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Trip 10 -- Outer Indochina

Message 1: Battambang to Phnom Penh

Date: Tue, 31 Jan 2006 10:48:30
From: seth@sethweinstein.com (Seth Weinstein)
Subject: Indochina update #1: Battambang to Phnom Penh

Battambang, Cambodia, is a perfectly agreeable riverside town, surrounded by hills, dotted with monasteries and schools, and anchored by a central market where you can get commonplace mouth-watering foodstuffs such as pig's intestines and large cockroaches.

It is easily reached from Manhattan. It took me just 42 hours, the longest segment of which was the 14.3-hour flight to Seoul. That is very long indeed. They serve you a meal shortly after takeoff, and then six hours later they serve you another meal, which you eat as slowly as possible, trying to kill time. And then there are still six more hours to go. It didn't help that the man behind me spent most of the flight listening at top volume to a heavy-metal album that I assume was called "A Bus and a Freight Train Collide," but it did help that Korean Air's bibimbap was decent and that I had been assigned a bulkhead seat by the window.

Arriving in Bangkok at 12:20 a.m. after a connecting flight, I had some time to kill before my 5:55 a.m. train to the Cambodian border. Slow trains run from the Bangkok airport into the city, and heading directly to the platform I managed to avoid the taxi touts almost completely. Boy, are they persistent - even when you think you've convinced them you have no need for their services.

"Where you going?" a taxi driver asked as I stepped onto the platform.

"Bangkok. By train," I emphasized.

He walked me over to the posted schedule. "Two o'clock. That's in twenty minutes. It takes one hour."

The ticket office was closed. "Can I buy the ticket on the train?"

"Yes, yes. On the train. Ten baht." About a quarter.

"Thank you."

Then, as I stepped onto the platform, he called after me. "You need a taxi?"

I spent my brief time in Bangkok at a food stall across from the train station, eating chicken soup and watching as the day's fresh vegetables were dropped off, resulting in a predawn frenzy of peeling and chopping.

I dozed for most of the five-hour train ride to the border at Aranyaprathet, awakening to find myself covered in ash - the countryside is prone to small brush fires - and be approached by an octogenarian who was trying to learn English out of an outdated, cartoonish textbook: "Lucinda, can I borrow your records for Saturday?" "Yes, Nora. Of course."

The border crossing into Poipet, Cambodia, has a sleazy enough reputation to have an entire Web-site section devoted to it (http://www.talesofasia.com/cambodia-overland-bkksr.htm), which details all the scams and frustrations one is likely to encounter: a bogus requirement to change money at inferior rates, a bogus requirement to fill out a SARS form (there's no SARS in the country), three-hour waits to complete border formalities, and corrupt border officials who try to charge $25 for a visa that costs only $20, to name just a few. There's even a bus service from Bangkok that includes an all-in-one pass to the most common scams. And then there is the scummy, dusty town of Poipet itself, with its casinos, beggars, touts, and child pickpockets. Well, sadly, I encountered none of them. I crossed into Cambodia quickly and was on my way in a pickup truck barely an hour after leaving the train at Aranyaprathet.

Public transport is weird in Cambodia. There are long-distance buses between towns, generally only early in the morning. Beyond that, all long-distance travel is by minibus, pickup truck, or shared taxi. All shared taxis are Toyota Camrys, most of which are right-hand drive - despite the fact that you drive on the right in Cambodia. (Actually, you drive wherever you need to in order to avoid potholes.)

Local transport is even stranger. There are no local buses or taxis. Unless you have your own car, you hail a motorcycle - much as you would a cab anywhere else - and hop on. And you'd better know where you're going: Outside Phnom Penh, there are no street signs in the entire country. In major cities you have a couple of other forms of transport, such as the remorque-moto (a sort of canopied carriage hooked up to a motorcycle) and a tuk-tuk (the same thing all built into one unified specimen). And in Phnom Penh you have the pedicab, which is sort of a reverse tricycle-rickshaw - the passengers sit in front and the driver pedals from a raised seat behind.

