Thursday, 5 February 2009

Cambodia from the back of a scooter

Illawara Mercury, Australia


Until a few weeks ago, I had never really given Cambodia much thought. I was not familiar with its culture, I had no idea what food they ate there (I assumed it was similar to Vietnamese) and I had dismissed its history as insignificant compared to that of its neighbour, Vietnam.

But after attending a wedding in Thailand and finding myself in Bangkok with six weeks before the last leg of my round-the-world ticket would take me home to Sydney, no friends in the region that I could visit and not enough money to fly to another country, I hopped on a bus and crossed into the neighbouring kingdom of Cambodia.

I was relying on a few tips from friends I met in Peru who had recently travelled the area and the Lonely Planet guidebook. I made my first stop Battambang, the second largest city, two hours from the Thai border. Taking the book’s first pick of accommodation, I accepted the last room at the Royal Hotel. I could not believe that US$3 could buy me a private, clean room with two beds and a fan. Even in South America, where I had been staying in hostels for months, the lowest I ever paid was US$5, and that was for a dorm. The share bathroom facilities were meagre, but I was impressed there was a ceramic toilet, even if it was lacking a flush button.

That just added to the Cambodian experience, as did the shower process of pouring a bucket of water over your head. But the hotel did have a rooftop restaurant with gorgeous views of the city.

Battambang itself does not offer much for the tourist. It is a dusty city intersected by the dirty brown Sangker River. But attractions on the outskirts of the city are helping to make it one of the top four tourist destinations in the country, behind the capital Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, the jumping off point for visits to Angkor Wat, and Sihanoukville on the south coast. My problem was that I was travelling on my own and with no organised tours, the only way to get to these out-of-the-way sites was on the back of a motorbike.

So the next day, I found myself hanging on to the waist of a young Cambodian guy named Ko, as we started a day tour that ended with a friendship I think will last for years. I felt exhilarated as we rode through rice fields and past Khmers (the name for Cambodians village people) working with their crops, riding bicycles or lazing in hammocks. It was the Cambodia I had started to imagine as I researched my trip. Just a few hours into the country and I was already falling in love.

Our first stop was Phnom Sampeau, atop a limestone “hill”, the locals say represents a sail boat. It is where the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 10,000 people, mostly through torture or throwing them into one of the three “killing caves”. Ko showed me the detention centre - a bare, cement room, where he said prisoners were kept and tortured. After the fall of the regime, thousands of human bones and skulls were found in the area. They were so scattered that no one knows exactly how many people were killed and none of the bodies have been identified. Instead, they have been piled into display cages. The Buddha shrines that existed before the regime turned the area into a bloodbath have been re-erected and families can come and make offerings.

I convinced Ko to take me to the bottom of one of the caves. It was only 40 or 50m deep, but it was incredibly eerie as we looked up towards to light shining through the hole from where terrified Khmers were pushed through, landing where we now stood.

At the third cave, a huge gold reclining Buddha lay near a recently added memorial dedicated to the victims. In an attempt to reclaim the sanctity of the area, another huge Buddha has been erected further down the hill and there is a shrine overlooking the surrounding plains. Today was the second day of Chinese New Year, so there were scores more tourists than normal, according to Ko. They were almost all Cambodian or Chinese and appeared to be there for both personal interest and religious purposes. When I sat down to take in the view from the shrine, a large group of Cambodians asked to take a photo with me. Suddenly, the white, blonde-haired Australian girl had become the attraction. Not unused to such requests after nine months in South America, I held my smile for a long minute while they took turns to sit next to me.

At the bottom of the mountain, we stopped for lunch – fried rice with vegetables and chicken –before jumping back on the bike and scooting to Phnom Banan, where Banan Temple sits atop a huge mountain. Ko was not keen to climb the 358 steps that lead to the temple, so I left him swinging in a hammock. Children were sitting on the balustrade of the stone steps, hoping to suck in tourists to give them a dollar for a tour – if you let them follow you for more than a minute, they expect you to pay. I chatted to some of them, who could surprisingly speak reasonable English (they have caught on quickly that speaking English is a clever way to the tourist dollar). The temple’s layout of five towers - one each at the cardinal points and another in the middle – is the same as the magnificent Angkor Wat, which I will visit in a few days.

