Blog // Tales from the trail
Early starts, I had hoped, were a thing of the past. Particularly those to make journeys to neighbouring counties, which reminded me of the weekly commute to Qatar that my Middle East life had once become. Nevertheless the smoothest route to the border was by train and the train left at 5:50am, tickets (and seats) sold on a first come first serve basis. Duly awoken by our alarm, with a depressing 4 in the first column, we got ourselves vertical and kicked Ian up, who had kindly offer to help us find a taxi first thing.
After kindly offering to take us on the highway, which turned out to be the long way around so he could rack up a few more baht on his meter (in addition to the toll we had to pay), we grumpily threw some money at the grizzly driver and dragged ourselves through the station and onto our train.
The journey itself was pleasant enough, slowly clic-clacking across open plains with the occasional stop at small villages at towns. Although we're not quite sure the driver got the hang of collecting up the slack in the line of carriages before cranking up the throttle, as our end carriage once again violently lurched into motion (note for next time on seating choice!). After 6 long hours however we were quite relieved to be stepping off and soon whizzing along in a tuk-tuk towards the border.
After a brief detour, with the driver attempting to take us into the 'cisa' building (no the border please!) we found ourselves at the border. Personally I dislike borders, both symbolically as a statement of man's strive for divisiveness and control, but also physically as the bureaucratic places where these activities are ambiguously administered. Also, all too frequently, scenes of great confusion, surrounded by official and unofficial helpers and charlatans alike, whilst the all important official processes, either by carelessness or design have been muddied.
What made this border all the more strange were the line of casinos in the void between the two countries, apparently popular with the Thais we were told. Not something high on our priorities right then however as we passed through the relevant offices, had a random medical check, filled out the various forms, provided a passport photograph[?], paid the due fees, queued, another form filled, queued some more, high-tech fingerprinting and finally a stamp and about an hour later and we were in! Helpfully, the Cambodians' lay on a free bus service to the main bus station, and all we needed to worry about was where we wanted to go explore!
Whilst most of the travelers we crossed the border with were heading straight to Siem Reap (of Angkor Wat fame), we decided instead to first head a little south to Battambang; our logic was it would be nice get a bit of a feel for the country prior to heading to its biggest tourist attraction. Battambang is Cambodia's second largest city and in fact pronounced Bat-tam-bong by the locals, we were kindly informed at the bus station as we bought our tickets, we were getting to know the place already!
A two and a bit hour bus ride later and we had finally arrived at our destination, the somewhat colonial looking Battambang, and ourselves somewhat exhausted after 13 or so hours on trains, buses or queues. The town centre itself is relatively compact, running mostly along one side of the Sangkae River; littered with shops, bars and restaurants, a number of which also spill out onto the opposite bank. The prior colonial inhabitants attempting with a grid system to keep everything in order, although I'm not quite sure how well their organisation panned out, as we arrived at our hotel of street 2½.
Still recovering from our previous early start, we spent the following morning exploring town, the old market, and peaked by booking ourselves in for an experience in local cuisine - a cooking class (recipes up soon we hope!). At $10 each, this seemed like amazing value also, especially as that price included a freshly prepared dinner for the evening, granted, quality would depend on how one performed during the lesson.
We also tried or hands (or rather feet) at a popular local pastime and took a turn of the cobblestone path. These things were crazy busy of an evening, with almost queues to get on, an interesting if somewhat painful barefoot experience we found.
The biggest surprise for us was the use of dollars, all prices in town were in dollars, all cash machines we found vended in dollars and we were starting to wonder how one even got hands on the local currency - if indeed it was at all required. After some investigations (purchases) it seemed that the Cambodian rials were used as a subdivision of the dollar, with 1,000 rial equating to 25¢. Strange, but it works, although we also found establishments thus tended to provide prices, rounded up in dollar increments.
The town centre has many impressive old structures, although most look pretty sorry for themselves and in need of at least a good lick of paint. Some, in complete disrepair, like the old cinema building, boarded up during the Khmer Rouge regime and never re-opened, however others fairing much better.
Many of Battambang's attractions lie in the surrounding area and so the following day we rented a moped and headed out to explore. Starting out was a little slow, heading for an old Pepsi Factory we'd heard about, which had since been levelled by the Chinese to build a water treatment plant (progress at least!). Back we headed through town, which on a moped was a bit of an exercise in faith; some junctions I think you could wait the best part of a day at and still never see a suitable gap in the traffic, so the general strategy seemed to be to keep momentum into the junction and file in with your fellow moped riders - who 'will' make space for you if you keep going! Cars should be generally avoided and buses at all costs, although they will always beep to make all within earshot aware of their imminent approach, appearing to own pole-position in the traffic hierarchy.
Out in the countryside fortunately, other than dodging the occasional downpour, things were much more relaxing and we were little troubled as we trundled towards our first stop, Kamping Pouy reservoir. Apparently this was one of the few actually successful projects during the Khmer Rouge's spell in their attempt towards turning the entire population into farmers. This massive dug lake was used for irrigating the surrounding area, although sadly with most projects of this era, it did not come without cost and many lives were reported lost during the construction. Today it looked more like a wetland with supporting numerous small farms, apparently its main export is fibres extracted from the waterlilies at the lake, however there didn't seem to be too many of these from what we could see (possibly due to the lack of water itself). An exchange with a disgruntled sounding local gave us the impression that the Chinese were making some modifications to the set-up, something to do with the construction work and new looking sluice gates he was gesturing at.
Finding things on our countryside adventure was proving, at times, to be quite troublesome; with local maps not showing roads, indicating whether tarred or otherwise or even sometimes claiming the existence of roads which in the real world simply did not. This combined with a lack of obvious landmarks or signs throughout the rural areas, pushed us towards navigation by odometer (turn right in about 4km) or finally admitting defeat and checking Google Maps (although look once and you are dependent!).
This said, we were pretty confident of finding our next stop, Phnom Sampov, a temple on a big hill sitting proud of the otherwise flat and landmark free terrain.
As we made our way up the hill we were confronted by the caves that were used by the Khmer Rouge as killing caves. This was our first glimpse of the madness and atrocities carried out during this period and a subject which we have resolved to find out more about. A young boy made a point of showing us around the caves as a way of earning a few dollars, his basic English being enough, "the smaller cave on the left for babies, the larger one for the adults". A collection of bones recovered from the cave sit in a shrine at the mid-point of the larger cave, where the victims were once tossed down.
The temple at the top is well worth the long walk up and contains a number of buildings and shrines dusted over the summit, with a small army of monkeys keeping watch over it all.
Most impressive we thought, was the giant staircase leading down into the caverns below the temple. These caves are filled with bats and at sunset they erupt from the opening in the mountain below the temple and out into the evening sky.
However, with no desire to add darkness into the navigation equation, we opted to make our way back to town, including a glorious, late-afternoon ride through the paddy fields before following the river back to town. The bats probably best saved for a tuk-tuk and another day.
Our time in Battambang was almost up, besides, most of our last day was consumed by me feeling sorry for myself (we suspected the table water from the previous nights' meal - stick to beer next time!) and recovering before our journey to Siem Reap, via our new favourite form of transport - the boat!
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