Tag Archives: Khmer Rouge

Operation Skateboard: Bringing skateboarding to kids in the remote Cambodian border town of Pailin

My Discovery of Pailin and the Skatepark

In July of 2017 my partner Shalma and I left our apartment in Phnom Penh and set out to explore Cambodia on my newly purchased 1999 Honda xr250. We had just arrived in Cambodia in the middle of June and were eager to go on an adventure, seeing where the road would take us. We visited Angkor Wat and many of the national sites most favoured by tourists and expats, but I wanted to find the roads less taken. As we rode through the countryside and met people, we allowed our trip to unfold organically by talking to those we met about the hidden places where most travelers never go. One of those places was the remote border town of Pailin; this is where I would begin the project I dubbed “Operation Skateboard” through a complete and utter lack of creativity. You can read more about that story here.

Pailin was traditionally part of the larger province of Battambang. During the late 1990s, however, as part of the peace process between the new Cambodian government and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, Pailin became a province unto itself and old Khmer Rouge bosses were given a place in the governance of the area. Many of the most notorious members of the faction lived out their lives there. Some were brought to justice for their particular crimes against humanity. Many others just went on with life in Pailin. Today, many of the older people in Pailin have a history fighting for the Khmer Rouge.

The Province is unusually clean for Cambodia. The city of Pailin is surrounded by the Cardamom mountains. Although the mountains themselves are quite rugged, they are covered by a lush green canopy that smooths them out and makes them appear deceptively inviting despite the many perils of giant spiders, massive venomous centipedes, and of course, cobras and land mines. Some of the locals even claim they have seen tigers in the hills in spite of strong declarations by international animal welfare organisations that there are none left in Cambodia at all.

Above are some pictures of the beauty of Pailin and the Cardamom mountains from our first trip in July 2017.

When Shalma and I arrived, I found myself incredibly taken by the beauty, mystery, and danger of Pailin. This place was so unlike anywhere we had been in Cambodia. Although there were a few massive (dare I say posh) hotels in the small hamlet, there were no tourists to be seen. We saw no tuk tulks, no European faces, and no motorbike rental places. Everywhere we went we received kind stares and hellos. But there was one thing so weirdly familiar that it stood incredibly out of place: a skate park. As a rule, riding skateboards is not incredibly popular in Cambodia. I attribute most of this to the cost of skateboards, but it is certainly cultural as well. Inline skates are a little more popular, but this was the first time I had seen anything like this.

When we first walked by the skate park I found myself big-eyed with my jaw agape. I mean, this is a rather massive facility. In the front is a collection of concrete ramps—half pipes and quarter pipes—and in the back, is a gently banked roller rink style facility that is covered by a massive roof. In the rear all the concrete is painted in brightly coloured designs. The surface is incredibly slick, so when you skate on it there is little resistance offered. One finds themselves moving at great speed very quickly!

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First time at the skate park in July 2017

Chai Ching

As I stood gazing at the skate park for the very first time, a slightly built man waved for us to come in. He introduced himself as Chai Ching Long. Although I am accustomed to calling him Chai Ching, he recently informed me that he typically goes by Long. Chai Ching is fascinated by X-Games and extreme sports. He loves inline skating, BMX, skateboards, and any of the fast-moving high-flying sports that came to popularity in the late 70s and early 80s. He told me that he built the skate park to promote these kinds of sports in Cambodia. He also built it in homage of his father who had taken it upon himself to take care of the kids in Pailin. There was one other aspect to Chai Ching’s skate park; he sees it as a symbol of economic development, part of a larger movement to connect Cambodia and Pailin to developed western nations. Chai Ching’s park doesn’t exist for profit; it came to be because of ideals.

During that first visit to Chai Ching’s skate park I asked him if he had any skateboards. He said he had only one. He let me ride his board, but it was in a poor state of repair. According to Chai Ching, it was the only skateboard in the village. It was certainly inadequate for the kids of the town. I offered to get him a few skateboards right there on the spot as Shalma sat nudging me in the ribs and whispering “what are you committing yourself to?” Of course, you can read about all of this in the hyperlink above.

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The covered part of the skate park with me spazzing in the distance

A Facebook Post

I made a Facebook post with a picture of the park that fateful eighth day in July as I sat there in front of Chai Ching even though I only knew him for about ten minutes. I asked if anyone might have any spare skateboard bits to get to this guy. Little did I know how eager the response would be. I still thought I would end up buying a few boards on my own, strapping them on the back of my bike and transporting them back to Pailin. I was inspired to really do something with this. Many of the people who originally showed interest weren’t able to help at that time, but their enthusiasm lit a little fire that would help accomplish something really special for the children of Pailin.