However, Banan Temple was built before Angkor Wat, by King Udayadityavarman II in the 11th Century, leading some locals to claim it was the inspiration for the larger temple. It is still well preserved with only a few fallen stones strewn at the base of the towers.

I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw a group of monks dressed in their bright orange saffrons in the dry foliage behind the temple. They were posing for photos and one was even smoking a cigarette. I have long admired photos of monks, their bright clothing and serenity seeming to exude from the picture, and took a few snaps myself. However, I was surprised by the cigarette smoking monk and again later when I saw another talking on his mobile phone.

When I found Ko, he was still playing what he said was known as the Cambodian sport – hammocking – if there is such a word. When we had passed mango trees earlier, Ko had told me that Cambodians eat the mango with salt and chilli and I was keen to try it myself so we ordered some. The still green mangos are cut into slices and dipped into the mixed spices. It is an odd combination of sweet, sour (because the mango is not yet ripe), salty and spicy. In the end, I decided I preferred fresh, juicy mangos.

Back on the bike, we travelled to the starting point of one of the most bizarre train rides in the world. The Battambang bamboo train services locals who need to transport goods along the 3.7km track, but has also become a tourist attraction. Each “train”, about 3m wide, is made from wood and bamboo and is powered by a small engine. Being a single track, the idea is that when trains are coming from different directions, one can be easily disassembled to allow the other to pass. It took just a minute for our train to be set-up. Ko’s bike was lifted on and we sat cross-legged on cushions facing the direction of the track. The train click-clacked down the uneven track at a pace of just 15km/h. It was certainly not the most comfortable, nor the most scenic train journey I have taken, but it was definitely the most unique.

From O Dambong, where we disembarked, we started to make our way back to Battambang through the maze of dirt roads that skirted more rice fields and scattered huts. But there was one more place Ko wanted to show me – his home. Ko’s family lives in Phnom Penh, but he moved to Battambang to live with his uncle five years ago. I got the impression he may have been a troubled adolescent, as he failed high school three times, only graduating last year at the age of 23. As the eldest of five children, he is helping to support his family back in the capital. His uncle is one of the most senior tourism officers in Battambang and is training Ko to follow in his footsteps. He got him a job as a moto driver at the Royal Hotel five months ago and Ko also attends evening English classes five days a week.

His uncle’s house is typical of many rural Cambodian homes – a wooden structure on top of stilts. There are no fancy furnishings, no wallpaper or paint and no stainless steel kitchen sink or flushing toilet. It is the same simple living that I grew to admire while living in Peru for nine months.

When we arrived, Ko’s family, including the aunt and cousins he lives with and other relatives who had dropped by as you do in Cambodia, were relaxing under the house in hammocks watching a boxing match on a tiny TV. His baby cousin was being swung in a hammock, just like mothers often do in a rocking chair in Australia. I was immediately taken by another child, two-year-old Mia, who had gorgeous dark brown eyes but refused to smile at me. A couple of his other uncles cut down a coconut from a towering tree next to their house and Ko cut it open for me to drink. It was splendid to sit back in a swinging chair, sipping from a freshly cut coconut in the middle of the Cambodian countryside.

Ko gave me a tour of their orchid, full of a variety of fruit trees, though none was ripe at this time of year, and happily explained the typical features of a Cambodian home including the wooden fire used to cook and the drainage system that helps store water from the rainy season for the dry, similar to water tanks in Australia. We relaxed for an hour or so and bid farewell.

Ko’s house is near Wat Kor village, which features some of the last remaining examples of Khmer heritage housing. We stopped at one and an elderly man gave me a tour. His grandfather had built the home 102 years ago. Its main identifying features include large, side-opening windows and high ceilings to allow for better ventilation in the steamy climate and several antique machines and furniture. I was amazed that the 11 small holes in the middle of the living room floor were the house’s toilet – residents would use it to relieve themselves or if they were sick. I was assured that that custom no longer existed.

I hopped off Ko’s bike at my hotel, tired but extremely happy after an incredible first day in Cambodia. I had had a fantastic introduction to the country’s strong religious customs, its dark history under the Khmer Rouge, delicious food and its very fascinating countryside and rural life. On top of that, I’d ridden on the back of a motorbike and made a great friend.


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