The sun, a great big red ball, clawed its way through the haze and early morning mist painting the sky a pastel shade of orange, and visually bringing warmth to the chilly early morning city of Battambang. The sun’s rays cast orange tendrils of light down the shadowy streets, bringing the city to life.
Somewhere, far off, a bell rang while nearer sounds were of roller shutter doors being opened, chairs and tables being unstacked and laid out and scooters and tuk-tuk’s being throttled into life.
The smoke of nearby charcoal stoves and street-side wood fires crept down the passageways and streets and hung mid-air, blanketing the city in an acrid haze. Perched high above it all at the rooftop restaurant of The Royal Hotel I sat transfixed, watching the scene play out before me, while I worked my way through breakfast and coffee.
A good sunrise always sets a good tone for the day ahead and this one was both welcomed (after yesterday’s tiring journey to Battambang) and emboldening. Having re-read up on the area the night before, we’d rediscovered our enthusiasm for Battambang. Committed to our tuk-tuk tour we plunged, enthused, into the fray and delivered ourselves to Kim Hout our guide for the day.
A short, stocky man with a wide open face and broad smile, Kim is all constrained energy. He can’t keep still. He drives his tuk-tuk while texting or talking on his mobile or waving to the people he passes by, all the while giving us a running commentary on the sights he drives us past. At stops he tap-bounces his leg incessantly, sometimes both legs. It’s insanely high-energy and hard work and I figure the best strategy is to ignore him and focus on taking and looking for photographs. The strategy works and Kim begins to chill, if only for a while.
Kim does us proud though, he takes us through the countryside along rutted dusty dirt roads, past villages and fields and away from all the the main roads and routes. We see rural agriculture – verdant paddy fields filled with rice, plantations of dragon fruit, garlic, onion, corn, lettuce, cauliflower, chili bushes, string beans, mangoes, papaya. All manner of fruit and vegetables being grown, irrigated by the ebb and flow of the Mekong and Tonle Sap river systems, it’s fecund. Kim tells us that fifty percent of the people in the region are engaged in agriculture of some form, and I later read that the figure is closer to eighty five percent.
Each village we pass and each farmstead sports houses built on stilts – practical when the rivers flood but also serving as a shaded verandah for a day-bed or for storage or for gathering to eat a meal. It is the dry season so the houses and vegetation by the roadside are covered in a thick brown layer of cloying dust and the ruts in the road testify to the muddy quagmire this must all become during the rainy monsoon season.
We stop at a local corner market and Kim points out the fruit bats hanging in the tree above the ladies selling vegetables and fruit. They’re huge. Like small dogs with wings. I line up to take a few photos and have to restrain Kim from shooting the bats with his catapult to encourage them to fly for me – my restraining is to no avail as he suddenly develops an inability to understand my English. To save the poor bats more harassment I quit taking photos and wonder how he came to this practice. Did some tourist suggest it to him or did he figure it on his own or did some other tuk-tuk driver figure it and pass it on?
He takes us to the eleventh century Prasat Banan temple atop one of two hills in an otherwise flat landscape. An inviting shaded staircase moulded from the surrounding rock and sporting intricate carvings and sculpted headpieces leads to the temple. But it’s three hundred and fifty eight knee breaking, lung bursting, uneven steps to the top. Despite the shade, the Cambodian sun sucks huge beads of sweat from my pores and halfway up, my shirt is soaked.
Some Khmer people claim these temples to be older and an inspiration for those at Angkor Wat. Comprising five beautiful, centuries-old temples that tower nobly over the surrounding countryside Prasat Banan has a gentle, soothing feel. It’s a beautiful simple site inviting of contemplation and detailed examination. The carvings are intricate and delicate. They cry out to be touched and felt and photographed. The central temple is still “operational”. Inside it are several statues of the Buddha and an old man attends to lighted joss sticks and flower arrangements outside it. He offers up prayers at regular intervals and takes donations. At the entrance to the temples, after the three hundred and fifty eighth step, a modern-made Buddha statue stares contemplatively down the staircase, and an old lady lights joss sticks at its feet.
Despite a “no writing” sign there is graffiti (names and dates) in many places. I watch an Australian family carve their names into a cactus growing next to one of the temples as if this is okay. Bizarre.
