Bangin' Battams in Battambang

Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
Trip End Feb 28, 2013

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Battambang, Cambodia March 9 through March 11, 2012


Head pounding, stomach cramps, diarrhea, this is the absolute worse I have felt in years. It must have been something from the delicious dinner at the restaurant last night. Perhaps the bad bacteria came from the tomato garnish I stole off of Dave's plate.. I stayed in bed and couldn’t eat anything the first day. One the second day I was up for soup. That was it. Dave had some GI upset but was otherwise feeling fine. We were in a nice hotel room with cable. The TV had HBO, Cinemax, STARZ, Universal, CNN Asia, and a handful of other channels. I caught a movie version of one of my favorite books, The Long Walk, a true story of Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish Army Officer, who in 1939, is thrown in a Siberian gulag and escapes with five other prisoners and walks through Russia, Mongolia, China, Tibet, and ultimately, to India to freedom.

Mostly I slept and slept a lot. By the third day, I was up and around and able to enjoy a 11AM brunch at the Gecko Café balcony overlooking an intersection and a million electrical wires with birds nesting in them. I had a chance to catch up on my journal while sipping the house special, mint lemon freeze, with the breeze of a fan blowing in my face.


Battambang is one of the largest cities in Cambodia but really has a small town feel. There are a number of restaurants targeting westerners in Battambang. We stuck to those. One restaurant even made a valiant attempt at burritos. It has few tall buildings, little commercial development, and dirt alleys connect the grid of paved streets. The shops close very early and the streets become deserted. It doesn’t feel like 2012 here.

Battambang is a tourist destination with nearby new and ancient Buddhist temples and shrines, Angkor era ruins, killing caves and the infamous bamboo railway. We came here to use it a starting point for a day long boat ride along the river between here and Siem Reap. Our friend Henrik highly recommended it as a way to see simple life in and along the river.

Everything is priced in U.S. Dollars and the ATM’s in Cambodia dispense U.S. Currency. Change, when less than a dollar, is given in Cambodian currency, 'Cambodian Riel’. Everyone automatically converts 4000 Riel to the dollar when giving change.

RIDING WITH SOPHEAP "DJ" - Cell 012255983 

And it was scorching hot out in the midday sun. I wasn’t up for a big day on bicycles or a motorcycle. We trimmed back our ambitions for seeing the town and scheduled an afternoon with a tuk-tuk driver for a scenic ride to Wat Ek Phnom, an 11th century Angkor / Hindu style temple ruin, 15km northwest of Battambang.

DJ turned out to be a great driver and guide. His English can be a bit hard to understand and his vocabulary is limited. He readily stopped when we wanted to stop, and he acted as an interpreter. Often guides will make up answers to questions. DJ relayed our questions and relayed back the answers from the people we visited.

Temple Monastery & Monk Compound; We waited until 2PM to take off.  DJ zigzaged east to the edge of town. After passing a couple of the plethora of temples around, we asked DJ to pull over at the third temple complex for a look around. A few resident monks were working here and there. A pair of young monks was swinging in a hammock while reading a comic book. They live at the monastery. We asked the pair, and other monk there, their ages and asked how long they expected to be monks at the monastery. They ranged in age from about 9 to 12. They didn’t have a plan for how long they would stay. DJ explained they stay until they get ‘fed up’. DJ spent years as a monk. He said many of the poorer family send a boy to the monastery because they cannot feed him. It is rare for a wealthy son to go to monastery, he explained. The monks get clothed, fed and educated. We posted a video of part of our interchange,


Next Stop, Rice Paper Skins. Once outside of Battambang, we began to follow a pretty tree lined lane along the river. Many of the houses had tortilla size discs of rice paper drying in the sun. We told DJ we wanted to take a closer look. DJ brought us to a family he knew. The women were preparing them. They start with 50 kilograms of rice flour and water they let sit for up to three days. It thickens as it stands. Then they ladle the thin white mixture onto damp tightly stretched cloth stretched over steaming pot heated over a fire of smoldering rice husks. The steamed rice pancake is then draped over a roller to cool slightly before another woman transfers it to a grid shaped rack made of bamboo. Once the pancakes fill the rack, they move the rack to a spot in the sun to dry. Once dry, they are stacked in a basket and taken to market. They make a thousand or two a day and get a pittance for them. All the ladies around this area make the rice paper pancakes in their spare time. They are used as the skins for  the spring rolls. We have posted a video of that process too.

Wat Ek Phnom Temple; Continuing up the lovely route, we passed motorcycles, carts, and bicycles hauling all sort of stuff and being used for all sorts of chores. We rolled in to the entrance of Wat Ek Phnom. DJ explained his temple was built in AD 1027, during the reign of King Suryavarman I, Cambodia’s best king. "What made him the best king?" asked Dave. DJ said it was because he built this temple that the tourists come to see and gave him customers and his job as a driver and guide. 

We paid our $2 entrance fee and briefly visited new Buddhist temple nearby that is a mere 50 years old. Then we walked over to the thousand year old temple and began climbing over the rubble to get inside the remaining structure. There were no restrictions on where we could walk or what we could climb. Inscription and carvings adorned some of the door and window openings. The entrance of the a small room with a chimney like opening to the sky had a small Buddhist shrine with incense burning, leaving the impression this is still considered a holy place. It was a pleasant precursor to what we expect to see at Angkor Archeological Park in Siem Reap.

Wat Ek Phnom
Date: early eleventh century
Religion: Hinduism
King: Soryavarman I (1002-1049)
Posthumous Name: Paramanirvanapada

Preparing Dried Bananas.  We asked DJ to stop again so we could take a picture of sliced bananas drying in the sun. We watched as a woman carefully cut thin slices from the bananas and lay them down, slightly overlapping the edges. Those were put on a meter long bamboo tray, then transfered to a bigger metal rack and put out to let the sun do its magic. The overlap of the banana edges allow the sheets of banana to be rolled like a scroll then to be sold in the market. No idle hands around here.

Stinky Fish Prep Factory; DJ took us back to Battambang a different way, As we crossed the river, we passed a horribly putrid smell. DJ asked if we wanted him to stop so we could visit the fish processing factory. We felt like gagging from the dead fish smell and told DJ to speed up as we held our breath. DJ grinned and laughed.

Bamboo Sticky Rice. We came to the zone where the ladies make and sell bamboo sticky rice. They stuff sticky rice mixed with bean paste or coconut into a freshly cut tube of bamboo. They make the day's supply in the morning and it is best if eaten the same day. We didn’t have an opportunity to see them made but we bought two to snack on during the boat ride in the morning.

Bamboo Train. We got back into the city and over to the Bamboo Train on the south side of the river. Cambodians, under the Khmer Rouge control, suffered destruction of most of society including roads and the rail system. The local people improvised short transportation systems from the remaining rail tracks. We visited the ‘start’ of this bamboo train along a dirt path. The train cars consist of two pair of wheels that look like barbells, a floor, and an engine. The wheels are set on the tracks and a bamboo platform floor is laid on top. Then a hand carried engine is put in place and coupled with a rubber fan belt to a fly wheel on the axle. A small single cylinder motor is fired up and the train rolls away. If two trains meet along the rails, one of the two is disassembled to allow the other by. We all have seen this on documentaries and it was fun to see it in real life. But we were not compelled to take it on the 14 kilometer tourist ride. Photos were enough.

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