A crowing cockerel wakes me up today. At breakfast I try the rice gruel again. I enjoyed it in Bangkok, however here in Cambodia it doesn’t quite taste the same. I put it aside and have a croissant instead. We are leaving Battambang and making our way to Siem Reap this afternoon. It is checking out time once more.
A quick tour of the city takes us to the river. A board by the river says that the city has been voted the cleanest for the last 3 years. There is rubbish everywhere. A street sweeper is busy sweeping up the fallen leaves and debris. Once she is done I’m sure the place will look tidy for a little while. The roads are lined with rows of French colonial style shops selling electronics and other goods. The only place doing big business is the coffee shop selling breakfast to the early morning workers. A posher place nearby is practically empty. Buthy tells us that the French ruled Cambodia for about ninety years till they gained independence in 1953. The shops built since also adhere to the same architecture to blend in with the older buildings.
It is only eight in the morning and yet the heat is getting intense. We get back in the air conditioned comfort of our coach. It takes us through the market place where the roads are filled with vendors selling fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and everything required for the daily meals. Most of the houses do not have a refrigerator and the women make two daily trips to the market to buy fresh produce.
Timber shacks on stilts, most covered with corrugated tin sheets, some of them covered with clay tiles line either side of the road. Hammocks can be seen anywhere there are two poles together or trees in close proximity. Even shop owners can be seen relaxing in their hammocks as they wait for their customers. The space under the houses bordered by the stilts are used as storage space, shelter for bikes, dining, bedroom or sitting areas. Even the bricks and mortar houses take on a similar style. The extent of area which is kept clean around each of the houses vary. Overgrown grass and plants cover the rest of the neglected space. The green colour it imparts is broken in places by flowery shrubs in containers and what can be described as small excuses for gardens in some corners.
Bulls and cows can be seen grazing in small groups. They all sport a dirty white shade and look emaciated despite the abundance of grass. Cattle here are used for work on the rice fields and not for producing milk. In Cambodia milk is an imported commodity.
Our first stop is the Banon Bamboo Railway. The carriages were initially used to transport the locals from town to town but is now kept as a tourist attraction. The carriages are a simple design of a bamboo platform on wheels and in the past men stood on either sides and pushed them with poles as in a rowing motion. Locals sat on the floor which was covered with mats. It has been modified for tourists. We have two seater settees to relax on while a man operates an engine and takes us around. The ten minute journey to the stopping point takes us through an area with rocky cliffs and forest on one side and farmed fields on the other. As we pass the banana plantation, tapioca and rice fields the bamboo sticks rattle under my feet. At the stoppage area there is a model of houses used by the indigenous people who live in the jungle. The bamboo huts are built on high stilts for the children and shorter ones for the parents. The hut is surprisingly cool inside. Tigers and elephants roam the jungles of Cambodia and I wonder how much protection these huts provide.
The ride back is much faster and we make our way to the next stop from here, ruins of an ancient temple. The sandstone rocks are slowly falling apart but the outline still remains and we climb up the rocks to reach the inside. A little boy is selling incense sticks to burn in front of a statue. His cat companion is fast asleep. He hands us a few incense sticks but doesn’t ask for money. We ask him for a match stick and he sign languages to say ‘use your lighter’, which we don’t have. There are a few incense sticks which are already burning in the holder. We give him the sticks back and keep one each and slowly get them to burn.
In front of the ruins a new temple has been built and by the side of it a Buddha was erected. The plan was to build a construction around it to house the Buddha but planning permission for that was stopped. So the concrete Buddha sits there looking tall and gracious blessing all those who come to visit him. The base of the Buddha is a big room housing more sitting and standing Buddhas.
Lunch is back at Battambang in Nari’s Kitchen. Another meal in a delightful setting and we have a long drive ahead to Siem Reap. On the way Buthy stops the coach at a place where the locals cook and sell rats from the river. I look away but still get a glimpse of the prepared meat that has been laid out as the coach comes to a stop. . Most of the group go to take photos and some come back licking their fingers. I stop myself from gagging. It is time to catch up on some much needed sleep.