Day 15: Battambang

We had a super packed day again today. It’s amazing how much you can fit in.
Up and out for breakfast where we bumped into a girl we had met yesterday on the journey from Siem Reap. After breakfast we headed back to the guesthouse for the trip. On the way we walked past the market and saw a line of monks, waiting to receive food rations from kind hearted stall holders. They have to go out each morning and rely on the kindness of others for their food.

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Our guide, James, was lovely and had a cooler of water and umbrellas for us to use if it got rainy. He had modified his car, taking the roof and sides off from the windows up and places the back of a tuc tuc on it with a cover. It looked a little odd but he had done a good job.

Our first stop was at a small house where a family lived and made rice noodles. What really surprised me was that this family which seemed to just have a small thing going in their garden was one of the two places which produces rice noodles for the city of Battambang.



The family buys in massive bags of rice for $40/100kg then soaks it for a day, before putting it in a grinder with water to make a thick paste.


The paste is then transferred to a device which squeezes it out into noodle shapes, a lot like a big play-dough machine. One guy sits on a lever with a padded bicycle seat to push down and squeeze the mixture out into a vat of boiling water.


The noodles are then stirred and cooked for about 2 minutes before being cooled and separated into individual portions.


The noodles can sell for anywhere between $0.50-0.75 per kilo and they produce around 100kg every day. This makes for a profit of $10-35 a day to share between at least the three people I saw.

It was fascinating to watch actually. They probably thought I was really odd for taking such an interest in noodle making! I had just kind of assumed that large factories (that we never saw) make these things; a big scale production team. But it was a little house and a family working to produce it all.

After this we went and met a fantastic little old lady. She sat near the side of a road on a front porch of a shop, hand rolling cigarettes.

She was 72 years old and had a fantastic face. By that I mean she was extremely expressive with it, when she smiled it was so genuine, her whole face lit up, her eyes sparkled and her lips parted to reveal a piece of tobacco shoved up between her lip and gum.

She loved telling us about herself, using our guide as a translator, and her sons. She had four sons who all got a good education and became successful, living in the cities. However this mean that no one was there to continue her trade. She started when she was 8 and is now the only person to hand roll cigarettes in the city. Her regular customers depend on her and she feels obliged to carry on despite her job causing her lots of back troubles. She squats or hunches over her machine all day and despite seeming very limber for her age, her back can’t take it much longer. She says she will stop within the next year.


As we sit and chatted a monk walks past to collect some money. She explains that since she is old she has little need for money and would rather carry out good deeds for good karma in the next life. The monk blesses her and moves on to use the money to buy food.

It’s amazing how quickly she can roll the cigarettes, using her contraption to make 5 at one time. Using this method she makes around 1,000 cigarettes a day and sells packs of 60 for 1$. I bought a pack for a gift and she gave us one to try. I declined but Zoe got one and I thought sod it I’ll have a puff, this is a pretty unique situation. She threw in some freebies of different flavours to try and one very strong one which she rolls up in a leaf instead of rolling paper. It looks impressive but I would not touch it!


We said goodbye then went to an old temple nearby. In fact, it was older than Angkor Wat, having been built in 11th Century, and Angkor Wat the 12th. We paid a dollar to get in and a woman waved us through to show us the way. I didn’t really want a tour, I wanted to look around but I thought she might just be pointing us in the right direction. Wrong. She shepherded us around, giving us a whistle-stop tour of the ruins, pointing and speaking in Khmer. We didn’t really know what was going on but wanted to be left alone to explore in peace. Then she finished the tour and asked for money. We realised she had just been an opportunist, waiting for tourists to show round and ask money from. We didn’t pay her because we had just paid entry which was probably already unnecessary and everyone everywhere wants “just one dollar” for something.

Anyway she left and we looked around. It wasn’t big but it was beautiful, and interesting to know that it was built before Angkor Wat. Next to the ruins was a more modern temple which was beautiful and so colourful.

Looming over both of these temples, though, was a massive stone Buddha statue which was built recently.

We drove to a small cluster of houses on the outskirts of Battambang, in a more rural area. There are about 10 houses there which produce all the rice paper for the entire country!! Much of it is exported to other countries too!

