20 December 2010

Bouncing along to Battambang

My first weekend back in the Cambodian kingdom was spent travelling to Battambang and back again, via a small village in the back of beyond where my friend Marianne's adopted family comes from. She supports four children, two of whom now study in Siem Reap, while the two younger children still live in their home village. We took one of the boys with us from here and picked up another at the village, so we were a merry party of travellers.

We had the luxury of travelling in an air-conditioned car but even that was no comfort when we turned off the main highway, abandonned the tarmac and started dodging potholes the size of moon craters on the back country dirt roads to the village -- dancing roads they call them here, but it doesn't feel much like dancing, more like a rigorous workout at a gym!

It's rice-harvesting time here so in the fields workers toiled under the melting sun to gather the last of the rice, and the roads were lined either with piles of rice straw or with thick layers of rice grains spread on blue tarpaulins to dry. We negotiated a couple of cow jams and at one point exited the car while the driver edged his way over a plank bridge, but eventually made it safely to the village, where we were treated like visiting queens! They don't see many female barangs (foreigners) out in the sticks, so the locals were out in force to check us out. And we were warmly welcomed by Marianne's other children, their mother and 80-year-old granny.

An hour later we were back on a slightly less bouncy road. We stopped for a lunch at a roadside eatery and were again a source of fascination, though our novelty value soon wore off and all eyes returned to the blaring television screen. We reached Battambang mid afternoon, where we stayed in a luxurious hotel with the biggest bed I've ever slept in. M and I went for a short walk around the town to check out the French colonial architecture and the huge market, then we all headed off for a ride on the bamboo train, so called because the 'carriage' is actually a flat bed made of slatted bamboo which sits directly on top of the two wheel axles and is thus easily dismantleable when you meet other 'trains' coming along the track. The 'carriages' provide a useful transportation service for local villages and the canny locals make extra dollars from the barang tourists crazy enough to pay for a breezy spin along the tracks. It was a bone-jarring teeth-chattering ride but the boys loved it!

Back in town we enjoyed a delicious dinner -- ALL the food here is divine! -- then crashed exhausted relatively early, but were up at sparrow fart the next morning for more physical punishment. This time we headed 25kms south to Phnom Banan, a hill-top temple with 5 towers similar to those at Angkor Wat, though significantly more ruined. There followed a laborious, steep climb up the 320?, 384? 359? steps to the  top -- the number varies according to which guide book you read and I was too busy climbing to count! As our guide reminded us, the road to enlightenment is never easy. However, we were accompanied by our own personal muscle-pummellers - two women who massaged our legs and backs and fanned us whenever we stopped for a rest, and placed a supporting hand under my arm when this fat old barang looked like she was flagging! From the top we had a hazy view of a countryside where we dared not step as there were 'Danger Mines' signs pinned to the surrounding trees.

Snoozing our way home

Our return journey to Siem Reap was smooth and relaxing, with a couple of short shopping stops, one at some roadside stone-carving stalls. A huge stone Buddha would not be an easy souvenir to carry home, but the mouth-watering products of Senteur d'Angkor certainly are. Their range of sweet smelling candles, soaps, joss sticks, spices and teas were impossible to resist, especially after our tour of the factory where it was all being produced and charmingly packaged by teams of local women.

It was a fabulous weekend and I couldn't have wished for a better welcome back to this wonderful country! More soon ...