I began talking to many friends abroad, mostly in the US. Some people told me that I should contact Skateistan in Phnom Penh, which I did, but they were of no help at all. Others promised to send boards. My dear friend Sus Lew became the patron saint of Operation Skateboard. She immediately went out and not only bought boards and equipment but also helped find other people to donate. My friend Rohini got one of her brothers, Nima, to also donate some boards. Pretty soon Operation Skateboard was in full effect.

Logistics

Over the ensuing months I kept in close contact with Sus. She collected boards, shoes, t-shirts, razor scooters, stickers and countless other bits. Her house no longer belonged to her but was the thorough domain of Operation Skateboard and her cats who enjoyed using the boxes as beds and hideouts. I had some equipment shipped to Shalma’s mom’s house, and Sus was so kind to pick it up and include it in the packaging. In the meantime, I was trying to figure out how I was going to get all this stuff from the US to Cambodia. Believe it or not, this is much easier said than done, especially if you don’t have a fortune you feel like blowing on shipping.

Fortunately, Shalma’s stepdad Willy is in the shipping business and was happy to help us. Willy’s clients do not normally ship to Cambodia, so he didn’t have a connection on this side to help us clear customs. He was extremely gracious, however, and both arranged and paid for the sea shipping costs. A man named Carlo Iaccarino, the export coordinator for ECU Worldwide (the carrier we went through), was inspired by our project and agreed to take all the boxes to the port personally, saving us hundreds of dollars. In the meantime Sus and her partner, surely exhausted, were taking apart any assembled boards, making an extremely detailed packing list, and packing them in boxes with the precision of robots.

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Shalma and me in our Phnom Penh apartment with the cache of skateboards Photo Credit Lee Fox-Smith

On my end, I spent days (was it weeks?) talking to everyone I knew in Cambodia about shipping. It turns out, shipping is a rather nebulous world to most expats here. Nothing is set in stone, and a heck of a lot of it depends on knowing the right guy who knows the right guy who you can eventually pay a bribe to in order to get the goods. After some deal of work, I found a guy called Khemera at a company called Fulwell Logistics. We met with him and he told us stories of his own childhood and explained how he was sympathetic to our cause. He was happy to help us, and even managed to keep us from paying tariffs on the skateboards. Still, the clearance costs came out to a hefty fee, but again, I had a close friend come to the rescue and pay about two-thirds of the customs clearance cost.

On the 24th day of November 2017, after months of waiting, the skateboards finally arrived. Khemera was so kind and picked up the boxes in his own car for a small fee. We got on my motorbike, grabbed some money from the bank (shipping is a cash business) and headed out through the madness of Phnom Penh traffic to Khemera’s office, about a half hour by motorbike from our home. We were there just briefly, thanked him for his help, and then loaded all the boxes into a tuk tuk. After the boxes were in the tuk tuk we just barely managed to squeeze a little Shalma in with them. After that we just had to haul hundreds of pounds of gear up seven flights of stairs.

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Shalma with Khemera when we picked up the boxes

 

Planning the trip to Pailin

After getting the skateboards home and hauling them upstairs with the help of our security guard (who I paid some money to) Shalma suggested that I not open the boxes. Her suggestion was that we leave them be and assemble the skateboards when we got to Pailin. I was tempted to do so, but I was far more tempted to check out the swag! It was a good thing I did as well. Most of the boards had never been built. I had to put the grip tape on, put the bearings in the wheels, and build them from the ground up. I spent all my free time over the next three days assembling the decks. I felt like a kid at my own private Christmas party–oh and I had stickers! Did you think I wasn’t going to put some stickers on this board? If so, you thought wrong. I get to have a little joy from this right? Don’t worry, there were hundreds of stickers left to give to the kids when I was done.

I still had all of the planning to do. We had spoken to our friends Ross and Ariel about coming with us and they seemed super keen on the idea. My original plan was to just hire a car and drive it myself with the four of us. My concern was that it was just too much gear to fit into some dinky rental car. More than that, the Cambodian roads are extremely dangerous and include their own counter-intuitive rules. I can handle all this on a motorbike as an experienced rider, but driving a car in this country actually makes me more nervous. While we were figuring this all out, Shalma and I ran into our local friend Taylor Davis. Taylor seemed really interested in Pailin and told us that he and some friends might want to go. This fortunate turn of events allowed me to narrow the options; I started looking for a bus.

