Friday, March 7, 2014

Battambang, Cambodia: A Very Pleasant Surprise

What can I say about Battambang?  It was absolutely lovely.  The town itself is very small and a bit sleepy, but the serendipitous nature of our visit was unrivaled in the whole of Cambodia.  The stars were truly aligned when these 5 strangers boarded a river boat to Battambang and were fortunate enough to pick Sambath out amongst the 2 dozen tuk-tuk drivers. I can only hope that anyone who visits Cambodia has a chance encounter similar to mine.  I hope luck is on your side because without this group of United Nations, this trip would not hold such a big place in my heart.

It started by joining forces with Guillaume from the South of France.  We met in the hostel in Siem Reap and coincidentally were hopping on the same river cruise to Battambang.  His friend, Inka, from Poland met us at the dock.  Once there, we boarded a rickety (at best) double-decker river boat. 

A super crowded bus to the ferry
 The entire boat was constructed with the hottest heat conducting metal on the planet. The bottom deck had rows of seats, similar to those on a bus.  The upper deck looked like a sun deck.  When we boarded, I saw the people crammed below and weighed that against those laying lazily on the top deck.  I chose the top.  It was only 8AM, so the sun would be nice for 6 hours.  Wrong.  Since it was dry season, the river was low – very low.  Since the river was low, the boat trip took 9 hours.  It had gone from a day cruise into a sunset cruise.



During the course of the 9 hours, we passed through amazing floating villages where you would think they auditioned the happiest people in Cambodia to live.  For people that have nothing but the love of their families, these people are the richest of all in Cambodia.  They are rich with love, laughter and whimsy.  They are super friendly and although we were warned via Lonely Planet that they do not take kindly to the River Boat since it creates unnecessary waves, these people were exuberant to see us. 




Every floating shack we passed met us with waves and smiles.  Every dirt mound we passed greeted us with smiling and laughing children showing off their diving, jumping and twirling skills into the water.   Naked toddlers and adolescents were throwing themselves and each other joyously in the air for a chance to show off their amazing skills to the westerners crossing the river.  It was a fantastic sight.

Naked kids showing off their sweet jumping skills into the river 
Since it took 9 hours, we got to see the sunset!
We picked up a German, Tini, and a Spaniard, Lorena, on the boat as well.  We shared tour guides and stories and decided as a group that we should all stay in the same hotel and try to catch the circus that evening.  I had planned to stay at Chhaya based on the Lonely Planet’s recommendation and they agreed to stay there as well.  That is how we met Sambath.  Sambath was one of 5 or 6 tuk-tuk drivers holding up a sign for the ant infested, run down Chhaya Hotel that was marginal at best.  He and I made eye contact, and I secured a tuk-tuk for the lot of us.

Sambath, our amazing tour guide!
While on the boat, we had discussed things we wanted to do in Battambang.  Lorena wanted to go to the circus, the German wanted to go to the Bamboo Train, Guillaume wanted to see the bat caves and I wanted to take a cooking class (however, since the boat took too long, we missed that opportunity), but we did the rest.  We knew we would have a lot of driving to do the following day, so we negotiated with Sambath to pick us up at noon the next day and hired him out for the full day for $15 ($3 each).

That night, however, we visited the Phare Ponleu Selpak's circus (http://www.phareps.org).  It was basically an after school program developed in 1986 to help kids deal with the trauma of war by providing social, educational, emotional and cultural support. Their art school teaches kids music, art and acrobatics with a  Circ du Soleil type of theme.  It was marvelous!


Ouch, the contortionist and the acrobat creeped me out
Super balancing guy

The high fliers!


Flaming jump rope!

The next morning, Sambath was right on time, smiling and friendly.  He helped us run a couple of errands to the post office etc and showed us some statues and important buildings around town, then took us to the Bamboo Train.


This statue is a symbol of peace.  It was created after the Khmer Rouge regime ended and is made up entirely of old gun parts.


The Bamboo Train was on Tini’s wish list.  I think the rest of the group just acquiesced her at first, but it turned out to be a hoot!  The Bamboo Train is the last remaining site of the original Cambodian railway and it is expected o be torn apart in the coming year.  It is a single-track railway with cars constructed of 2 wheel platforms and a bamboo bed on top. 


Tini, Emily, Lorena, Inka and Guillaume on the Bamboo Train

When we arrived, we paid $5 each to hop aboard.  They had laid a rug and pillows down for us to sit on.  Just prior to boarding a friend that we met the night before from England also randomly showed up.





The Bamboo Train is fabulous.  It goes about 50km/hr and you barrel through the jungle on this rickety platform powered by a lawn mower motor and a Cambodian guide.  When you approach a car coming toward you, both guides stop (thankfully) and whichever car has fewer passengers must get off the track, literally.  Everyone gets off the platform and the 2 opposing conductors lift the platform off and place it to the side of the road, then pull both axles off the track, move the other train forward, then rebuild the original train back on the track behind the opposing one.  It’s Fantastic!  You have to dissemble and reassemble the cars several times during the round trip.






