CURRENT LOCATION: Battambang, Cambodia
Leaving Siem Reap was kind of sad, but we were ready to move on. Our next stop was the provincial city, Battambang, pronounced Bat-tom-bong. The bus journey to get here was an interesting one. 5 hours on a packed bus with a flat screen at the front of the bus playing Khmer slapstick action comedy movies and karaoke videos as loud as it could go. It was definitely a cultural experience, but as far as our track records with bus trips go, a treat.
We arrived in Battambang in the afternoon, at what definitely did not appear to be the bus station, but a hoard of tuk tuk drivers waited like the warriors of Sparta to verbally and physically accost each passenger as we were bottlenecked through the small bus door. Again, a cultural experience? We eventually found the least aggressive tuk tuk driver and asked him to take us to our $10 a night hotel. Our tuk tuk driver was called Bernie, and he will feature a little bit later on in this post. We ate dinner at a family run restaurant - well I can only assume they were a family as they constantly bickered and yelled at one another while providing service with a blank, unimpressed face. Sam was brave and ordered the "double deep fried instant noodles with vegetables and chicken". She was, needless to say, satisfied. To continue as we started we decided to grab dessert at Swensen's ice cream parlour. It was amazing! Sam ate a sundae that was only slightly smaller than her head. Good job Sam!
On day 2 we downloaded a map and guide for a DIY "Battambang heritage and architectural tour" and hit the streets. This was really interesting and a great way to familiarise ourselves with the city. It has a unique blend of architecture, including traditional Khmer-style shacks and lofts, French villas, Art Deco facades, Chinese influences and modern day buildings. We learnt a bit about the history of the city and the buildings in it. In the afternoon we caught up with Bernie (the tuk tuk driver) and had him take us to a temple 40 minutes South of the city called Wat Sampeou (which translates to the Ship Temple, as it is situated on Mt Sampeou - which allegedly resembles a ship in profile. Though we only learnt this after the fact, so cannot confirm its shipiness). To view the temple we had a 30 minute hike up a bazillion stairs to find a giant golden Buddha, a handful or angry monkeys, and breathtaking views of the Battambang province and city. We got a bit lost and didn't make it to the killing cave - one of many infamous spots where the Khmer Rouge executed a large number of Cambodian people during the notorious dictatorship of Pol Pot. We returned to the bottom and met up with Bernie.
The other reason for coming all this way was to watch approximately 12 million bats continuously exit the mouth of the cave at dusk to collect food during the night. But our premature arrival left us with about 80 minutes before they were due to start flying out. This proved to be a blessing in disguise.
For the next hour and a half we sat in hammocks and chatted with Bernie about his country, its brutal history, and the transitions that Cambodia has gone through on its way to becoming a democracy. He spoke incredible English and was obviously well-educated. He spoke of the rift between the new generation of Cambodians and the older generations (those who survived the Khmer Rouge). He talked about how in Cambodia there has been a consistent level of fear, corruption, and distrust of the government, even after the UN stepped in and facilitated the first democratic vote in 1993. He explained that the current Prime Minister of Cambodia is an ex-Khmer Rouge leader. Need I remind you all that the Khmer Rouge was the communist group that overthrew the government by force in the late 1970s and, under the dictatorship of Pol Pot, were directly responsible for the deaths of approximately 2 million innocent Cambodian people and the virtual enslavement of millions more? And a leader of this faction is now the Prime minister, "elected" by the people of Cambodia. Bernie told us that the last election was completely rigged. He told us stories of the government-hired polling booth operators who would not go to lunch and instead sit in the booths just ticking ballots for the current prime minister while everyone else was out. Or when the initial numbers were revealed nearly 80% of the votes were not for the current PM, there was an electrical failure which disrupted television coverage of the election. Lo and behold, when the failure was fixed, the counting was finished and suddenly he was ahead...Funny that... This did not sit right with either of us. Sam said, "How is that democratic?", to which Bernie replied, "Cambodia is not a democracy, no way, not yet anyways!", and chuckled. He elaborated on the insanity of current PM, talking about how just last week he publicly addressed the nation in a speech where he actually threatened his own people with M21 assault rifles and said that "soldiers are the best kind of citizen as you can hold them in your hand". This is apparently a response to the increasing popularity of the opposition party, who were robbed of their victory in the last election (2013). This statement indicated to Bernie that if the opposition party does win the next election (which the United Nations is set to oversee) that the current PM will attempt to instigate a military coup and take back control of the nation - not unlike the Khmer Rouge.
Bernie told us how his generation (we think he was about 35) and even younger generations in Cambodia are generally lacking education. This, coupled with the older generations (Khmer Rouge survivors) not wanting to speak out against the government or even talk about their experiences and teach their children and grandchildren about the history of their country has been the primary reason there continues to be such corruption in government, and it is more or less tolerated. But "things are changing" he says. The people are getting smarter. Knowledge and access to information has never been easier with the Internet and Facebook etc. People are talking and criticising and demanding that the government (particularly individuals) be held responsible for their corruption and actions. He mentioned that within the next year, there is meant to be a UN inquiry into the actions and alleged war crimes of the current prime minister. If this goes through he will have to stand down and be brought to trial. Anyways, it was extremely interesting talking with Bernie and I can only share a small snippet of the stories and insight that he shared with us with you now. Please, please, please, if you can, go read a few articles from BBC or watch some news clips about the current governmental state of this country and tell people about it. Go read about the history. It's terrible, yet fascinating reading about how people survived. As a Jew, I feel like perhaps it has hit me a bit harder, as the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge are not too dissimilar to the happenings of the Holocaust. Yet I would bet these atrocities are not as widely known about. I turn to the first world now. New Zealand, USA, we have a big job as true democracies to model what a non-corrupt government looks like, what a non-corrupt government can achieve. Are we doing that? In many ways, yes. In some ways, hell no! One last thing from Bernie before I move on. He said and it really hit home with me: "Can you imagine your prime minister [John Key] or even the President of the USA openly threatening their own people? In a public address? Would that even happen?"
