For my trip to Siam Reap from Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, the following day I had two options: to either hire a taxi and do a road trip or take a flight. In most countries flights would be at least double the cost of a road trip. Here in Cambodia though in terms of pricing there wasn’t so much of a difference, both modes of transport cost between eighty to ninety dollars.
A road trip would not be so bad. The government had carried out massive improvements to the roads. Earlier a road trip between the two cities would have taken two to three days of a bumpy ride that would exercise all your body parts, but now the distance could be covered in only five hours with delays caused by traffic and not road conditions. If nothing else, there had been clear and marked progress in road building all over the country.
Anyhow, considering that there would be no saving achieved by a road trip and with a view to avoid potential traffic jams, I decided to fly and bought a ticket with Cambodian Angkor Air, the national carrier. The aircraft I embarked on was sleek and new, with bright maroon and yellow colours emblazoned across its white surface.
Upon landing at Siam Reap in what must have been less than an hour’s flight, I quickly exited the quaint airport with its red roofed tiles, and immediately hired a taxi. Savan, the broad shouldered taxi driver I hired was in his late fifties but physically fit by the looks of him and from the way he handled my bags. I assessed from his demeanour and the reasonable rate he quoted for the journey that he was a sensible man
I was bypassing the great temples of Siam Reap for the time being and was headed directly to a town known as Battambang. An old Goanese friend Fernando D’Cruz and his Jordanian wife Tamara lived there and I had promised I would visit them. Tamara worked in Cambodia as a journalist working for an Australian media company. My friend Fernando who had earlier been a UN staffer was applying for jobs and in the meanwhile playing the role of a house-husband cooking, dusting and taking care of the garden.
Coming from India it was a pleasure to travel on an excellent road with little traffic and next to no heavy duty vehicles belching smoke. The air was clean, and I breathed deeply. It was early January and the crop had been partly harvested. It would be clean, green countrywide all the way to the town. I saw many women driving cycles. Young girls and boys in school uniforms trudged back home along the highway.
We were nearly half way to Battambang, when the taxi driver – after ensuring my prior agreement – picked up a young trainee nurse who happened to be his neighbour. We had actually passed the spot on the main road near her village from where we had agreed to pick her up, but then reversed and waited. She soon appeared a young fresh faced girl, having been brought from her village to the pickup point on a motorbike by a scruffy-faced rider.
As we neared our destination, Sovan, who had grown up and lived there, informed me that Battambang earlier ranked second in the country in terms of population after Phnom Penh but with the growth in tourism in Siam Reap its rival, its ranking had now fallen to the third position. Still in terms of overall wealth, he observed proudly it ranked at number 2, above Siam Reap because of the area’s agricultural produce. After dropping the girl off, we drove past the Sang Khae, and he pointed out that the river here was wider than the river which flowed at Siam Reap. Despite its so-called material accomplishments, he said to me in broken English, it retained old world and small town values and charm.
* * *
After checking into my hotel, that went by the unique name of the King Fy, initially I was somewhat disappointed. My choice had been influenced by the many positive reviews I had read of the establishment on the Internet. The booking itself had been done on the phone without a cash transaction on the Net. I thought to myself, Trip Adviser, never again.
First point of concern: the bed was roughhewn, of unpolished wood, and twice the height of a normal one! The balcony that jutted out of my room had a rural countryside kind of half-baked design about it. To my amusement, the naïve young girl at reception expressed surprise that I was happy to pay in advance
And yet when I woke the next morning and looked outside the window into the sleepy little town, the appeal of my lodgings became apparent to me. As the morning hours passed, I started to like my hotel more and more. It may not have had the usual modernistic trappings and decor, but it had charm and innocence reflected in the arrangement of simple toiletries, in the rudimentary almost misshapen design and arrangements in the room and in the character and manners of the hotel staff. It had an old world rural charm that is perhaps common to countryside all over the world, not the stylised charm of cities and metropolises. Even the lad who came in to clean my room had a wider smile as was the case with other people I met in town – just like many other semi-rural places in the world
I was startled to find four to five Chinese channels on the television. More surprises. Two Indian channels played serials. These had been dubbed not subtitled.
I dialled the receptionist for a towel, then realised that someone had forgotten to hang it on the rail but it was stored in a closet instead. I hastened to call and cancel, but was too late. Moments later a fresh faced country girl was there at my door with a walkie-talkie in her hand, insisting I take the fresh towel that lay on her arm.
* * *
My friend Fernando and his wife Tamara lived in a large bungalow with a garden in Battambang. They had spare rooms for visiting guests and had invited me to stay with them, but I generally prefer to enjoy the independence that comes from staying separately. After a lovely breakfast – grilled pork and omelette with boiled rice, an appetising variation of the bacon and eggs English version – in the courtyard on the first floor of the hotel, I called Fernando on his mobile.