A rice flour paste is made in a similar way and then spread out over a cloth thinly. The cloth is stretched over a round metal pan of water, heated by a fire. Rice husk is burnt for the fire because it’s cheaper than wood and means the whole grain is used.

The paper is left to steam briefly then placed on a bamboo drying rack and left out in the sun for a few hours until they dry. Fascinating. There are around 20 sheets on each rack and 5 racks drying at any one time. Every house down the road works the same business so a huge quantity is produced here.
They made two spring rolls for us using the paper – one fresh and one fried. It was delicious and only 1000 Riel each – around 15p.
While we ate we spoke in depth with our guide about the political situation in Cambodia. You could see the pain in his eyes when talking about it, but he clearly wanted everyone to know the truth. The country is far from back on its feet.

Corruption runs deep and the people are exploited by the government. They have the same Prime Minister since the overthrow of Pol Pot and he has made deals with Vietnam which allows them to move freely into Cambodia and hold a special status in the country. Worse than that, though, they come into the country and are given land. Land which belongs to families, with houses and farms on them. Families come home to find bulldozers tearing their houses are down! It resembles the occupation of Israel over Palestine. The vietnamese attempt to kill Cambodians, and as a result they live in constant fear. They poison their food, especially cakes and sweets for children! They replace rice with plastic which is almost identical when cooked. Suicide bombers attack cities and hijack buses, killing many innocent people. And these crimes are ignored!

The current government is run mostly by Vietnamese and they openly want to seize the opposition. Supporters of the opposition, Cambodian People’s Rescue Party, occupy the outside of the building where the leader hides in fear of being killed. 100s of people line up around him, telling the police that if they want to kill the opposition they’ll have to go through them first. They work in shifts to have continual protection. Imagine that being your “democracy”! HORRIFIC!

James spoke of how much worse the situation is in Phnom Penh, showed us videos of houses being torn down there and how dangerous the city can be as a whole. I’m glad I wasn’t fully aware when I was there. Although I did know that no one (really, no one) goes out after dark. And you hide all your valuables. Scary.

We spoke for a long time and it’s interesting to receive the viewpoints of different people at different ages. The country needs assistance to help it stand on its own two feet.

Later we drove by a woman making sticky rice cakes. She made sticky rice then stuffed it in bamboo and covered with a bamboo leafy before being left to cook on a fire.

You peel back the bamboo to get to the cake. It was crunchy on the outside and squishy in the middle. I really liked it, pleasantly sweet and very different.



We got back in the car and drove to a nearby memorial monument. It marked the deaths of people kept in a nearby temple.


Around the monument there were graphically carved depiction of scenes during the Khmer Rouge reign and the atrocities they were responsible for. Some pieces of information like the fact they forced people to marry and have children which they took away immediately after birth so they could be trained to kill. And cannibalism. They introduced cannibalism of victims to this area!


We went on a bit of a drive, seeing more countryside and turned up at a strange place called the Bamboo Train. There was a small rail track with rectangular platforms made of bamboo which rested on some wheels and a small motor to power it. It was $5 each to have a ride to a small village. We were unsure how whether it would be worth it but went for it anyway as we had driven all the way out.


The driver placed some cushions down and took our money then started the engine and we set off. It felt entirely unsafe. The track was wonky and not properly lined up. It was a rickety little platform hurtling along a small track which felt like it might derail at any point!


We went along the straight track with lots of rice paddies either side. It would probably have been a very scenic ride if it weren’t for the overgrown hedges each side.

But we caught occasional glimpses when we approaches crossings and bridges. Oh my god the bridges. Safety first? Nah.

We couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the whole situation. Not really knowing what to make of it. I mean, it was a fun ride, but still a very strange situation to pay someone to go flying along a death trap machine.
Bugs were flying out at all angles and you couldn’t open your mouth for fear of swallowing one!


A few miles down the line we spotted another carriage coming the other way, towards us on a single track. The driver didn’t slow down or seem to concerned until we got very close. The drivers of the two carriages them out the brakes on and chatted to each other. We wondered what would happen now – would one person have to reverse all the way back? Can they turn round? Would be swap trains?

No.

They told us to get off our train, and just picked it up. Picked it up and put it at the side of the track in what appeared to be a sort of passing place, took the wheels off, and pushed the other cart past us. They then put the wheels back on the track, the platform on top and reattached them with a band and slotted the engine on. I did not see that one coming!


