I missed Angelina

Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
Trip End Apr 08, 2006

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Flag of Cambodia  , Khétt Bătdâmbâng,
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Bon Tom Ok. Water Festival. Three days of dragon boat racing, witnessed by the million plus residents of Phnom Penh, as well as the hundreds of thousands from the provinces who converge on the city. Nearly every street within the vicinity of the riverfront is blocked, and people crowd the area for the duration of the festival. Living in such close proximity to the heart of the action, I decided to do something none of my students could understand - I left the city!

I figured the dragon boat racing would be interesting to watch, for half an hour or so, which meant if I planned a trip well I could be back in Phnom Penh by thursday afternoon to catch the end of it. But where to go for two and a half days? Obviously somewhere I hadn't been which was accessible in the short time I had. Then it hit me. Pailin! The municipality a few hours drive from Battambang, governed by former Khmer Rouge leaders amidst stunning mountain scenery. It was an epic trip comparable only to that I did to Preah Vihear in May, but I figured it was worth a shot.

So I left Phnom Penh around 8:30am, hoping to make Battambang soon after lunch. Despite a 50km detour around Udong thanks to a submerged bridge, the familiar site of the giant statue in Battambang's easter outskirts greeted me from the bus window at about 2:30pm. I used my usual tactic at the bus station to find a decent moto (ignoring anyone who grabs me or even touches me) and was soon on my way to the Royal Hotel, the same hotel I stayed at in June. My motodop spoke decent English, and before I knew it my afternoon was planned and I'd sorted out my trip to Pailin for the following day!

After a quick shower and bite to eat (since when is "bacon" part of a vegetarian sandwich?) my driver, Onion (spel?), picked me up and we made tracks for Wat Ek Phnom, an 11th century temple I'd missed on my previous two trips here. The 30 minute drive along the banks of the Stung Sangker was absolutely magnificent. I'd forgotten just how beautiful the countryside in these parts was! We wound our way along a narrow dirt road, with hundreds of huge palms shading us from the setting sun. The rays shone brilliantly through the trunks onto the blue shutters of the houses on stilts, built amongst the trees by the side of the road. Despite seeing a number of foreigners every day, the children continue to chase after motorbikes every time they see a barang, shouting out "hello!". We stopped along the way to see how sticky rice, fish sauce and rice paper was made, however the highlight for me was simply winding our way through the spectacular palms. The only thing that brought me down a notch was Onion recounting the time he met Angelina Jolie in July. Yes! She'd come back to Cambodia to film a documentary in Battambang, and I missed it! They kept that one quiet didn't they. Onion was obviously smitten, althought he seemed more taken by her height than her looks!

The sun had disappeared behind some clouds by the time we reached Wat Ek Phnom, which was a little disappointing considering the expectations I had for the light during the ride. Nevertheless, the temple was quite interesting, and Onion pointed out some bas-reliefs and recountered some of the stories that went with them. Three quarters of an hour was long enough to see the temple and nearby pagoda (both of which I'd seen on a karaoke video on the bus, along with my friend Antonio's Khmer boxing film), and I found myself back in Battambang just as the pink clouds were starting to fade.

I had dinner by the river, at a nicely converted "balcony bar", and I couldn't help but stare at the silhouette of the palms against the moonlight, trying to figure out how it was possible to love a place so much. Apart from home, I can't remember any place having such an effect on me. Sure I had an epic adventure to Preah Vihear temple, am totally blown away by the temples at Siem Reap and loved Muang Ngoi in northern Laos, but there's just something about this place that does it for me. I think it's the friendly people, the ambience, the colonial architecture and the fact that it isn't pretending to be anything. It simply is what it is - the real Cambodia.

We leave for Pailin at 6am tomorrow. I'm told I'll meet Khmers who spent 15 years in Thai refugee camps, former Khmer Rouge soldiers, miners and deminers. I can't see it not being an interesting day!
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