CAMBODIA TALES 2000
Battambang by day
Arriving at the busy boat dock near the foot of Phnom Krom at 7am, the scrum of backpackers, snack vendors and hangers-on hugged the shoreline. A couple of young boys were inspecting tickets and directing travellers to the large 100-seater cigar-shaped speedboat destined for Phnom Penh or to the three tiny rowing dinghies earmarked for my intended destination, Battambang. Sitting on a wooden plank in the middle of the nine-seater vessel next to a young Khmer couple, I was beginning to have second thoughts about the trip when the pilot gunned the noisy outboard motor into life and we chugged slowly out along a channel towards the Tonle Sap lake.
The day had begun early with a 4.30am wake-up call from the Golden Angkor's friendly receptionist. Bleary-eyed, I filled my backpack, showered and as arranged the night before, met Phalla at reception a little after 5am. The other members of my 'farewell party' arrived soon after. Noung and Sokchata were on one moto and their mother and father on another, having left their village near Srah Srang half an hour earlier. I was delighted that they'd made the effort to see me off and after an exchange of gifts and promises to see one another on my next visit to Siem Reap, it was a wrench to say goodbye to my friends, although I would see Phalla again in a couple of days time in Phnom Penh. The small pick-up truck arrived at 6am to transport me to the boat dock for my trip to Battambang. Nearly an hour later, I finally reached the dock after the truck driver had shoe-horned no less than twenty travellers with their baggage onto the vehicle.
Back on the water, we bounced along the tops of the waves, through the floating village of Chrong Kniesh and out onto the open expanse of the Tonle Sap. 1½ hours later, we reached the far side of the lake and entered a series of channels and inlets, twisting and turning to avoid fishing nets, waving to children in the riverside communities and stopped to pick up an additional passenger and extra fuel. Covered in spray whenever the boat hit a large wave, I found a life-jacket under my seat but the straps were broken although it did help to reduce the numbness in my rear end. After three hours and more grey hairs than when I started the trip, we'd navigated the Sangke river and arrived at a small wooden jetty just north of Battambang's market area. As we docked, a pack of moto-drivers scrambled down the muddy riverbank, eager for business. However, three of them were a little too eager and ended up waist deep in the river after losing their footing in the slippery mud. I was keen to find a motodub named Sokha, who'd looked after a friend of mine a few weeks before, so I asked the assembled throng if they knew Mr Sokha from the Chaya hotel. In unison, each of them raised their hand in the air, declaring they were Mr Sokha, except a fresh-faced youngster holding a crash-helmet, who I decided to choose as my driver. He explained his name was Lem Chetra, he was twenty years old and drove his father's moto on the days he wasn't studying at school. We headed off to the Teo hotel to reserve a room and onto the Royal Phnom Penh Airways office to book my 8.30am flight to the capital the next morning. The office manageress, Muy Ravy asked me to call in later to collect my ticket and introduced me to her adorable ten year old daughter Chanthyda, who spoke immaculate English and whose toothless grin stretched across her face.
Chetra donned his crash-helmet after I turned down his offer to use it (he's the only motodub to wear one that I've met so far) and we headed out north alongside the Sangke river to Wat Ek Phnom, our first destination. A handful of monks from the modern wat next to its ancient 11th century neighbour were perched precariously on the roof, paintbrush in hand and shouted 'hello!' as we arrived. Three refreshment stalls suggested an upturn in the temple's popularity amongst travellers and Chetra walked around the Ek Phnom ruins with me, pointing out the lintels still in place, unaware that this was my second visit to the temple. I practiced my Khmer with a couple of female drink vendors and they in turn practiced their English before I walked over to the modern pagoda to look at the freshly-painted frescoes on the temple walls, both inside and outside the main vihara.