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Getting ready to load all the gear up for Pailin Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

Several friends were extremely helpful, giving me contacts for charter busses. I got a range of prices, some twice as much as the bus I ended up hiring. In the end I found an awesome bus with a great driver. He was very safe, but spoke no English. It is a very good thing that I have been taking private Khmer lessons over the past couple months. We ended up communicating just fine in his language, and we managed to get every place we wanted to go.

Arriving in Pailin

It is a long bus ride to Pailin from Phnom Penh, about 8 hours in total. After taking a brief break to eat by the riverside at a place I knew in Battambang from my previous trip, we finished the drive to Pailin (about an hour and a half left to go at this point) and arrived at the skate park at about 8:30. The timing was a little unfortunate as we all had to eat when we did. However, Chai Ching’s wife had also made us dinner. We all stuffed ourselves as much as we could with the food she made, and it was amazingly delicious. When she saw that we were not able to eat as much as she expected, she seemed a little insulted. We were all very concerned that we may have hurt her feelings.

We were at the skate park for a short time when we all came to the conclusion that we were knackered and really needed some beds. Chai Ching was enthusiastic (as is his nature) and really didn’t want us to go. I think if it were up to him we would have partied until the wee hours of the morning. We insisted upon sleep and all went to the Happy Garden hotel which is run by Chai Ching’s brother in law, the general in the Cambodian army who controls the entire western border region of the country.

The hotel was completely empty just as it was the last time Shalma and I were there. We all got to choose our own rooms. There are mountains and beautiful nature regardless of which direction you look in the morning. I rose at about 6 AM and started taking a few pictures as I said little prayers that coffee would magically find me.

 

I went downstairs and walked across the street and started taking pictures of goats. Remarkably, one doesn’t see many goats in Cambodia. It turns out that most of us had all actually gotten up early to enjoy the beauty of our new surroundings. Dan and Taylor ended up walking several kilometers to bring us all coffee. Ross woke up early to wander around the mangosteen groves. Eventually we all ended up in the the lobby having coffee and talking about the evils of missionary work, which I see as a form of exploitation wherein a much wealthier group from a powerful country imposes its will on other people in exchange for access to essential goods, thus stratifying a society, often leading to civil war.

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Beautiful Pailin Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

Lee and I also spent some time talking about NGOs. There was a time when my dream job would have been to work with an NGO or the UN, but after having been in Cambodia for a while I am completely disenchanted. I mean, if I was an NGO trying to create this skateboard project, I would first petition for a grant, buy a building, hire people to raise funds, and eventually throw a couple kids a skateboards or two, but we’d all have fancy polo shirts that said Operation Skateboard on them. I think Lee agreed that it is far more impactful to do work at the ground level, otherwise it can be rather wasteful. I remember feeling happy to have such interesting companions who would engage in such a conversation with a smile even if our views didn’t match. I think I mentioned the goats right around this time and we all ended up migrating across the street to check them out.

 

Chai Ching Arrives

It was around ten in the morning when Chai Ching arrived at the hotel. He came in like a whirlwind the way one would only expect if they knew him. He was smartly dressed in a navy suit, white starched shirt, and a pink tie. With his hair perfectly parted and combed to one side he had all the trappings of a 1980s American televangelist. When our group saw him and we all knew that Chai Ching was mayor of Pailin for a day.

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Chai Ching in his fancy suit Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

We were all starving but also wanted to get to the park. I was thinking (as were some others) that we could pick up something fast and cheap, especially since the muralist of our group, Shauna, was eager to get started with some painting. Chai Ching had other ideas. He insisted that we ate there at the little restaurant behind the hotel. We all ended up walking behind the hotel where we climbed into a sort of water bungalow on top of a pond.

 

We ordered a bunch of items to share and the food was pretty good. I think everyone was a bit anxious to get the day started, however. We were excited to check out the surroundings and I know that Ariel, Ross, and Shauna were keen to get to work on the murals. After lunch a few of us went to have a few beers with Chai Ching’s brother in law, the general in the Cambodian military who I mentioned above. I reckon he’s a good fellow to know in a pinch.

Afternoon beers with the General

From left to right, me, the general who controls all the border provinces in Cambodia, Taylor, and the provincial tax collector drinking beer and enjoying conversation about the land and history of Pailin.

 

After some nice conversation and quite a bit of dark beer, I complemented Chai Ching’s gold ring with the big sapphire surrounded by little diamonds. He immediately pulled it off his finger and insisted I keep it as a gift from him.  It only fit on my pinky so I slipped it on and sat around drinking with the general and feeling like a gangster. Eventually the sweetness of that moment had to end, so we said our goodbyes and headed over to the skate park to meet up with the others. I pulled out my camera to take a picture of the puppy under the table and then we went on our way.  The park is only a few kilometers away and we were there in a blink of an eye. At this point, Ross, Ariel, and Shauna had made a lot of progress on the murals.

