We came on the six hour bus to Battambang – Cambodia’s second city. Our only sustenance provided by two crickets and a stag beetle, courtesy of our new New Yorker pals Maria and Logan, seated just ahead of us.
Fried, of course. The bugs that is, not the Americans. Although some of the recent impoliteness we have witnessed, from our cousins across the pond, especially when dealing with the Khmer natives, has left us wanting to dip them into boiling oil just like their beloved French Fries.
Behaviour which can only be described as implausible. Making any special relationship, impossible.
We have, however, began to form a burgeoning friendship with the slightly scruffy Battambang. It’s much more, how do you say? Cambodian. Yes – that’s the word.
Here, every other Tuk-Tuk driver isn’t desperately trying to entice you with the fierce whisper of,
“Lady? Lady? You want lady?”
“You want smoke? Tina? Coke?”
By which I’m sure they meant the real thing and not ‘The Real Thing”!
It’s, shall we say, more family orientated here, much like the famous beverage. Mafia families I’ve no doubt, but let’s not harp on about that or I may have to refuse that offer after all!
The city actually feels more like a small town – one in which Gary Cooper would have felt at home – but still, a friendly, ordinary town.
Our hotel has the imaginative name, The First Hotel. I imagine it will be the first and the last time we stay in it. We are rooming on the fifth floor and were hoping for a view – we got one!
The Ritz, it ain’t, but then what can one expect for six dollar! Hardly ‘Downton Abbey’, more downtown shabby! The dowager countess would almost certainly not approve. The ‘grounds’ are somewhat more charming.
That faded touch of French Indochine is spread rather thickly here, like a good Bearnaise sauce. I have been won over by it’s particularly, parochial flavour and I shall miss the old madame when we have left.
I shall not, on the other hand, miss the hammering, screwing and sawing emanating from the five story building site, adjacent to the Hotel First. Waking up to an energetic builder noisily drilling may sound appealing, but believe me, it does nothing but put the bang into Battambang.
Added to the noisy comings and goings of a local hooker, who is obviously doing a two for one deal, more bang for your buck up on the fifth floor, sleep has been rather erratic. But hey, a girl’s gotta make a living. Had we realised the establishment also charges by the hour it may not have been our first choice.
In fact, this whole place comes to life at an ungodly hour. From five-thirty, inappropriately loud music, thumps from the near distance and the french designed avenues erupt with an eastern joie de vivre, at an oriental volume. Not to mention what sound like a thousand mopeds spluttering and coughing their way into the morning, like a huge pack of Gaulloise smoking dockers.
And, of course, le construction work! Waking up has never been so noisy, yet so puzzlingly peaceful. City sounds can be superbly soporific.
Andrew and I have done most things to do here. We have taken a rickety, bone-banging, bamboo train through the searing heat of the countryside. We have been lucky enough to witness six million bats make their nightly mass exodus from the giant limestone they call home. Great swathes of flapping black, darkening the skies in almost biblical fashion. Amazing.
Our Driver – Puffin’ Bill
Andrew as batty as ever!
We also visited another cavernous wonder, only this one radiating more horror, than the gigantically gothic batcave. Known as ‘The Killing Cave’, this was the site where the monstrous Khmer Rouge would beat their prisoners half to death, before flinging them down through the large hole in the cave’s roof, onto the rocks far below. For those wretched souls who survived the deadly drop and managed to crawl, with shattered limbs, to the surface, the fate that awaited them was to be kicked, nonchalantly by the Khmer cadre, back down the rocky scree, to join their dead friends and family amongst the stalag-like stalagnites.
Any visitor can never truly escape the recent,bloody past here in Cambodia, even when surrounded by such natural beauty. Scratch the surface and Pol Pot and his gang of murderous clowns rear their ugly faces.
On a more positive note we saw some much less vicious clowning later on, when we attended the circus. In all honesty it was more akin to a high school gym contest, only
with nicer costumes and the hint of a story.
The young, underpriviledged performers were so spirited and well meaning, the audience could not help but be enthused. The charitable ringmaster who spins this big top is doing a great job, providing a much needed net for the local youngsters. Helping to train the country’s budding artists, musicians, dancers and wannabee circus performers in their chosen profession. Clevery juggling the books so that everything is provided for free for the kids that most need it. In the words of Sir Tim Rice – Oh what a circus !
But my most abiding memory of this slightly shy and retiring city, will be the all too short time I have spent meandering along her riverside setting, basking in the tropical heat. Stopping, only occasionally, for a Cambodian iced coffee or a stag beetle crepe.
In fact, the latter is not true. I jest. Since our last insect experience aboard the bus, Andrew has not gone near another culinary creepy crawlie, for fear it should pierce his tongue again, making conversation an impossibility.
This afternoon we have been marvellously marooned in a beautifully chic, family guest house in the colonial part of town. Due, entirely, to La Biere Cambodie Andrew has insisted we try. I am now suffering from the same magnificent malaise that is effecting him and cannot move. When alcohol and heat meet, it is all to easy to sit and watch the world amble by, busy doing nothing.
I blame The French.
And The Cambodians.
But mostly, Andrew. He has encouraged us both to sit and stagnate.
He may need a little help to get back into the saddle – something exotic to prick his palate. Maybe stag beetle, rather than stagnation should be on the menu tonight. And as it is dinner,
En Croute, of course.
Then en route, on course.
To the mighty Mekong Delta in deepest Vietnam.
We’ve been well and truly bitten by the travel bug again. Only this one isn’t fried, it’s very much alive and kicking.