Going down the stairs is as demanding as going up except this time the concern is more around slipping on the uneven steps than initiating a heart attack. But once down, an ice cold coke at one of the many stalls is a welcome interlude. There I meet a Belgian who “helps out” by handling the money of the lady who owns the stall I buy a coke from. He tells me he visits Cambodia and Battambang regularly having given up on Thailand because it’s becoming too expensive. He must have been coming for a while because he speaks the Khmer language fluently and has a more than platonic relationship with the lady owner.
Then it’s back on to our tuk-tuk for another rip-roaring ride through the dusty countryside to Phnom Sampeou, another temple and pagoda (Wat) on a hill some twelve kilometres outside of Battambang. Certainly many more than the three hundred and fifty eight steps of Prasat Banan, the way up is a seemingly endless set of steps that wind and wend upwards. These steps are more uneven than those af Prasat Banan,if that’s at all possible, and the sweat pours off me and drains me of my energy.
But the effort is well spent. I’m silenced by the beautiful collection of temples and simple life being led by the monks and nuns that live here. I walk around on tip-toe, afraid to break the serenity and silence and pass by a monk counseling a young couple in one of the side temples. I watch an old toothless lady fiddling with yarn while she squats on the floor. I stumble upon four men whispering to each other hidden in the deep shade of tree, not wishing to disturb them I tip-toe away.
The Khmer Rouge used the temple as a stronghold during that period of madness. Here people were interred in the pagoda, and interrogated. Once “confessions” had been extracted the hapless victims were bludgeoned and thrown off a viewing area to the limestone caves below – the so-called “Killing Cave”. I look down from the viewing area and imagine the horror, imagine the bodies bouncing off the cave walls and crashing to the floor of the cave. No wonder there’s a silent serenity to this place, it’s reverential and respectful. Forcing myself to break the melancholy I watch an old man who must be in his eighties, hoist a sack of something heavy to his shoulders and then almost run up a short flight of stairs with the full sack on his back and I wonder if I could entice him to carry me down the stairs when I leave.
Despite my over-active imagination I walk down the steps to the killing cave. It’s a beautiful cave, one that must have been witness to so much. I imagine it has been in use since man first raised himself on two legs and walked. Inside the cave, I find a small shrine cut deep into the limestone housing a Buddhist shrine. Touching.
Leaving the cave involves negotiating more steps that meander and wander downwards towards a giant reclining Buddha. The buddha is beautiful and imposing and is enclosed on three sides by white painted walls filled with blue Sanskrit writing. It’s lovely.
Continuing downwards, every now and then there are views to the countryside below – it’s pancake flat with only the two mounds containing the temples we’ve seen breaking the visual monotony. Music from several weddings in the town below wafts upwards and adds a score to our descent. We pass an old lady tending to yet more Buddhas and she scowls at me and murmurs to herself and squats and cleans some pots when I try to take her photograph. Message received and I move on.
At last we reach the bottom and I’m exhausted, drained by the steps and the dry mid-day Cambodian heat. A tall glass of Iced coffee doesn’t help. It’s an endurance event now.
Back into town, Kim drops us at the old art-deco railway station where the large fading clock over the boarded-up entrance stopped working long ago and thus the time is always 8:02. The heat of the day is merciless though and there’s little shade to offer respite at the abandoned, crumbling station slowly succumbing to grass and vegetation. So it’s off to an old Pagoda in the process of being restored. Built in 1905, we can’t find reference to it in any of our guidebooks, how delightful.
The heat and blistering sunshine has drained even the wound-up Kim so we chat in the shade of his tuk-tuk. He’s thirty-two years old, learned much of his English and basic schooling at a local Wat, living monastically with the Wat’s monks. This is not uncommon practice, I learn, with the monks doing great community work for those that cannot afford an education. After leaving the monks he worked as a tuk-tuk driver for a spell, saving his money until he was given an opportunity by a local NGO to study for a management diploma which he completed a year ago. He wistfully mentions that he should find a job to make use of what he’s learned before he forgets it all, then leans back and says; “but I love my tuk-tuk and my freedom and don’t want to have a boss”. I can’t find any reason to disagree with him.