At the western end of Battambang, the old train station clock reads barely past eight. It has been that way for years – maybe decades, even – because, having lived out its purpose long ago, it stopped ticking. But the truth is, it’s already one in the afternoon, and the clock feels like it has stopped less because of technical malfunction than a result of a magical spell that froze time indefinitely. With skies overcast and streets eerily quiet – except for the occasional cars, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians – the whole place feels like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film. A couple of Western tourists ride their bikes before disappearing in a narrow alley. In another narrow street, virtually all houses and stores have their doors shut, except for one in which the doorway frames two children laughing while telling each other stories. As the wind blows, I half-expect tumbleweeds to roll along one of the roads.
I decided to come to Battambang in northwestern Cambodia to start my journey of the country before I meet with CJ in Siem Reap two days later. With colonial architecture dotting the center, a relaxed vibe, and some great trips out of town, the city has seen its fair share of tourists, mostly those who wish to take a break from the frenetic hustle of Phnom Penh and the increasing flashiness of Siem Reap. First established as a trading port in the 18th century, then annexed by Thailand until 1907 (when it was ceded to the then French Indochina), Battambang was quickly developed as an urban settlement, with the French rapidly modernizing the city through the construction of various infrastructure, such as government buildings, factories, and a train station.
Today it’s the largest city along the National Highway 5 (which connects Phnom Penh and Siem Reap through the south of the Tonle Sap Lake via Sisophon) and it’s also the country’s second most populous city, which makes the lethargic vibe today all the more surprising. I have a hunch, but it’s only when I eat lunch that I have this theory confirmed.
“Khmer New Year, man,” says the owner of Madison Corner, a pub targeting mainly expats, and one of the handful of establishments open this afternoon. With a paperback novel in one hand and a cigarette in another, she sits at an outdoor table next to mine and relishes the calm environment. Her tall frame and white complexion, plus her European accent, seem out of place with the Orient background, but her carefree demeanor is a match to the hushed impression of the surroundings. “It actually ended yesterday, but people are too hung over to get up today.”
I nod and proceed to eat my burger and fries, my first meal since arriving in the country almost 12 hours earlier.
Read is waiting for me at the lobby of the hotel near the town’s central market. He is about my height but with a leaner frame, and probably around my age, give or take a few years. His brushed-back wavy hair and dapper long-sleeves give him less an appearance of a motorbike guide than a young businessman. “Are you ready to see the beautiful places while you’re here?” he says to me in his rather solid English. As soon as I answer in the affirmative, he hands me a helmet, puts on his own, and mounts his bike. Wrapped in a cheap raincoat, I position myself on the back of the bike and hold firmly on his shoulders.
Read wants to take me around Battambang’s countryside, so we begin our way towards south of the city into the increasingly ominous weather. The clouds that have been hovering above have finally brought forth slight afternoon showers. Motoring in a cruising speed, we glide through virtually empty highways outside the town proper, and whiz by vans and trucks carrying overloads of passengers, some clinging precariously while exposed to the drizzle that threatens to turn into full-fledged rain anytime. Occasionally we pass through a group of people on the roadside, throwing water bags or squirting water pistols onto motorists and passengers.
Drenching each other during the New Year is a common practice in these parts – including Thailand, Vietnam and Laos – and everyone, including foreigners, is a moving target. The three-day occasion, which marks the start of spring, typically begins in mid-April and lasts for three days, though it’s not uncommon for many Khmers to still carry out celebrations days after. Which means that today the festivities haven’t ended yet.
About twenty minutes later, Read parks his motorbike beside a dilapidated structure that stands in front of a railroad with overgrown grass, and introduces me to perhaps Battambang’s most famous attraction – the bamboo train. “We call it norry,” he says as he helps me remove my helmet. “This railroad used to be a functional one before the Khmer Rouge and, later on, neglect rendered it unusable for trains.” We walk towards the railroad where a cluster of men stand guard on a pile of bamboo platforms.