At the end of the line is a small village selling whole coconuts, t-shirts, pants, scarves and other Cambodian knickknacks.  There are also tons of children selling friendship bracelets and making palm leaf grasshoppers that they give away and affix to ladies’ hair.  I imagine it is a way to pass time for them, but also an income generator for those generous enough to contribute.  I rewarded my generous benefactor with 500 real (12.5 cents), to which I was reciprocated with a huge hug and a smile.


The Grasshopper hair piece modeled by Tini
These children were so happy.  They matched the infectious happiness of the kids on the riverbanks and we engaged them with dancing to Psy’s Gangnam Style.   They loved it and loved watching videos of themselves dancing.



Our next stop was lunch.  Sambath took us to a local spot that rewards him with free lunch for bringing tuk-tuks full of passengers with him.  We asked him to join us for lunch and had a lovely conversation.  During the course of lunch we learned that his family owns an English School that is basically a non-profit.  Those that can afford it pay $1 per month and the teachers essentially volunteer since they only get paid $20 per month.  He has approximately 150 students, but only 20% of them can actually afford to pay.  So, to make ends meet, Sambath drives a tuk tuk.  He has aspirations of buying his own tuk tuk  but more so to open up an adventure travel company that takes tourists from Battambang to Sihanoukville over the mountain with camping and adventure hikes.  This guy was super aspirational and was determined to do it on his own without the help of grants or donations.

I loved this kid.  I loved his spirit and generosity.  His dreams were contagious and it just made me want to help.  I intend to send some books and supplies to his school when I return to America.

While there, we asked him where we could get the best Khmer food in Battambang. We wanted local food and were sure he would have a good suggestion.  He was surprised that we liked local food and that our stomachs could handle local cuisine.  We assured him it would and he said, “my mom makes the best food in Cambodia.”  We all laughed a little bit then asked if his mom would cook for us.  He was surprised and said he would ask her if we were serious.  We were!  I told him we would be happy to pay her what we normally would for dinner, (about $3 each) and he rang her to ask.  She said yes!  We had a dinner date set for 7:00.  Sambath told us that his school got out at 7 and we told him to call back and tell the kids to stay late because we would love to guest teach….and we did!

First however, we had to see the rest of Battambang.  Sambath took us to the mountain to see the temples.  We teased him about being lazy and he finally conceded to climbing the hill with us.  It was our lucky day because not only did he take us to the top, but he also acted as a tour guide.  He told us about each Wat and took us to the killing caves where the Khmer Rouge pushed their victims to the bottom forever.





Sambath giving a lecture on the Khmer Rouge history of the Killing Cave

 

Offering area for the Killing Cave


Inside the Killing Caves

Having a little fun with statues
Ew…monkeys everywhere

Seriously, there were monkeys everywhere!




nice view from the top!
Cambodian countryside

On the way home, we stopped at the bat caves.  Nightly at dusk, 5 million bats migrate out of the cave and around town to feed. Everyone stands along the road and for 40-minutes, thousands of bats fly over head until all 5 million have left the caves.  When you clap or make a loud sound, the collection of bats flinch and re-navigate momentarily.  The masses of them move in waves through the sky. It looks like a cartoon swarm of bees or like what wind would look like on an animated television program. Careful as you look up, however, it is not raining.  That is bat piss.  Yep, it rains bat piss on all the tourists for the duration of the migration.



Yay! It was time for school.  We went to Sambath’s house and joined in with school.  We sat with 4-5 kids each and counted with them and talked about vegetables, colors and all kinds of elementary things.  Then, they taught us how to Khmer dance.  They had a recital coming up in a town fair that weekend, so they could use the practice and we could use the education.  It was fabulous.  The children were so excited to have guest teachers.  They were shy to speak at first, but excited and when it was time for them to leave (and us to eat), you could tell they were sad they had to go.  They loved learning and knew how special it was for them to get to go to that school and also to have guest teachers. 

Inka and I's team of students!

Khmer dancing



I seriously considered staying for a while to teach but I only had a few more days in Cambodia and really wanted to see the beaches that I had heard so much about.

The feast….oh the feast.  Sambath’s mom put out all the stops!  There was rice for everyone, of course, but also some amazing pork strips, stir fried vegetables, some amazing soup, fried cauliflower, some killer fish sauce.  It was all so delicious, I couldn’t consume it fast enough.  I was so full in the end, I practically had to be rolled out.  It was absolutely lovely.  I feel so lucky and fortunate to have stumbled across this opportunity and wish that everyone I know could have this exact experience of warmth, whimsy, awe and culture shock some day.


If you would like to donate time, money or resources to Sambath’s school, please give me a shout and you can piggyback with my donation going out in July. 

Best Tuk Tuk driver and tour guide in Battambang.  USE HIM!



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