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Me with the bling pinky ring that Chai Ching gave me as a gift Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

We spent a little more time around the skate park. Dominic and I skated a bit while the others painted. Chai Ching was very interested in taking us all to the main market in Pailin. It is actually one of the largest markets I have been to in Cambodia. Pailin is known for its gem mining, and much of the market is dedicated to sales of rubies and sapphires. Buyer beware, much of it is fake or poor quality. Many of the of the gold items you find are just plated tin. But first, Chai Ching wanted to show us the mural he made that included the names of all the donors to operation skateboard.

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After our brief interlude at the skatepark, Dan, Lee, and I agreed to accompany Chai Ching to the market. He drove his car and for some reason we hopped into the van and our hired driver followed him. It will forever be a mystery as to why we didn’t take just one vehicle. Below are some pictures of that excursion.

As we walked through the rows of market stalls I think we all felt a bit paraded around. It was pretty clear that western people were decidedly rare around this market. Chai Ching introduced us to everyone he knew in the market. He had actually told me that there was going to be a big surprise for us there. I am not sure what that surprise was; perhaps it was just seeing his wife’s shop. By the time we were done there I think we were pretty excited to rejoin our companions at the skate park.

Back at the Skate Park

Back at the skate park we rejoined our comrades. They were well into painting, skating, and otherwise having a good time. Brooke, one of our compadres, immediately came up to me and offered a beer. It was the first beer I had since brunching and chatting with the general. I proceeded to drink some beers and skate around.

Kids started showing up. Chai Ching said the bulk of them should be there at 3 or 4 PM because it was their final exam day in school. I told him I wanted to pull out the boards but he asked me to wait. I continued to skate around with my beer, having a jolly time. Unfortunately I lost my footing while going down a ramp. My instinct was to salvage the beer in my left hand while breaking my fall with the right. My instincts served me poorly. Mind you, the beer was mostly intact, but I believe I am still suffering from a slight fracture to the right wrist at the time of this writing.

Once I injured my wrist I decided it was better that I cease skating. When left idle I can be both impatient and averse to taking direction from others. I didn’t see Chai Ching around and decided to get the skateboards out of the van so kids could go skate. Plus, I kind of figured I had some say in the matter. I went to the van and opened up the back door. I began to dread hauling all the boards into the park as my wrist was throbbing. I looked behind me and there stood one boy looking at me, and I could tell he wanted to skate. I handed him a board and as soon as he began heading back the other kids lined up, each taking a board. Problem solved. The kids began skating immediately.

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Kids who had never been on a skateboard in their lives taking to it straight away! Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

 

Some of the kids started out on their bums. Others just kind of went for it and started skating like little champs. I miss the fearlessness of youth that allows you to do new and dangerous things. I also miss the flexible bones and the endless energy.  Giving kids the opportunity to take out those energies and learn new things is extremely rewarding.

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Little ones playing it safe Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

 

After the kids played with the skateboards for a while I decided to start handing out the stickers. It was actually one of the most frightening decisions I had ever made. My friends who have kids might know this already, but it seems that nothing makes kids go completely nuts more than stickers. I ended up having to throw them over my shoulder while running away. It was truly exhausting!

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The beginning of the sticker-hungry mob Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

Meanwhile, our artists were finishing up their work around the park, having created beautiful murals

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One of the murals created. I mostly saw Shauna and Ariel working on this one. Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

The kids skated for hours and there was seemingly constant artwork being made. By nightfall the kids were quite proficient. Some began dropping in on the half pipes and quarter pipes at the park. Periodically Chai Ching would bring us all together for photos.

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Kid learning to skate. Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

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Little Dudes with Boards Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

 Ending the Day in Pailin

It gets dark pretty quickly in the tropics. The kids were having such a good time there seemed no sign of it ever stopping. Chai Ching really wanted us to stay a couple more nights, but most of us had jobs to get back to. We were all very exhausted as well. Chai Ching wanted to honor us all and created a few more photo ops. He wanted to present all the gear that had been donated and take pictures of the swag. He also honored each of us with a Krama, the traditional Khmer scarf, made internationally famous as part of the required uniform of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer people did not let that dark history destroy this tradition. In this case the presentation was a show of gratitude, love, and respect.