Through their resourcefulness, the locals have found another use for the decommissioned tracks and created a cheaper and more novel way of transport. The norry, a Khmer adaptation of the French world “lorry,” is a bamboo flatbed placed on two sets of wheels. To give way to an incoming norry, passengers get down, the train is dismantled and removed from the tracks before being re-assembled. “To regulate the flow of the bamboo trains passing through the tracks, the Ministry of Tourism has mandated a specific set of norries to ply on certain dates, with each norry owned by a certain individual, who may or may not also be its driver,” Read tells me. The Ministry of Transportation has other plans, though, and if things pan out according to the government’s goals, the bamboo trains might see their last trips this year to give way to a project of revitalizing Battambang’s rail network. “You’re lucky you get to ride the bamboo train while it’s still here.”
A uniformed officer from the Ministry of Tourism approaches us to discuss how the whole trip goes. First, the ride to the end of the railroad, then a short break in which I can explore the village there, and the ride back. I climb onto a norry with the driver and the powerful engine roars to life. The improvised transportation can run up to 50 kilometers an hour – especially scary given the narrow gauge of the tracks and the broken rails that send the train rattling and jumping. We pass through tall shrubs that frequently give way to views of the wide swathes of plains, bejeweled with verdant rice fields, grazing cows, and rickety houses.
When we reach the other end of the railroad, I sit inside a makeshift shelter while the driver takes a break. “Hello,” greets a young girl, who introduces herself as Kone, the Khmer word for “baby.” She’s all wet from the rain (which has started to weaken), but seems oblivious to her drenched appearance. Two younger girls walk behind her and each gives me a bracelet made from palm leaves. Kone introduces them – Mai and another Kone – before asking if I want to see their village. “Okay,” I tell them. They lead me to a muddy trail that snakes into a number of wooden houses and into a large building with sacks of rice piled on top of each other. Rice is Cambodia’s primary agricultural product, and Battambang locals claim their fields produce the finest in the country. However, not every grain is created equal, with only one type specifically meant for human consumption. The rest are used to feed livestock.
Later in the afternoon, Read drops me off at the base of a limestone hill. Another moto driver takes me up. We are now in Phnom Sampeau, seven kilometers southwest of Battambang, where a number of Buddhist temples share site with a cave that stood witness to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Halfway to the top of the hill, an underground cavern has a large reclining statue of Buddha that seems to be guarding a glass memorial with the skulls of those who were bludgeoned and pushed off the cave’s skylight during Pol Pot’s bloody regime. At the top of the hill, two artillery pieces can be found lurking in the tall grasses, longingly pointing to the Crocodile Mountains.
Back at the base of the hill, Read and I sit at a table in one of the numerous noodle stalls that line the road. We are waiting for the bats to take flight from a large cave on the hill, but the rains – swelling once again – have made it all but certain. As the day slowly gives way to the evening, a steady stream of people is descending from the hill, all of them drenched from the rain. Do people here ever use an umbrella, I wonder quietly. While the rains let up minutes later, the clouds remain thick and it’s hard to say whether the sun has finally set.
“I don’t think we’re going to see the bats today,” Read says. “Let’s get you back to your hotel.” He stands, grabs his helmet, and motions me to follow him to his moto.
The next morning, the clouds finally give way to the sun and the streets of Battambang are slowly coming back to life. A cheerful chatter of the elders from the noodle stalls removes the eerie first impressions I have a day earlier. Read and I are on the second day of our countryside trip, and this time, he chooses to show me a couple of temples and more of the rural Khmer life.
As the sky turns into a beautiful cloudless blue canvas, we arrive at Phnom Banan, 28 kilometers south of the city. Read describes the place as a pilgrimage site for Buddhists, which make up 96 percent of the country’s population. I clamber about the hill’s 358 steps to the top and come across the five towers that seem to be a miniature version of the Angkor Wat. Here, the lush foliage provides shade to families offering incense and food to the shrine at the center. Despite the presence of people, the place feels mellow.
Midway between Phnom Banan and Battambang is the Prasat Phnom Bayon Winery, Cambodia’s first and only wine-making facility, and an unlikely feature in a province where endless rice fields sprawl across the countryside. Nevertheless, grapes grow in the winery’s vineyard until they reach maturity, then are turned into wine and stored for three months before being sold. Expectedly, most of the consumers are composed of the country’s upper class, with the cost of a bottle around USD 15, well above the price range an average Khmer can afford. Today the site is teeming with domestic tourists, with families by the vanloads arriving and eating up much of the humble-looking enterprise’s meager parking space.