Returning to Battambang, it then took us over an hour to cover the pot-holed 25 kms south to Phnom Banan, arriving at 1.30pm. Chetra left the moto in the care of a refreshment stall owner and joined me in the exhausting climb to the top of the steep laterite staircase, bordered by broken naga heads and stone lions. At the top, the undergrowth had been cleared from the five towers and two soldiers were lazing in their hammocks strung between the branches of a tree. However, their presence appeared purely cosmetic as much of Phnom Banan's rich carvings have been stolen or defaced, with all but two of the apsara wall carvings damaged beyond repair and just two lintels remain in situ. We sat and rested at the top, admiring the gorgeous view stretched out below us and chatted to a group of teenagers, who'd made the climb armed with a small battery radio, blaring out western music. Finally leaving Phnom Banan, Chetra suggested we cross the nearby Sangke river via a rickety bamboo bridge and pass through the 'hello' village on the other side. The crossing cost 100 riel or so and the village was exactly as he'd described it. At what seemed like every house in the village, about twenty in total, groups of children of all ages appeared and surrounded the moto, not allowing us to move on until we'd shouted 'hello! goodbye!' and shook or slapped their hands. At one house, I jumped off the moto to join in a game of football and in the courtyard of another, played volleyball with a small group of mothers and teenage girls. This incident was a rarity. Usually, the children are happy to be involved while the adults and older girls prefer to watch from a suitable distance. However, in this village everyone wanted to join in. The shrieks and shouts attracted more and more onlookers and by this time I was hot, sweaty and dishevelled and still a figure of fun judging by the laughter levels generated by the kids.
I thanked Chetra for bringing me to the village, it was great fun but I still wasn't sure whether their excitement was generated as they rarely saw foreigners or they'd used me as a form of in-village entertainment. Making our way back towards Battambang, we paused in the grounds of a wat to see some fruit bats, though one of the monks told us that they'd flown away the night before. We also stopped at an old railway station where the locals organised trips along the rail-line on small hand-propelled 'rail-lorries' (a wooden platform on bogey wheels, forming a flatcar). However, it was nearly 5pm and I had to collect my plane ticket, so we returned to the airline office to see Muy Ravy and her daughter. I was still in awe of Chanthyda's excellent command of English and gave her a barbie doll as a gift, which she seemed overjoyed with. To round off the day, Chetra and I had some tikaloks at a stall overlooking the peaceful Sangke river, where families had gathered with a similar idea in mind and to watch the sun sink behind the clouds as the light faded.
At 6.30pm I returned to the Teo hotel, where my motodub from a year before, Philay, had heard I was in town and was waiting to say hello. We had a long chat, in particular about the welcome increase in tourist numbers in the intervening twelve months and he introduced me to his son, who is also a moto-driver, before promising to re-appear early the next morning to see me off. I ate in the hotel restaurant, had a talk with two waiters who both spoke very passable English before a leisurely stroll to the riverfront and back, prior to retiring to bed at 10pm. After a good night's rest, both Philay and Chetra were waiting for me at reception. Philay wished me good luck and shook my hand vigorously as Chetra picked up my backpack and we moto'd out to the airport in good time for my 8.30am departure. I thanked Chetra for his friendship and told him I'd recommend him to any traveller stopping in Battambang for a day or so. He's a careful and considerate driver for such a young man and has designs on becoming a teacher in the future. I wish him luck. I'd also met Sokha at the end of the previous day and he too was a very friendly individual and was really pleased to get the letter I passed onto him from a mutual friend of ours he'd driven for a few weeks earlier.
I should've guessed it, but the ticket collector at the tiny airport terminal was none other than Muy Ravy and her daughter, Chanthyda was also there, clutching her barbie doll and holding my hand as we waited in the departure lounge. With two planes scheduled to leave at 8.30am, the room was quite full and every few seconds, a mobile telephone rang - another obvious sign of the progress many of Cambodia's inhabitants are making. As well as manning the souvenir stall in the lounge, Chanthyda and her mum collected the boarding passes at the foot of the steps to the plane and wished me luck as I boarded the aircraft bound for Phnom Penh, which then departed five minutes early. Although my return visit to Battambang had been a brief one, it remains a city that I have a great affection for, due in no small part to the warmth and friendliness of its people and the variety of its nearby attractions.
To read about my previous trip to Battambang twelve months earlier, click here.
Click here to view more photographs of Battambang's ancient temples.
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