Right. So that last section was a bit intense. I felt like I needed to write about it though. It has kept me up the last couple nights, and even if only a few of you read this, I would love to know you think? What have you learnt? LET'S TALK ABOUT CAMBODIA!
Moving on. After chatting with Bernie we watched the seemingly endless stream of bats emerge from a 10m wide hole in the side of Mt Sampeou. It was fascinating to watch millions of these flighted mammals on their exodus to find nourishment. The noise was like nothing I have heard, continuos screeches and clicks of the echo-locating bats. It was also mesmerising to watch them, as a unit, all shift to one side or the other in time with a local man sweeping in the street. The "swish" from the broom must have elicited a similar response to evading a predator and with each brush they would simultaneously weave off of their current path. I tried to capture this on video, and will try to load on Facebook soon. After a 40 minute return journey, we went out for dinner and had a delicious meal. I had an honest-to-God Philly cheesesteak! Yummmmm!
On day three we decided to do a full day bike tour around the provincial Battambang region. A bit of background before I tell about the tour. As a wedding gift, Mark and Nardia Hamilton gave us a boat tour to the floating villages and flooded forest of Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Unfortunately we have come here smack dab in the middle of dry season. When we have approached a few locals about the best way to do this they have basically laughed us out the door. So we quickly started looking for an alternative and we found Soksa Bike Tours in Battambang. So Mark and Nardia, if you are reading, we did a swapsie... Hope that's ok?! This tour was absolutely amazing. The tour company is about sustainable tourism (eg the bikes) and about introducing tourists to the "real Cambodian way of life". The tour took us to a number of family run businesses (important: these were all based out of the people's homes, which in NZ we would struggle to even call a bach... closer to a shack) where the older generation are all survivors of the Khmer Rouge. We got to watch them at their trade, hear about their stories, meet them and greet them (in Khmer) and sometimes even have a go at doing what they do, by stepping into their shoes.
Our first stop was a family who made rice paper to be used in cooking, like the wrappers for spring rolls. The family had owned their rice farm for generations, but were relocated to another farming area during the Pol Pot regime. The used to sell the rice, and made rice paper as a part time job for some extra cash. When they returned to the farm after the war, they had to sell the rice fields to pay for medical treatment for a sick family member, so making rice paper became a full time job for the family. They can make around 2500 riel a day during the dry season, which they package into bundles of 100 which they sell wholesale for $1.25USD. This is back breaking work, literally squatting next to a fire all day from 6am, with a short break for lunch, finishing at 4pm.
Next was a family who make dried bananas. Their story is similar to the first family - they owned a farm and were moved to a different part of the country, and when they returned someone else was living on their land. They decided they would share the plot, but they lost their rice farm. Now, they slice bananas incredibly thinly and leave them to dry on bamboo boards. Then they turn them into banana chips, or strips of a sort of fruit leather, which they sell wholesale.
The we hit up a rice wine distillery. After the taste test, Sam had flashbacks of Zev's 25th birthday karaoke, and had to go have a moment alone. They use rice wine as medicine here, mixing it with dried and pounded toad to treat fevers. Although I can think of anything more likely to bring on a fever than drinking rice wine...
And then the revolting stop. The fish paste factory. The rice wine/fish paste combo was a real delight, let me tell you... Luckily we had a quick stop nearby to refuel with a cane sugar and orange juice drink, while admiring some rats on the BBQ. Mmmmm....
We got to eat a home-made Khmer lunch (no rats, or at least we THINK no rats), and then have a Cambodian style siesta in a hammock, before heading out to ride the bamboo train. This thing is pretty amazing. It's just wheels with a platform on top, and it GOES! If another cart is coming the other way, you get off and they dismantle it and take it off the rails, then put it all back together when the other cart has gone.
The tenacity and work ethic of these people is phenomenal. They work to live, earning in a day enough to pay any bills and feed their family. And they work EVERYDAY. No weekends. No sick leave. No annual leave. They work to survive. It's incredible. And they are smiling, and seem, to us anyways, to be happy. They are truly inspirational people. Our tour guide taught us some Khmer greetings and phrases so we could show our gratitude and respect to all these people who let have a glimpse of their day to day life as a Cambodian. This tour was so rewarding and I highly recommend it to anyone who finds themselves in Battambang. After the tour, we went to the most amazing restaurant for dinner, where we had a divine slow cooked beef rib dish. It just melted in your mouth and was sooo tasty (Mark and Nardia, we decide dinner was on you too, as the there was a price discrepancy between the tour you got us and Soksa bikes... So thanks!).
We're off to the beach tomorrow, taking our time to get there by breaking up the journey with a pit stop in Phnom Penh overnight, then on to Sihanoukville. We are meeting up with Lisi (Auckland frisbee people will remember her) and her brother and friend there too!
Ok, I think it's time to wrap it up. I just want to finish with a brief chat Sam and I had. I asked Sam last night at dinner if she feels the same way as me - guilty that we are not more in the know about places like Cambodia and the injustices that have been and are occurring here? She brought up that she felt guilty that we didn't come here with more money to spend, in fact the opposite. We came here because it was cheap. Both of these are true, and we have been profoundly affected by being here and seeing the poverty, meeting the people and educating ourselves about this country's awful history. Also, though we cannot forget the unbelievable positivity and warmth of the people and all the amazing experiences we have had so far, it's fair to say, in spite of it being cliche, Cambodia has changed us.
Lots of love,
Z & S
(Original post date: 4th March 2015)