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The finished murals included a “Make Cambodia Skate Again” slogan

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Wearing our Kramas in front of the skate gear Photo Credit: Lee Fox-Smith

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All the kids with the gear Photo Credit: Taylor Davis

 

After the above photos were taken we were all completely shagged and anxious to get back to Battambang. A few people in our crew were planning on taking the night bus back to Phnom Penh from Battambang and we all wanted a little time to relax and debrief before we parted ways. Chai Ching really enjoyed having us there and certainly wanted us to stay. His wife had made a delicious meal for us but we had little time to bide. She ended up feeding us on the go. We felt terrible and hoped that we did not disappoint her. She is an absolutely amazing cook and honestly has made me some of the best food I have had in Asia. In truth, I am not the biggest fan of Khmer food, unless the food comes from Chai Ching’s wife, then it is excellent!

Speaking of Chai Ching’s wife, just as we were leaving she saw the ring was on my pinky and seemed a little upset about it. She said something to Chai Ching in Khmer and he turned to me and told me that his wife wanted to change the setting so that it would actually fit my ring finger. I gave the ring back, said my goodbyes, and headed toward the van. And so it was that we departed Pailin in the dark.

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Little dude dropping in

When we got to Battambang we found a little bar and grill called Bar Ang, which is a bit of a play on words. Barang means French in the Khmer language, but among poorer or less educated people all foreigners are basically French. The actual word for foreigner in Khmer is Boroteh. Most expats never know the distinction, and it is far less common to hear Khmer people using the term Barang these days; I think it is far more commonly used among expats. At any rate, we had some food and drinks and went to our hotel, Seng Hout, where I had stayed on a previous visit to Battambang.

The following morning Dan and I went and had breakfast while Ariel and Ross had a romantic brunch and a stroll. I enjoy walking around Battambang as it is a vivid place where the remnants of French Colonialism is ever-present in the architecture.

 

Overall it was a great project and one for which I am thankful to many people. Aside from all the good folks who joined me in the trip to Pailin, I would like to thank all the donors who made this project possible. I want to live a life where I do something when I see something needs to be done. I feel so fortunate to have had so many likeminded people people join me on this quest. My many thanks, and thanks from Chai Ching and the children of Pailin go out to Sus Lew, Afsi and Willy Pena, my lovely girlfriend, Shalma Movassaghi, Raymond Beltran, Alice Salamanca Beltran, Jay Judge, Chrissie Good, Eagle Barber, Nima Moradi, Mark Krisher, Ian and Alexis Briggs, Khemara, and Carlo Iaccarino. I would also like to thank Winston at Berkeley Bike and Skateboards, 1-2-3-4 Go Records,  Project Chimps, 924 Gillman, Green Day, Orbit Skates, OaklandishWhatever Skateboards, Sunset Skateboards, and Bruce Lee. If I forgot anyone, please forgive me. I couldn’t have created this project without the help of everyone involved. The gifts that everyone gave will resonate with these children for a lifetime.

Conclusion

Since our trip to Pailin, I have had the pleasure of getting messages from young people who have been going to the skate park. They often include pictures of the kids with the skateboards. They are telling me how skateboards are their favorite things.

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One of the kids at the skatepark several days after we left Pailin

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Battambang and Baby Monkeys

Heading to Battambang

When we were in Banteay Chmar I asked the Frenchman called Paul what he thought of Battambang. He told us that he quite liked it and that we should check it out. We decided it was a good idea for a few reasons. First, Battambang is only about 130 KM from Banteay Chmar, and we were in the mood for a short travel day after all the miles we had been putting on. We also didn’t sleep incredibly well in the stilt house the night before, mostly because of the storms and mosquito itches. We headed out on the muddied road with Battambang in our sights.

The roads were wet, and in the places where the roads were dirt they were downright muddy. My trousers were covered with mud from the moment we left Banteay Chmar. Shalma was saved from most of it because her foot pegs are up higher than mine, and she is somewhat shielded by my body. Also, I was digging in my heel and turning by giving throttle to the rear wheel in the soft mud. However, as shortly after we began our ride, we saw the weather clear and the day warm.

As we rode along, my bike started to choke up and cut out a bit whenever I pulled off the throttle. It was stalling, but then it would catch itself and go. It made for a jerky ride, but I didn’t think much of it, just hoped my mechanic could sort it out when we got back to Phnom Penh. I was mostly thinking about how badly I needed a cup of coffee! We decided to pull over about an hour and a half into our ride for coffee and noodles.

NOOOOODLES!!! This was just the way to start the day!

After a delightful noodle soup and my Khmer coffee with sweet condensed milk, we jumped back on the bike, excited to see a new city!

