look at different curiosities like a school, wooden houses built on stilts, a woman selling grilled bananas and the statue of Ta Dumbong, a legendary figure after whom, apparently, the city takes its name.

Doing the laundry.
Before returning the bikes, we rode to the old Governor’s Residence, which could not be accessed, and then stopped at the Battambang Museum, which was a shoddy affair with no lighting and numerous unlabeled stone fragments. I wondered why the items weren't better cared for. It might have been more interesting if there was more information about the items. We also stopped for a lunch of fried noodles with vegetables at a Chinese restaurant and then returned the bikes. Pedaling around in the heat had tuckered us out, and, before returning to our hotel, we found a nearby cafĂ© with a certified barista and enjoyed a cool drink in the shade on a second-floor balcony overlooking the street. A swim in our hotel's pool sounded nice to us and, while walking back, we took a brief detour to explore the temple next to our hotel, Wat Kandal. The temple seemed quite old and was surrounded by high old cement walls and durian trees. Dogs lazed about on the sidewalks or barked at us half-heartedly. Walking among the different structures, we noticed many monks around, but there was not much activity in the late afternoon heat.

The pool was refreshing, but a little too cold for our liking. After our swim and another brief rest in our room, we went out to attend a performance of Phare Ponleu Selpak, billed as the Cambodian circus. The group had started about twenty years ago to train young people in acrobatics and music, activities that had been lost during the cultural devastation carried out by the Khmer Rouge in the 70s. Anyway, we caught a tuk-tuk to the venue, which was on the outskirts of the city. Admission for the three of us was $25. The performance was typical of the kind of acrobatics shows we had seen in China, but rather then performing separate unrelated acts, all of them were linked together by a supernatural narrative about a group of young people lost in the forest and haunted by spirits. The approximately one-hour performance was accompanied by live musicians and was quite humorous.

The weather was nice and cool, but not cold. We arrived about twenty minutes before the show started, and there was plenty to keep us occupied. On the compound where the circus performed, there was a large gymnasium, a small gallery with prints and paintings for sale, a little bar and a sort of open-walled circus tent where it was clear that the show would take place. In between the bar, where Angela and I sat down to have a beer, and the gym, there was a large grassy field. Some boys were kicking a soccer ball around and Vito went to play with them.

As it got closer to show time, we paid for our drinks and gathered Vito.

“Did you have fun?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he answered. “They don’t speak English!”

“I’m sure.”

“No. I mean, really,” Vito insisted. “They don’t even speak any English!” I suppose it was unusual for him to be in a place where many people did not understand English whatsoever. Qatar has a fairly diverse population and almost everyone speaks English there, which is the common language for communication. In any case, the soccer ball seemed to enable enough communication among them so that they could play together.

Our tuk-tuk driver waited for us—he watched the show, too, in fact—and then took us back to the center of Battambang. For a Friday night, the town appeared weirdly deserted. After looking around unsuccessfully for an appealing option for dinner, we decided to return to Jaan Bai as we had enjoyed it so much the previous night. By the end of the evening, I think we had tried almost everything on the menu! When we were finished, we went back to our hotel and went right to sleep. It was our last night in town, and we had another long drive ahead of us in the morning.

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