A few minutes later, we head to the Wat Baydamram, a temple known for the hundreds of fruit bats that live in trees. I walk around at the market near the bridge, where vendors have set up numerous stalls on muddy grounds. With the bats still asleep, there’s not much to see, so after a quick stroll, I return to Read, sitting on his motorbike.
It’s close to noon when we reach the ruins of Wat Ek Phnom, 15 kilometers north of the city. The temple, a popular pilgrimage site for many Khmers, is a peaceful site, and the road leading to it provides a pleasantly rustic view of rural Cambodia.
On the way back to Battambang, Read makes a few detours to allow me to explore more of the countryside. In one house, two ladies are diligently making rice papers. These are then dried under the searing sun, and then sold to various customers, with a hundred rice papers for a dollar. “In one day, a family can make up to 2,000 rice papers,” Read tells me.
The strong stench wafting through the air is a dead giveaway that we have arrived at the fish market half an hour later. Just like the town yesterday, the vendors have taken an extra day off due to the New Year, and the market is bereft of any action today. The only activity is courtesy of a man churning a vat of what appears to be a brown goo using a large stick. “It’s called prahoc,” Read tells me. “It’s fish paste and it’s very popular in Cambodia.”
Apparently, Khmers (or this village, at least) love fish so much that they have made a type of cheese from it. “There are actually three types of fish cheese,” Read says. “The first one is made by removing the bones, head and tails of the fish – basically just the meat. The second retains the bones but not the head and the tail. The third uses all – meat, bones, head, tail.”
“Is there any difference?” I ask.
“Regarding the taste, none,” Read says. “The only difference is in the texture.”
Having concluded my crash course on fish cheese, Read leads me across the street. “Come, I want to show you something.” He guides me to another food stall, where, at first glance, seems to be an inviting place, considering that it’s now a little past noon and I haven’t eaten lunch yet. And then I see the items being sold – deep-fried frogs and crickets. Suddenly I’m not so hungry anymore.
“Yesterday’s rains have made it easier to catch frogs in the river,” Read says, sorting through the critters, looking for the finest pieces to munch on before we head back to the city.
“You want some frogs?” Read asks me.
He laughs. “Here, try this leg.”
I shudder, but I decide to give it a try. “It tastes like fish,” I say, before an image of a frog forms in my head. I spit the leg and shudder once more.
It’s half past one. I am now sitting in the outdoor patio of Smokin’ Pot, a traditional Khmer restaurant that also offers cooking courses during the day. Partly because I’ve had enough sight of crickets and frog legs, I order vegetable amok. The man who took my order produces a large wok from inside the kitchen and starts preparing the curry, while his younger female companion methodically slices vegetables behind him. I relish the tranquility of the early afternoon, as well as the full strength of the electric fan that serves as a welcome respite from the scalding heat. The sun has gained full strength, spreading a strong yellow light that’s markedly a departure from yesterday’s gray afternoon. But with the lack of people and activity, there’s still that sense of desolation that pervades throughout the city center. Somewhere in the distance, the bell of a bike briefly disrupts the silence.
When the amok is done, the man retreats to the kitchen. The woman carefully places a set of plates and utensils on my table, along with the amok and a serving of steamed rice. She then sits with her sister at the table next to mine to eat their lunch, too. They nod to acknowledge my presence, and I timidly return a smile.
As soon as I finish my lunch I stroll around the city center once more. I scan the surroundings and see Battambang’s Art Deco houses that have somehow persevered despite Cambodia’s efforts to catch up with modern times. Without much cars plying the highway, I find it easy to cross the highway and get to the east bank of the Sangker River, where children are bathing unmindful of the heat. A trio of teens are laughing on a bench under a tree. No one is rushing as though time has become an irrelevant commodity. And then I remember the clock at the old train station. I check it out once more; it still hasn’t moved. Somehow, the city has come to a charming standstill along with it.