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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!