I turned the key, hit the throttle, and it died. I got it started again, but it died the moment I tried to apply throttle. We were in the middle of nowhere, and if I were the worrying type, I would have totally worried. I am not the worrying type, so it was cool. But I kept doing this little dance of getting it to idle, then trying to make it go, only to have the motor die. I finally remedied the issue by revving the piss out of it. I wrung that little xr250’s neck and away we went. It was still choppy, but inertia more or less carried us for the next hour.

We went through some impoverished areas on that road. At one point I was passing what looked like a thirty-year-old Honda Passport scooter, or what was left of it. It was loud, and the wheels had lost their roundness years ago. As I passed him, I saw that his exhaust was nothing more than a meter of common PVC pipe duct taped to the header. It sounded like a cross between an angry sewing machine and an electric didgeridoo (if such a thing in fact exists).

I also got hit in the chest by a giant beetle. I had my jacket a little unzipped in order to cope with the heat and humidity. This thing nailed me in the chest right above the zipper. I thought I had been shot! Okay, I didn’t really think that, but it hurt. I assumed it was deflected by my sternum, but about five minutes later I felt something really creepy squirming and poking into the soft flesh of my side just below my rib cage. Its little bug legs were like needles. I half panicked, pulled over, and frantically unzipped my jacket to set the creature free and put an end to our nonconsensual engagement. I only saw him for a second, but he looked to be the size of a small humming bird, but shaped like a giant black German cockroach with some orange bits and inch-long legs! I was relieved when the ordeal was over.

We carried onto Battambang and checked into a hotel called Seng Huot that was recommended by Paul. The hotel is absolutely top notch, and a very nice room with air conditioning and cable television goes for $15 a night. It is a beautiful and modern place. After we checked in, Shalma and I decided to walk around. We headed into the central market and enjoyed more delicious noodles. this time they were the home-made egg noodles that I greatly prefer over rice noodles.

We decided to take a little walk just to see our temporaneighborhood. Battambang is like a Phnom Penh-lite. It is a similar place in many ways, but just a little bit smaller and slightly less touristy. Everywhere one looks, there are fine examples of French colonial architecture. The French built broad avenues with wide swaths of bricked pavement, making Battambang a far easier place to walk around. It is nice, if not a little sleepy. As far as I could see, by Cambodian standards there wasn’t much that was exceptional about it.

Sampeou Mountain, the Khmer Rouge, Temples, Monkeys, and Bats

There are some sights to see just out of town, namely a 1000 meter tall mountain called Sampeu Mountain with caves and a temple complex up top. At about 3:30 we headed over to the mountain which is about 20 KM out of town. Below is a picture of the mountain. If you look really close, you can see there is a pagoda up top.DSC00419

It is easy to miss the road that takes you up to the top of the temple complex if you are going under your own steam like we were. The easiest thing to do is to just hire a tuk tuk. It is not, however, the most fun thing to do. We got a little lost in the backroads that twisted up and down along the back of the mountain. At one point we turned a corner and saw a couple of little girls who without us asking realized the white folks are lost, pointed and said, “That way.” I guess it wasn’t the first time Westerners were lost back there.

We figured out where the entrance was, and there were quite a few Westerners around. There was a guy asking if he could be our tour guide around the area, and I agreed for the sum of three dollars. He had a little scooter, and Shalma and I agreed to follow him on my motorbike. We bought our tickets, then went flying up these narrow twisting concrete roads. They were steep, and it was like a narrow racetrack twisting straight up into the sky. The views of the lush, green-clad mountain and the land below were breathtaking!

Our guide took us to a small temple. He told us that it was a prison during the Khmer Rouge era. Then he said to follow him, and we shambled after him along a narrow footpath. We passed some Buddhist monks and some statues depicting what appears to be Buddhist hell. We then came to a hole with a steep metal staircase. We ascended into the darkness and saw a man in humble rags on the floor in front of a reclining golden Buddha. And just beyond the man was a case full of human skulls. We were in the killing cave of the Khmer Rouge.

Bones of Khmer Rouge murder victims

The man on the floor had a tray in his hands for donations. He was a small, sad, and pitiful figure. I approached him and put some money in his tray. As I was about to walk away, he called to me and reached out toward me. I offered him my wrist and he tied a red string around my wrist. He gave me a blessing in Khmer for happiness, health, family, and good fortune. I felt unworthy of his blessings. I have everything in comparison to so many people in this country. My disappointments are of the most luxurious variety.