So back to peaceful Battambang, a city where monks walk down the street carrying drums and twelve-year-olds drive to school on motorcycles. (There is no driving age for motorcycles; you don't even need a license.) There's not much to do in the town itself except watch life go by, which made it a good first stop. My business there was twofold: to attend the four-hour Cambodian-cooking class offered by the Smokin' Pot restaurant, and to obtain a Vietnamese visa - the consulate in Washington, D.C., wanted $65 and a week to issue a visa; in Battambang it costs $30 and takes about two minutes.

The cooking class started with a trip to the central market to buy ingredients for three dishes: fish amok (the national dish, amok, refers to a coconut-based amalgam of spices), chha khnei (fried ginger with beef), and a hot-and-sour shrimp soup (similar to Thai tom yam soup). The fish of choice was snake fish - a wide eel-like fish about 18 inches long - which the vendors had in pans of water on the floor, still alive. Our guide chose two, and the vendor clubbed them and then removed the head and fins as they wriggled into expiration. Back at the restaurant, we laboriously chopped lemongrass and garlic and then beat it into a paste with turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, and garlangal (ginza) with a mortar and pestle. Then we strained grated coconut through cheesecloth to create the basis for the amok. I daresay if I attempt this at home I'll dig out the food processor and use canned coconut milk.

Siem Reap, the gateway to the Angkor temples, is on first impression sort of a hateful place, much like Gatlinburg is to the Great Smoky Mountains: a tacky city you inexorably have to pass through. The touts swarmed around me as soon as the door of my share taxi was opened, offering places to stay or "moto" rides to the center of town. I made up a story about having to meet a friend and found a guest house on a secondary road parallel to the main drag. Having settled in, I walked downtown and tried a recommended restaurant called Amok, which served overpriced, underspiced versions of the food I'd cooked for lunch. The next night I fared better, stumbling into the Jasmine Angkor restaurant right near my guest house - it serves up simple, cheap barbecued seafood and even cheaper cold beer (the Angkor draft at $1.50 turned out to be the price per pitcher). The experience included videos of concerts from Myanmar (including "You Give Love a Bad Name" sung in Burmese), and later on the place became a hangout for moto drivers, who invited me to dine with them and go dancing afterward.

But, of course, the real reason to go to Siem Reap is to visit the temples. Angkor Wat, a 12th-century Buddhist monastery and probably the world's largest religious building, is the best-known - but there are a few hundred other temples from the 9th to the 13th centuries scattered around the area and deep into the countryside. Some are Hindu, some are Buddhist - the predominant religion alternated a couple of times - and most are loosely based on a five-tower quincunx arrangement, with some reached by long causeways over moats. All are richly carved, with engravings ranging from simple depictions of gods to entire scenes from the Ramayana.

Built of sandstone, the temples succumbed rather easily to the elements. Many have been restored, but some of the most beautiful are the ones where nature's hold has been left in place. At the Ta Prohm temple, for instance, trees have loomed up through foundations and walls, completely enveloping them and crushing them. Parts of some temples are no more than a pile of rubble. And yet some have been restored nearly entirely to their former stateliness.

A few are an hour's drive outside of Siem Reap, and the best way to go was on the back of a moto. The trip out to the remote sites of Banteay Srei, a small temple with probably the most detailed carvings of them all, and Kbal Spean, where religious motifs have been carved into a riverbed a half-hour's walk through a jungle of butterflies, was as rewarding for the journey as for the destinations. We passed villages of bamboo houses on stilts, seven-year-olds riding home from school on bikes far too big for them, and clusters of grazing water buffalo. My moto driver had never been there, so he was as eager as I to explore.

Sufficiently templed out, I found a more satisfying dinner back in Siem Reap, at the Banteay Srei restaurant (named after the temple I had just visited). I started with eel-and-banana-flower soup (I guess I'd liken the taste of cooked banana flower to that of the inner leaves of an artichoke) and moved on to something the menu called "koh kong shrimp." This, the waiter explained, was a plate of one-bite shrimp in a fiery chilli sauce. What he didn't explain was that the shrimp were raw.

