Monday, November 2, 2009

Cambodian Snow

After our crazy experience getting into Cambodia and the sorry state of the town as we drove in we weren’t hoping for much today. We had organised a motorbike tour of the sites surrounding the city. This turned out to be a scooter tour as actual motorbike were thin on the ground. We came down after eating a great breakfast of hot fresh baked rolls and in Drew’s case an omelette, and met our guide who was sceptical that I could actually ride along with all the other guys sitting out the front who ran the motorbike rentals. We climbed on our little machines and headed off into the unknown.

Riding through town was a double challenge. Firstly there’s the problem of riding on the wrong side of the road which is a challenge in itself. Drew suggested I tie something to my right hand so I wouldn’t forget. But opting for guessing that I would get it after a while I rode after the departing guide. The second challenge is the riding in the traffic. It’s like a cosmically huge version of chicken. Basically you have to know where everyone around you is, but never make eye contact. If you make eye contact then you give way.

We headed out of town and road down some small back roads to a local temple that was a mixture of new temple building and an old walls that went all the way around and were carved to display the churning of the sea of milk. It was very cool, but on returning to our bike we’d discovered that Drew had gotten a puncture in his back tire and we needed to go and get it fixed. Our guide wheeled Drew’s bike into a tiny little grouping of shacks on the side of the road around the back of the temple. We discovered that the little shack that we’d pulled up to was in fact the local mechanic and a kid of about 16 was brought over and started to work on the back tire. We sat down in the shade and watched his attempts to manually get the tire off with hand tools, we were very impressed.

Once he got the tire off with our guides help, we discovered that the long nail that went in the tire didn’t just puncture it, but also ripped a huge gash in one side and put a few dozen holes in the other side too. In the end it was decided that it was unfixable as the gash was about 5 inches long. The mechanic’s sister roared off on my motorbike to get a new inner tube. Our guide walked us across the road and we watched an old couple work on frying food up. The guide selected a fritta that had shrimp fried into it and a fried banana for us to try. We were surprised by how fantastic it was and when the guide said he was getting some fried sweet potato for later we readily agreed. The girl came back with my bike and after the inner tube was replaced and the whole back end of Drew’s bike was screwed back on we headed off with a wave of thanks.

We headed up to Phnom Sampeau first and (after parking our bike and wiping the red dirt off from the roads) headed for the summit. We walked up the curving road to get to the top and stopped half way to see the killing caves of Phnom Sampaeu that were used by the Khmer Rouge to dispose of people that had disobeyed them or were no longer useful. The guide sat us down and explained how the old building (a small square school house) was used as a prison and more than 10,000 people were kept there over the course of the war. The people were disposed of by being thrown down into the caves and died at the bottom. Our guide explained that with the other shallow cave the people tended not to die straight away and there was no escape from a slow and sad death. He also explain many other torturous things that happened there and I don’t want to explain it here. I’ll just say that it’s very sad. We went down into the caves and there are memorials to the people who died, including clothes and bones. The majority of the bones were cremated and only a small number were kept to be used as a reminder to the future generations. Our guides father was killed during this time and he is an only child and his mother never remarried.

With massive lumps in our throats we headed up to the old temple at the top of the hill. The temple is still in use and the monks were chanting and preparing for the full moon day the next day. It had amazing views and there were local children being taught in one of the open rooms as we walked passed. After the massive hike up the hill we were so tired and decided that after looking around we’d go straight down the staircase that we could have walked up and had lunch. By halfway down we realised why the guide said to walk up the road and down the stairs. They were uneven and slippery and it would have been much more tiring climbing them than walking down them. We had lunch at the little place where we left the bikes and mine was a fantastic soup that had two minute noodles in a home made broth that was fantastic and morning grass (this ones for you Mac) as my vegies. It was actually fantastic and we then headed off to our next place to visit.
We were riding along when we started to see more and more piles of chillies on the side of the road. Our guide pulled over and explained that it was chilli harvesting season. The chillies were laid out about half an inch deep on huge blue and green tarps creating a sea of colour as we rode along. The smell of chillies were in the air and it was a magical experience. We made our way to Phnom Banan and then climbed the 358 steps almost straight up to Prasat Banan, an 11th century temple complex. It is an amazing temple group that look a lot like Angkor Wat does, but in much a smaller scale. Some of the temples have only just been rebuilt after they were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge rein of terror. It is an amazingly atmospheric place and it was like a different world when you reached the top after climbing all the stairs.

We then rode through many small towns, waving back at little kids on the side of the road and were challenged when we had to ride the scooters across a suspension bridge, great fun all round. We reached the Bamboo train (nori or norry) and decided to go for a quick round trip. The train is just two train wheels and a bamboo frame on top. The rule is that if they run into a train coming the other way the train with the least amount of stuff is dismantled and moved off the track to let the other train through. We got to do this which was a bit of an adventure. The train goes really fast and sometimes the home made track has big gaps leading to very sore bums when it hit’s the gaps.

After we got back from the train we road on through the country side and came back into Battambang from the other side. We said goodbye to our driver and again headed out to see more of the town. I found my first seeing hands massage and decided that dinner could wait and had an hour massage by a blind man who couldn’t understand very much of what I was saying, it was actually heavenly and only $6. Drew and I then headed off to find a restaurant that we’d been recommended called Gecko CafĂ©. It’s run by an American man and it only employs young people who are the soul supports of large families and orphans. It was a great place and we had a odd moment where we were listening to Nora Jones being played and were just thinking about how odd the experience was of listening to songs you’d heard before in a completely different surrounding (while eating Mexican food). It was also as we were sitting there that we noticed that hadn’t seen many people over the age of about 25 and we were reminded of the horrible price Cambodia has had to pay for the peace it has today. We walked home with a renewed love for the country and we we’re very glad that were able to see more of Battambang as we might not have appreciated it if we hadn’t.