“Go to Battambang and you will see the real Cambodia”
We wanted to escape the tourism obsessed Siem Reap. The descriptions of Battambang promised colonial architecture at river side. A calm town? Sounds like a perfect destination for us!
We took a minibus from Siem Reap and arrived in our guest house just in time to still book tickets for a circus show of the Phare Ponleu Selpak school (www.phareps.org). It was not in our plans for the evening, but it was the only day we could see the show (performances in Battambang are on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays). As I have had a little love affair with cirque nouveau, I could not miss a contemporary circus show by students of the famous school.
The show was great and very funny. The kids (adolescents) and their teachers are doing a very great job. The chapiteau was full with people, mostly Westerners. But there was also a big group of local kids, who were as excited about the show as the grownups were. The tickets are rather pricy – 14 USD per person – both for locals and tourists. The performance joins students from different departments – mostly the circus, dance and music section. We also had a chance to see a little piece of the traditional dance. The girls moved like seaweeds in slow current. Admirable!
It is possible to see the performance of Phare Ponleu Selpak students also in Siem Reap. Phnom Penh and sometimes in other cities. I am very glad we had a chance to see the show in Battambang.
There are few attractions outside the town, that are offered to tourists and mostly guided by tuk-tuk drivers. We arranged a half day tour with Enn Salone, a driver that was recommended to us. Another couple from our guest house, that we met on the circus performance, joined us.
We had a visit to the local villages, a market and the bat cave planed. Our driver followed his own route and stopped by places that might be interesting for us or had a significance for the locals. We saw a small rice factory and a very smelly fish market where the famous fish paste is produced. The market was full with big wooden and plastic barrels filled with salted and fermented fish that was slowly and smelly turning into a paste. An old car stuffed full with more or less recently caught fishes was one of our biggest attractions. We were standing close to the back of the car as the market-men unloaded the trunk, staring in fascination for 10 minutes.
The smell was horrendous, the heat inside the car boiling. Not only the trunk was full with fish. The back seats were removed and the whole car was full with fish ready to be unloaded.
We also stopped by a house where rice papers for spring rolls are made. Basically it is a rice pancake made from rice flower and water and dried in the sun. We bravely tasted some of the spring-rolls made right next to the street. Tasty, and no harm done to us. 🙂 Later on we were also offered to try the rat meat (our guide claimed that those rats come from rice fields, have eaten only rice..), but we politely refused his kind proposal.
Besides villages, market and educational visits to food production houses, we were taken to sites of historical importance – temples, pagodas and places where people were tortured and killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. The Cambodian tragedy is very recent. Killing fields and caves, houses of torture are open to public and widely advertised among tourists. The visual story telling that reflects in memorials and temples (decorative sculptures, paintings) show a lot of pain and intense emotions. No doubt, tourists should know and learn about the history of Cambodia. Though the excitement and advertisement of the places by tuk-tuk drivers (not all of them, but quite many) and tourism companies gives me doubt, if the places are not turning into a tourist attraction too fast. It could, of course, be that the active promotion of the places is a coping mechanism and should not be doubted about…
The final stop of our tour was the bat cave. There are quite few of those in Cambodia, gained their popularity because of huge amount of bats flying out of the caves at certain hour. Before the expected “show”, we had an hour to wonder around the surrounding hills.
At the top of the hills are several temples and caves. As soon as we got on top of one of the peeks a young boy started to follow us, giving us directions and telling about the temple, the caves and how babies were thrown down the hill into the cave by Khmer Rouge. Suddenly I had a flash back from India, where we met many of those “voluntary guides”, who would ask for a “gift” at the end of their performance. And it was exactly what happened. We still had a quick look at the other nearby peek and then it was time to take the stairs down to see the bats. Locals have smartly build up small cafes with chairs facing the cave, that is located higher above in one of the hills. It is hard to resist the temptation of having a cold soft drink or beer and sit back in the comfy arm-chairs. The bats started to flee the cave once the sun was down. And they do it in a very organised manner. After the first minutes it is possible to see a waving black line forming in the sky. It is quite spectacular, especially seen from road side.
This little video might give an impression how that was.