The old man had a story. He came from a small village below the mountain. He had lived and worked as a cook. When the Khmer Rouge came, they conscripted him to feed their troops. He gave life to the men who took lives from others. If he had not done so, he would have surely been killed. He is a penitent man, trying to improve his karma. He stays in this dark cave day after day, looking after the bones, cleaning, and acting as caretaker in order to pay his debt to the universe in this life so that he will be have some absolution in the next. Below are captioned pictures of the cave.

 

 

We left the cave. Frankly, I have had more than my fill of genocide. Our guide walked with us back to our respective motorbikes, and we got on and headed up another twisty and even steeper road. I had thought I was already at the top! Nope, I sure wasn’t! At the real top, there is a magnificent temple complex and a bunch of wild monkeys.

 

The monkeys are hilarious, cute, and kind of mean to one another. Once in a while, a big one comes along and just kind of bullies all the others. In the pictures above, you can see that some of the monkeys are sitting on ledges. The drop on the other side is tens of meters. Once in a while, one monkey might randomly attack another monkey and push him or her off the cliff. It is pretty alarming until you figure out the little creatures immediately save their own lives by grabbing a tree branch on the way down. In two of the pictures, you can see a very tall tower. The drop from there is 100 meters plus the height of the tower. The monkeys are undeterred and seem to really like climbing the tower into the sky.

After our time with the monkeys at the temple, we headed back down the mountain. There was another cave to see: the bat cave. Down on the ground level, there are many little venders and chairs set out. The busy time for the venders is sunset. The tourists are all there to see bats come flying out of a cave. Shalma and I were a little bit early, but we settled down and bought a couple Cambodia beers. They were refreshing.

Across the road, up on a cliff, about fifty meters up a ladder there is a buddha head. Since the bats weren’t coming out yet, I decided to climb up and see it. Shalma didn’t want to come with me, because that metal ladder was extremely sketchy, and there was a little bit of free climbing to be done to get to the Buddha head. In Cambodia, you can totally die doing normal tourist stuff.

The view from the buddha head

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Another view from the Buddha head

I climbed down from the Buddha head and sat back down with Shalma. We watched other people struggle to get down the ladder, and I was reminded how agile I am for a guy who broke seven vertebrae less than two years ago, leaving me in the hospital for two weeks and in bed for more than three months. And then, we waited for the bats to fly out of their cave.

It seemed to take a long time. People were saying that they should start coming out as the sun goes down around 5:30 PM. As it turns out, we started seeing the earliest buzzing of bats closer to 6:30. It is like they send a scout out to make sure it’s okay out there. “You wanna go out there, Bob?” “Nah, it’s your tur,n Larry! You always try to sucker me into it.” So Larry goes out then comes back for Bob when the coast is clear. Eventually more and more bats start to realize that the sun is no longer looming to scorch them, and an areal smorgasbord is there for the picking.

As the bats began to eject themselves from the cave en masse, I pulled out my trusty camera to take pictures of them. And I failed. I totally failed. They were either blurry, or you just couldn’t see the bats. I really wanted to get a shot of them coming out of the cave, but I had no clue what I was doing and couldn’t pick up the contrast between the bats and the shadow of their cave. Below is the best shot I got and a little video footage that Shalma took on her iPhone.

A gaggle of bats

 

And that is about as good as it gets right there, folks. I assure you, it was really neat!

Back to the City of Battambang: How I Was Almost Killed By a Shih Tzu!

We headed back to the hotel and got thoroughly doused with rain for twenty kilometers. As you can see in the pictures above that were taken just before we left, the rain can come fast and with little warning. Fortunately, by the time we got back to the hotel the rain had mostly subsided.

Shalma and I decided to get some dinner at the night market that opens along the river promenade after dark. We both had more spicy dishes with noodles. We both eat spicy food, but these dishes were intense. It was the kind of food that truly makes you feel alive inside. After dinner, Shalma and I decided to part company for a while; she went back to our room, and I took a little walk.

The streets of Battambang are relatively desolate at night for a bigger city. I had one guy on a motorbike come up to me and offer me a ride and ask me if I wanted drugs, which made me weirdly uncomfortable. I said no, and he persisted. I had to be very insistent. I started to realize that maybe I shouldn’t be out there walking alone. I mean, that is a really weird thing for me to think because in my life I have walked through many darkened streets across many lands. Little did I know what was in store for me….

I walked along a lonely street just on the other side of the market from our hotel when I heard a dog barking. It was coming straight at me, and it meant business. It was angry, vicious, and it looked like this:

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Stock photo pilfered from the internet. I would give photo credit, but this has been used a gazillion times by various sites. Just know that it is frightening and mean!

