February 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
Weekends were free time and so early Saturday morning we’d make the trek to the Capitol Bus station and head on out. On our first weekend we headed to Battambang, home of the best rice in Cambodia. Our friends Ania and Kim joined us that night after their considerably longer trek. There’s a fair bit to see outside of the city and so Zoe and I booked a friendly tuk tuk driver after a bit of charades for a local tour.
We bumped along the scenic route for hours seeing farms and fields and lots and lots of tiny villages. One thing that struck me in one particular village was that a lot of the houses had a little pond across the road where they each grew a couple of rows of rice. So resourceful. We stopped at the Village of Pheam Ek where everyone manufactured rice paper. We were allowed to go inside and see one family at work – it was a very labor intensive process. There is a rather complex machine that steams the rice pulp into circles which is then lifted off and placed onto bamboo drying racks to be placed in the sun to dry. There were 2 – 3 women (assuming an aunt, daughter and mother) operating the machine and laying the paper to dry while the son was mending and weaving new bamboo racks. They also had a small farm behind them where the father was working (This is where I gained all my Organic Cambodia insight). The grandmother lay with the baby in a hammock next to her under the shade of the house watching TV. These women produced over 2000 rice paper circles a day at $1 per $100. While $20 a day is a reasonable wage for a family, the process is long and repetitive. All I could think of was how much my wrists would hurt.
This is the rice paper makers in question. The rice is de-husked at the back before becoming slurry. It is then spread thinly under the metal lid the girl is holding for a little steam. Then it is hung over a blue plastic tube until it is laid onto a screen for drying. All the fences of the houses along the road have these screen leaning over them.
Each village seems to have some sort of speciality, one we past had chillies drying on tarps along the road for kms, my nose and eyes wouldn’t stop watering. Another had a factory (wooden shed) where they made pra hok, a local favourite – fermented fish. The smell and mounds of bloody fish as we passed were enough to dissuade myself trying any. Our next stop was Wat Ek Phnom, an 11th century temple. Older and Angkor Wat there was no one around or any paths or fences to stop us climbing all over it. We had to swing through a window to get inside, only to be met by a caretaker. Shrines have been set up in most of the old temples and a caretaker will sit with them, cleaning, purifying and offering blessing to all who pass. Unfortunately a lot of the ornate carving had eroded from the outside but there were still beautiful examples in the roofless halls. There was still remnants of the original mote filled with water lilies.
After a quick pose with a the giant Buddha (note the Angry Bird graffiti) and a coconut for the road we were off to the last stop before we headed back to town to pickup the others. The Well of Shaddows is another Khmer Rouge killing field and though smaller then Cheong Ek, just as powerful. The Well of Shadows stands in front of a high school and on the grounds of an old Wat (temple) where people were detained before execution. There is nothing in the small field there now except a one roomed pagoda filled with exhumed bones. But it was the cement carvings around the base of the platform that really got our attention, unfortunately, unlike stone, cement wears pretty quickly so they were crumbling but you could definitely still make out what was going on. The 8 panels each showed an atrocity that the Khmer Rogue committed in graphic detail. There was the expected execution and torture, but also the killing of children in front of parents, forced marriages and women being gang raped and beaten. Not the easiest thing to look at when the kids are calling out to you from the school fence. We asked our driver how old he was during the Khmer Rouge, he said he was 10 and that he was separated from his family and sent to a working farm but he wouldn’t say anymore.
Ania and Kim arrived in just enough time for us to make a late excursion on the bamboo train. The bamboo train is another symbol of the ingenuity of the Cambodians. Needing to get around and government transport not exactly up to scratch led to the creation of a basic track that connects villages and remote areas. The ‘trains’ are made of a flat bamboo palette that rests on what looks like 2 dumbbells and powered by a lawn mower engine that had us speeding along at about 15/20kms an hour. And trust me when you have nothing to hang on to and your being hit in the face by bushes it is fast enough. Journeyman had a good episode on the bamboo train which you can check out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4qttp6nDts
There is a certain etiquette with bamboo trains, and when ever someone is coming the other way it is the train with the least amount of people who have to get off and dismantle their train to let the others by. Leaving at 5 meant we got the see the beautiful sunset over the rice fields before heading back just in time for our peace core buddy’s moment in the spotlight at the Cafe Eden open mic night. A massive expat hangout – good music and the food was amazing, but be warned Kim and Zoe caved and ordered burgers from which they got food poisoning. Always stick with rice.
Day 2 was back in the Tuk Tuk and off to Phnom Sapeau and Phnom Banan. I have become so skeptical of anything with the work Phnom in its name as it is Khmer for hill or mountain. I was right to be skeptical. Phnom Sapeau turns out to be a massive mountain that has a network of roads and paths between Wats, shrines and a killing cave. Shirking the expensive moto ride up we decided to hike it. I have never been so hot. We had to boys who didn’t speak english but showed us the way, they were considerate enough to wait while we caught out breath for the hundredth time. One of the temples was even being painted while we were there, it was a funny thought that this is what the older Wats once looked like.
A couple more boys joined our tour and took us down into the killing caves. Looking up at the hole in the roof I was shuddering at the thought of being hacked and thrown off the ledge an falling onto everyone else who’d been pushed off before me. Like in all sacred sites there was a caretaker who sat in front of a sleeping Buddha. He blessed me as I passed.
After making to all the sights of the mountain and we all had a good sit down we were off again to our second stop.. Phnom Banon. Steep? An understatement. This made the trek to the killing cave look like a stroll. Not a lengthy journey but to reach the temple at the top we had to climb up the sheer 358 steps that rose to about mid-calf. There were kids waiting there to follow you up and fan you on the way for a dollar or two but the poor kids were absolutely buggered and I ended up having to help one little boy up, he was exhausted and no wonder.
The temple itself is again older then Angkor Wat and there are still evidences of Yonis and Lingas from the time when Cambodia was Hindu. It is said that Angkor Wat was modelled on the 5 towers of this temple, true or not I’m not sure.