Dining like locals
We ended our tour with a dinner in restaurant popular among locals – “The Asean”. Located at the other side of the water, tourists don’t come here. Even our tuk-tuk driver was very surprised we wanted to go there. At the entrance we met poorly dressed girls sitting on chairs, creating lines on both sides. We both raised our eyebrows and made our own assumptions. The restaurant has a stage at the back of the space. Tables and private tents are organised around the stage, that serves as an open-mic for the local talents (and less-talents) to be discovered. “The band” consists of two musicians – one with keyboard and one with electric guitar. Every song is sung by different singer, sometimes they join together for a groups performance. Quality varies from one singer to another, creating a very uneven (sometimes painful for ears) background for a dinner. After a while I grasped, that the slutty dressed girls at the entrance, might be waiting for their turn to take the stage. I had made my first judgement too fast…
There was a little confusion with our food. We ordered fish and a plate with stir-fried mix vegetables. Our veggies and rice arrived quite fast. As we were hungry, we started slowly with the veggies, hoping that the fish would arrive soon after. Half of the plate was done, but there was no fish yet. We waited 10 more minutes, but still nothing. As I finally caught the attention of one of the waiters, it turned out that no fish would be following. We already had been eating it with the vegetables (now we understood what the undefinable harder and salty ingredient was)! When I ordered the fish, I was doubting, if I finished the whole animal on my own. In the end we decided to share it and have a veggie dish as extra. The waiter had only understood the part of the fish being too big. So the kitchen decided to combine the two and put some pieces of fish in out veggies. A great solution, only if we had known of it… All that was left from our dish had turned cold by now, but we finished our modest meal and did not complain. At least the dinner turned out to be less expensive than expected.
Leaving the restaurant, we passed the girls again. I realised that I had not seen any of them on the stage, and I have a very good memory for faces. So they might be waiting for clients to entertain after all, but we are not sure. That will remain a secret of the restaurant and a mystery for us.
Town by bicycle
It took a while to discover the charm of the town, but we grew to like the place. Especially after we rented bikes, just drove around the city and the surrounding villages. We got the bicycles for 24 hours and managed to do 2 tours in the city and around it. First we went for architecture spotting – colonial and 60’s masterpieces were on our menu. Some of the places we had seen in the exhibition in Siem Reap. It was fun driving around the city and pointing fingers at beautiful or special houses. Stijn was inspired to find some abandoned buildings.
There are a lot of very pretty colonial building in Cambodia and especially in Battambang. Some buildings are unfortunately already demolished. What was interesting to see was this nearly abandoned swimming pool. This outdoor swimming pool used to have Olympic size but was made smaller in recent history. The arch which gave access to the diving board remained in the original position so now it stands a bit awkward, away from the pool.
After we just followed the river and let our selves be guided by it. We cycled along the modest wooden and bamboo houses of local people, constantly responding to excited hellos and giving hi-fives to the fastest of kids on the streets. We stopped by a “traditional” Khmer wooden house, which belonged to wealthy upper class family (it is only partially representing the traditional architecture). As we continued our ride, from afar we could hear the music played. We could not understand, if it was a local discotheque or some kind of ceremony. 10 minutes later we discovered that the music was coming from a wedding tent set up on a side of a road. It was not the first one and not the last one we saw. In other cities we saw the tents set up in the middle of a street too. The entrance was usually decorated with large photos of the couple in different outfits, loud music was playing most of the time. It was impossible to miss the fact that someone is getting married.
The little spots
Like in Siem Reap there is a growing artistic micro culture that partly consists of expats. You can find quite few nice places. Every morning we had our breakfast in the HOC café – another NGO run place. For 3 dollars one can have a very filling breakfast. They offer a buffed with Western and Cambodian food and eggs extra. The drinks are to be paid additionally. But the food can be consumed without limitation. There was actually someone who seemed to try to eat everything was on the offer and did not shy to ask for additional portions.
Few times we stopped by Jaan Bai restaurant, were the food is great and the prices are reasonable. One afternoon we spent reading magazines from their library. I read completely one of the Kinfolk issues – together with the delicious food it was a bliss. Stijn took the offer of the menu – the lunch the staff are also having.
Just wondering around the streets we stopped by “La Fabrik”.. Lets call it a concept store created by a French couple. As they had their daughter on the way, they decided to exchange their life in Paris for a completely new beginning in the small town of Battambang. Quite bold move, if you ask me. In La Fabrik you will find selected products made in Cambodia and beauty product line created by the couple. You can also have an aperitif there, before heading to one of the bars/cafes of street 2 ½.
On the same street we visited an art gallery/home/shop of the Cambodian artist Marine Ky (www.marineky.com). There is a small gallery space one the first floor of the building and an atelier/living room/shop of Marine Ky on the ground floor. She is mostly working with textile as her medium, combining traditional motifs and techniques with modern materials and forms. We met the artist her self. It was a very special experience for me. As she explained her intentions of creating her pieces and living her life, I had a feeling I have met a true yogi. Extremely conscious about the ways she conducts her life, interacts with others and what message she wants to bring with her work. She owns a beautiful collection of clothes that she is selling too. She said “I believe we can dress very beautifully”. I absolutely agree with her. We talked about the traditional ornaments in Cambodian and Latvian textile and design, she shared her views on meditation. A woman that truly inspired me with her work and personality. A calm, bright and very elegant lady. I hope that as I grow older, I could nurture those qualities too.
I do not know, if we saw the real Cambodia, but we definitely discovered a charming town with inspiring people. And my bag got heavier by two dresses from Marine Ky’s collection that simply had to be taken with me.