Further on we came to a stop at a “station” – there was a few wooden planks over the track and a load of stalls lined up along the side.
We were told to go and have a look for 10 minutes then come back to turn back. Everyone from all the stalls immediately piped up with the usual lines “hey ladyyyyy you like cold drink? Water, coconut? You like t shirt? You buy bracelet? One dollar” etc. Two children ran up to sell bracelets, we said no and loitered for a bit, not knowing what to do. There wasn’t really much there, we’d just been dropped at an area that people want to sell us more of the same tat.
The older of the two girls saw this and offered to show us around a bit. She took us to the brick factory just inside the village. We saw what they were made from and all the processes of it. We had wondered how they were made so it was vaguely interesting. After that we got back on our “train” and headed back.

There was lots more stopping on the way back and we had become used to it but you could see everyone on the journey out was thoroughly confused with the whole swapping on and off the track thing. When we pulled in a guy asked us if we enjoyed the trip then instructed us firmly to tip our driver. Bearing in mind that it was the most expensive part of the day and massively overrated we said no thanks. This wasn’t the correct answer and the guy pushed and pushed for us to tip the driver. Real shame that it turned sour. Tipping should never be compulsory as it is, and actually the driver didn’t do an awful lot. He received half the price our driver did, and he was taking us all over the place for half the day and sharing knowledge, making our day special. We left sharpish as the police were also there and you never know which way they’ll go, but almost always in favour of getting money.

The second to last place was Phnom Banan, a temple on top of a hill with 358 extremely steep steps leading up to it.


The temple was beautiful but the walk up and down was extremely rocky for me, being afraid of heights. I felt almost paralysed with fear and had to take each step careful as I watched the ground move beneath me and felt myself wobble. Big fun. The ruins at the top are extremely precarious but very inspiring.


The temple must have looked spectacular when it was it use, with its long steps, tall towers and views through the trees for miles. Cambodia is very flat usually so you can see a long way.


Our final stop was a big one. We hopped on the back of a motor bike and drove up to the killing caves. This was where countless people were executed. Victims were lined up at the edge of the cave, killed and then thrown down through a hole inside. Children were separated and killed in a different cave.

There were graphic statues which showed torture and murder techniques employed by the Khmer Rouge. They were hard to look at. Many people were imprisoned in the temple nearby before being killed. No place was sacred to them.


After the killing caves we went to the temple on to of the mountain. It was in great condition and had a fantastic finish still. The temple is on the edge of a sheer cliff face so the view is not shrouded by trees. It was beautiful.


However perhaps the most exciting thing about being there for us were the monkeys!


A few monkeys were brave enough to come out of the trees and hang around in plain sight. Some of them even had tiny babies!! There was a lot of running round, squealing and shouting “MONKEYS!!!”


They were so cute! The locals threw things at them, made loud noises and tried to drive them away. I wanted to do the same to people who would dare do that. The monkeys became more trusting of us and let us sit by them and just watch them a little.


Some of the locals found our interest highly amusing. I guess it would be like seeing people get really excited over sheep. Oh well, I enjoyed it.


We realised it was nearly sunset and we were on the top of a mountain with no knowledge of how to get down. We found some stairs and hurried our way down to see the bat cave. The stairs were obviously treacherous. Stairs would not be stairs here if they didn’t make you acutely aware of your own mortality.

At the bottom, we walked along to the gigantic bat cave to watch all the bats leave at sunset.


A small crowd gathered and waited eagerly. Sure enough, as the sun went down they came out. They came flying out in a neat path around 10 wide at speed, never bumping into each other. The trail twisted and turned, all staying close to each other, stretching along fields for miles and miles. It takes about 20 minutes for them all to come out, you keep thinking surely they must all be out, there’s an inordinate number of them, but no. They keep coming, some of them ducking out quickly and diving past our heads. There are about 3 million bats living in that single cave! Incredible.

We ate dinner at the night market, overlooking the river. I had a delicious curry with noodles and lots of veg. I was running out of dollars and didn’t want to get more out as we are leaving tomorrow so I got a cheap meal but it was still really filling and tasted great. It’s amazing what you get for your money.

What a day. So full. Fantastic!!

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