I couldn’t kick it because it was little and cute, and that would be unfair. My only choice was to run away in fear. It chased me until the end of the building it guarded. It was a guard shih tzu. I told Shalma about it when I got back to the hotel. I don’t think she totally believed me, but I was planning to show her the next night.

The Next Day We Ate Bugs

The next day was pretty uneventful. We mostly utilized it as a day of rest. We spent some time walking around and eating at different restaurants. We found a pretty good breakfast place, but that was kind of it. At one point, when we were at the market, we saw a woman with a little stand. She had a wok on the coals, and I wanted to see what she had cooking. Shalma and I walked over to her and took a look. She had some different types of locusts, crickets, a big beetle (was it the kind that hit me in the chest? We may never know) and some larvae, which I believe would have grown up to be palm weevils had their lives not been cut short.

I am not sure what I was planning. I don’t think I was going to buy a bag of bugs or anything. Before I could even think, the woman began handing us insects. They were spicy and had lime on them. The flavor was neither exceptional nor terrible. I wasn’t that into the texture, and I don’t like cricket legs stuck in my teeth. The one thing that I really was’t into was the worm. It was just so soft and squishy. I am glad we tried them but they weren’t for me. She offered both me and Shalma a large beetle. I wasn’t feeling it and had to decline. Shalma ate it without hesitation. Bully for her!

Then we took a long walk along the river. Shalma wasn’t hungry, still full on beetles, I guess. I had a sandwich made of paté and pig snout. It was delicious. We decided to go back to the hotel and make it an early night. Our plan was to ride to Pailin the next day, a city that is still 70% Khmer Rouge and largely administered by the last holdouts of the regime. First, I had something to show Shalma.

We walked over by the market, and I told her that I wanted her to see the attack shih tzu. She didn’t want to, but I insisted. We walked by the building but kept our distance. No shih tzu. We began crossing the street, and we heard a ferocious bark. I turned to Shalma and said, “I would know that bark anywhere!” Sure enough, the shih tzu was in the same spot where it had been the night before, and it was running some poor bugger off once again. I had heard that they were once guard dogs in China, but I never really believed it. I believe it now!

Leaving to Pailin

We decided to leave to Pailin the next day. It takes two to three hours to get to Pailin from Battambang by motorbike, so we thought we could leave around 9 AM and still get there before or by noon. We checked out of the hotel and attached our luggage to my rusty Honda xr250. I hadn’t ridden it for more than 24 hours, so I turned the key, pulled the choke, and started the engine. The problem was that it kept dying. I totally failed to launch. The minute I gave it any gas, the thing completely stalled out. Needless to say, I wasn’t very excited to have this happen in an unfamiliar city.

I pushed the bike down the street for about a kilometer with Shalma following. I found a scooter shop. It was the first place I came across, and I hadn’t seen anyone working on bigger bikes in the town, so it was my best hope for the moment. I figured the guys would at least know where to direct me if they couldn’t help.

Nobody at the shop spoke a lick of English, but I showed them the problem, and they were happy to help. The technician checked my fuel filter, changed the spark plug, and took a sort of general look around. The whole time I could see that he wasn’t comfortable with working on my bike, and I was waiting for him to pick up his phone and call someone for help. For about a half hour I thought, any minute now this guy is going to pull out his phone. Eventually that is exactly what happened.

The technician charged me a dollar for taking a look and changing the plug, then he told me that he was going to push me elsewhere. The technician’s co-worker loaded Shalma up on the back of his scooter. Then I got on my bike, and the technician got on his scooter. He grabbed onto the luggage rack of my bike, opened the throttle on his scooter, and began pushing me up the road in heavy Battambang traffic. He pushed me for probably three or four kilometers until we arrived at an outdoor tent-shop that had a tricked out xr250 on a stand. I felt like I was in good hands.

The guy at the second shop was a true professional. You could see him leaving no stone unturned in diagnosing the problem. He made sure everything was clean and worked, checking the spark, timing, etc. He cleaned out the carbs a bit and got the bike running good as new. He then charged me five dollars and sent me on my way after about 45 minuted of work. This guy could totally have his own shop in any developed country and make good dough. I gave him some extra dollars in appreciation, and we got on the road to Pailin.

Pailin is an isolated little place on the Thai border. When you read about the trials in Cambodia that are just now winding up, Pailin is the place where they caught all the war criminals. As mentioned above, it still boasts a population that is 70% former Khmer Rouge with Khmer Rouge administration of the local governance. I will post the whole story of Pailin next week with loads of pictures!