The small southern city of Kampot was even more enjoyable than Battambang, for all the same reasons: It had a peaceful river, friendly people, and another bustling central market - this one included a kind of orange-and-black giant snail, which I got to try for dinner. I spent my free afternoon there walking around town, checking out neighborhoods little visited by tourists and arousing the curiosity of children and chickens. People passed the time by pressing their luck: At night a sort of fairground opened with a bingo-like game, a shoot-a-dart-at-the-balloons game, and a cross between roulette and the Plinko game on "The Price Is Right." And in houses and on the street, people played a card game that seemed to employ the following rules:

  1. Players would place small stacks of money in front of themselves.
  2. The dealer would give each player two hands of two cards each.
  3. Each player would turn over one set of two cards and sigh in exasperation.
  4. One player would shoo away her naked three-year-old son.
  5. The dealer would give each player one more card, dealt from the bottom of the deck.
  6. The dealer would take everyone's money.

They tried to get me to play, but I had a hunch I hadn't gotten a full grasp of the strategy.

The real reason to visit Kampot, however, was for the excursion to Bokor, a hilltop retreat built by the king in 1922. In addition to his palace, there was a hotel, a casino, a church, and a French school; these were in use until 1940 and then became bases for battles between Cambodians against the French, Cambodians against the Vietnamese, and ultimately Cambodians against each other, during the 1970s. The buildings were abandoned for decades; none of the doors remain, but the buildings' carcasses, covered in a naturally growing red fungus, survive as an eerie testament to the vacation habits of the rich - made eerier still when the buildings are shrouded in a late-afternoon mist. Bokor is a two-hour drive up the worst road I've ever been on: nothing but sharp rocks, loose stones, rough dirt, and raised patches of broken tarmac.

I took the bus from Kampot to Phnom Penh, which was a colossal mistake. Just outside of Kampot a bridge had given way to an overweight truck; part of the bridge was upside-down, jutting out of the water, and the twisted truck was still half-submerged, as it had been for a couple of weeks. Boatmen took us across the small stream in overloaded motorized canoes - they came close to tipping, and rumor has it that one actually did a few days ago. Once across, we boarded another bus to take us the rest of the way, but it was very slow going along a bumpy highway, taking more than five hours to travel the 90 miles. (I had reached Kampot earlier in the week by minibus, which took half the time.)

Phnom Penh has exactly five main historical sights, three happy, two somber. The happy ones are Wat Phnom, the pagoda atop the only hill in town; the National Museum, with its collection of Khmer religious sculpture (in short, more examples of what can be seen in its original surroundings in the Angkor temples); and the Royal Palace, which includes a pagoda made of silver tiles and containing an emerald Buddha, several other opulently adorned Buddha statues, and a Buddha relic inside a stupa with an amusing caption in a cartoonish typeface: "Relique sacrée du seigneur Bouddha."

The two grisly, solemn sights have to do with the Khmer Rouge regime, under which Pol Pot's band of merry revolutionaries evacuated cities; abolished money, mail, education, and religion; and cut off all contact between Cambodia and the outside world in an attempt to create a fully agrarian, working-class society. All educated people and anyone suspected of interfering with the regime were executed - somewhere around two million victims. A high school in Phnom Penh was turned into a prison known as Tuol Sleng or Security Office 21, where at least 12,000 - and maybe as many as 20,000 - inmates were incarcerated, interrogated, and tortured between 1975 and 1979. No fancy weapons for the Khmer Rouge - they resorted to simple beatings and electric shock. (Some sick person had the idea to open a Khmer Rouge-themed restaurant, offering an overpriced menu featuring the meager gruel that was served to the inmates - see http://www.talesofasia.com/cambodia-bronwyn-oct05.htm for the full story. The establishment didn't last long.)

After questioning and torture, most of the S-21 inmates were taken nine miles away to Choeung Ek, where they were beaten to death and buried in 129 mass graves. Two-thirds of them have been uncovered and the bodies exhumed, and the nearly 9,000 skulls are on display in a memorial pagoda. Some of the bones remain near the graves, and you can see fragments of clothing still sticking out of the ground. The sanctity of the place is tempered by the copious amounts of litter and by the neighborhood children offhandedly asking for money - they're hardly beggars - but perhaps that's the way it should be: a combined reminder of the past and living space for the future.

And with those sobering images in mind, I headed back into town, marveling how Phnom Penh has rebounded into such an attractive, bustling, high-spirited capital, and walked along the Mekong for my final Cambodian sunset.

Cheers,
Seth

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