Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Battambang, Cambodia

Battambang is Cambodia’s second city. I should qualify this though as, like all statistics, the parameters are what matters. Technically, if you put Stephen Hawkins and Dubya in a room and drew up a list of the brightest people in the room then Dubya would be the second smartest creature after Stephen Hawkins. If you removed the cat.

Therefore Battambang feels nearly village-like after Phnom Penh. The town in itself is lacking in actual sites but it does feel peculiar as a whole. It’s sleepy and very quiet by Asian standards and is replete with what is locally called French architecture. The only thing French I could spot about the houses is that they were a bit more ornate than necessary but I decided not to press the point. I spent my New Year's Eve here but it was a sedate affair as only 2 places were open to drink and I had to be very careful about my booze intake. The last day of 2005 happened to coincide with the day I take my Lariam and I have learned, from bitter experience, to go slow on the hooch for 24 hours after popping the anti-malarial.

The thing to do in Battambang is actually to get out of it and visit the countryside. You get there very quickly (2 miles out of town centre) which caused me to think that Battambang’s status as City number 2 could be due to some interesting definitions of what constitutes city limits and the possibility that creating rigged constituencies might be the source of these definitions. I confirmed this by asking my moto driver to tell me when we exited Battambang proper and was told we had after a fair few miles of sparsely inhabited rice paddies.

There are a few temples that failed to interest me much after seeing Angkor and a fun Wat complex stashed on a hill. There was also a repository of bones in a nearby cave were the Khmer Rouge used to throw their victims from 20 feet above and leave them to die. I decided against going in as I feel that getting some awareness of the horrors of the recent past is necessary but not to the extent that it becomes part and parcel of my tourist experience.

What was fun was walking or driving along the fields and stopping to chat with the farmers. By that I mean responding to the constant hello’s and frantic waves of all Cambodians under 10 and getting my moto driver to ask inane questions about the harvest to the farmers. The people didn’t seem to mind though and one even allowed me to drive what I mentally dubbed the Motoroxen. This is an engine stashed where an ox would be in front of a cart and used by the farmers for ploughing and transport. I’d like to say it was fun but it went about as fast as an ox so it was hardly an adrenaline buzz.

Anyways I’ve had my rural fun and am now contemplating other destinations. I chacked in to the NGO with no name, got the usual “call back later” instructions and went through the usual pleas to ensure they felt free to tell me to sod off if it was too much bother. I could do this from Battambang as I worked out how to use Cambodia’s version of a phone cabin.

Some enterprising women have set up tiny stalls on the pavement that look really weird until you find out what they are. These usually consist of a shelf with large glass bottles filled with some liquid alongside a selection of funnels and a 4 foot high booth made of smoked glass with cryptic numbers such as 012 300 painted on them. These things are actually petrol stations and phone cabins. The liquid in the bottles is petrol and is what the owners of mopeds use to fill up and using the phone booth means sitting down on a stool and using the owner’s mobile. The numbers refer to the networks she can access and the price she asks for each of them.

I am now accustomed to using these just as much as I am now familiar with other tricks to survive Cambodia. I can now think in the 3 currencies prevalent here (Baht, Dollar and Riel) and am also quite good at using cigarettes to get a transaction going my way or as fuck-off money. I have also nearly mastered the art of crossing a Cambodian road. In Vietnam, that other country of the million mopeds, the key to crossing a busy thoroughfare is to walk very slowly at a set pace and not panic. The riders can then see you, estimate where you are going and avoid you if only by a few inches. In Cambodia the same principle applies but you also have to put in the odd burst of speed when lorries or SUVs come along. It’s quite funny to watch once you are safely on the side of the road.

Off to the more mountainous East of Cambodia as, for the moment, what scenery I have seen of Cambodia has been very flat with the odd incongruous hill sticking out.

Take care,



Post a Comment

<< Home