After scoping out Siem Reap, which I’ll return to in a few days for the Angkor temples, I spent 3 days in Battambang in northwestern Cambodia, the country’s second largest city. Though, it feels more like a big village.
Battambang had been a Khmer Rouge stronghold and it is here, in my guesthouse, that I have my first conversation with a Cambodian about her experience (mentioned briefly in a previous post). She was only 3 years old in 1975, but remembers moving a lot and the feeling of constant insecurity and anxiety within her family because her father was an academic, thus a major target of Pol Pot. It’s not something she likes to talk about and told me that even with her family, those days are rarely mentioned. I have a feeling she lost close friends and family or never saw them again.
My first day I rented a bicycle and went on a tour of the countryside around Battambang with a student at the local university who guides tourist for extra cash. Over the course of 5 sweaty hours, he showed me the local industries, from rice wine and rice paper (for both fried and fresh spring rolls!) to dried bananas and bamboo sticky rice (basically sticky rice with coconut and red bean cooked in a hollowed bamboo, and absolutely delicious).
Video of rice-paper making:
Since Battambang is on the other side of the Tonle Sap river, fishing is also a large industry here. They salt and dry the fish in the sun, but actually, the major product here is fish paste, which they export throughout the country and SE Asia. In large vats they combine fish, egregious amounts of salt and other sauces and spices which they then let sit and become a paste to be added to bread, soups, or even eaten alone (like we might eat peanut butter or nutella, I guess). It’s a huge hit, but something about the heat and smell turns me off 🙂
We also biked past a Khmer Rouge memorial site and a “killing cave” which is now home to bats. It seems like no area of Cambodia is without a cruel reminder of their past. Final stop was at a brick making plant. Below are some pictures from there:
On the morning of day two, I took a ride on Battambang’s bamboo train. Cambodia is in the process of revamping its railways. Currently, only freight is transported on the rails and locals use them too for short distances to transport goods to nearby villages. To do this they load their stuff on “bamboo trains” which consist of a bamboo platform on top of two wheeled axles powered by a small engine. It is quite the experience! The rails are so terrible and within 10 seconds my whole body is numb/sore/achy and my ears are shot from the loud noise it makes. But the views around us are amazing, nothing but rice paddies and small winding streams. At one point, we encounter people travelling in the opposite direction (pic 2 below) meaning one of the platforms needs to be picked up from the rails, letting the other one go through. It was ours that was taken off because it carried only people and not heavy piles of goods like a motorbike and vats of fish paste.
Here is a video of that rickety ride. Don’t watch it if you get motion sick!