My friend came over a little later. He was unshaven, wore half pants with pockets and flip-flops and looked none the worse for wear since I had seen him last in Kabul. We started to explore the town together; it had less hustle and bustle and none of the maddening traffic of Phnom Penh.
Around the centre of town lay a proliferation of quaint streets with an abundance of French architecture; some experts claim that more French architecture survives here than anywhere else in the country. In stark contrast I also saw many houses on stilts in the traditional Khmer style, the kind of houses that the French must have torn down, and reconstructed after their own colonial architectural vision of what was good – an offence if not a trauma to local sentiment at the time. Now, with decades gone by, these same French style houses have an enhanced old world aesthetic appeal.
Relative to the capital Phnom Penh, Battambang has a far greater presence of NGO’s and charities. We passed by more than one café being managed by a charity with a signboard outside explaining how the proceeds would go to an orphanage.
A little outside the main town you can find killing fields. Our walkabout over we hired a tuk-tuk to go and see an abandoned prison.
The roof was not flat and the so-called prison was far smaller than I had supposed it would be. The place was more like a large holding-place preparatory to brutal executions carried out against whom the Khmer Rouge perceived to be ‘enemies of the State’ which, according to some estimates was pretty much a third of the population!
Behind the buildings quaint shape there was a story. Originally this prison was a Buddhist temple, but it had later been converted to a place to keep prisoners before they were taken out to be slaughtered. Such a scenario was by no means an exception in those bloody times. Although it was fascism under which Einstein suffered, the great physicist once remarked on how communism produced a fanaticism not dissimilar to the concentrated emotions of religious fanatics.
Communism was Pol Pot’s religion. Much like Christian crusaders or Muslim invaders who tore down innumerable edifices of so-called pagan religions, here too under the dictator’s direction the communists had converted these buildings to their cause. Apparently Pol Pot derived great revolutionary satisfaction in converting temples into prisons. He relished the desecration of the Buddhist religion, and held priests in even greater contempt than the so-called intellectuals and bourgeoisie. Clearly, there were also political motivations that lay behind the desecration of temples for he believed and understood rightly that the monks stood in opposition to him.
As regards the architecture of this particular temple, it seemed an odd fusion of French and Khmer elements. While the temple itself was clearly in the traditional Khmer style with remnants of carvings and pillars, there were colonial or secular interventions, for the windows displayed French Mediterranean style shutters to keep out the hot sun. There were remnants of filigree work in chandi, a Cambodian word derived from Indian languages, with the same meaning – silver. Lush green fields surrounded the temple, but unlike the killing fields in Phnom Penh, these had not been marked out in any fashion. Tragically even genocide had become passé here. So much killing had taken place in the countryside all over this beautiful land that it didn’t make sense to mark out all the places where the slaughter had taken place.
Was there some defect in the Cambodian national character that had been harnessed successfully by the Khmer Rouge to create thousands of half-baked ideologues who carried out the hundreds of thousands of killings that followed? National character is never easy to estimate. I found the Cambodians to be sincere and straightforward in general. I thought I saw certain doggedness to the their character, an extra persistence if you will, whether it was in the underpaid tuk tuk driver who had followed us inside the restaurant ECCC prosecutor Susan had taken me to or in other such encounters. In itself it wasn’t a bad trait to possess, even a good one, and it could have been used to create a dedicated cadre, who’s thinking and thought processes had however been manipulated to evil designs.
* * *
This temple lay on the outskirts of the town. Scores of banana trees grew nearby. The fruit was so plentiful that as a consequence all kinds of banana snacks were available in town. Local oranges were said to be something special. Shops sold local handicrafts.
It was a warm day, and with all the walking about some cooling was needed, so when we headed back to the centre of town we found a roadside fruit juice stall. When I asked for the Battambang oranges, the young lady in charge with a sincere expression shook her head regretfully.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘At moment we only have Chinese oranges…’
I hadn’t sampled the Chinese orange while in Beijing the previous year so this was an opportunity. I thought of Leonard Cohen’s lines from his famous Suzanne song.
‘And she gets me tea and oranges that come all the way from China….’
The Chinese fruit was small but super-sweet. Eventually, I never got to sample the Battambang variety.
We went to have a look at the statue of Battambang, the deity who has given his name to the town (whom Fernando referred to as Mister Battambang). It was a big statue at a prominent location, and worshippers had left all sorts of things at the idol’s feet. Presumably the deity did not consume them, but there was no priest in sight; perhaps he came around every few hours to collect the tributes. Among the various offerings were large pink flowers, piles of bananas all over the place, and even a full pig that must have cost some serious money.
* * *
Later that evening at an open air country bar, Fernando and I drank some palm liquor. People squatted around tables drinking the white beverage, and instead of the kebabs that I enjoyed with my whisky back in India, here tasty snacks accompanying the drink included barbecued rats and small frogs. Dog meat was not available at this particular bar, and I was informed there were special establishments where this other much prized ‘delicacy’ was to be found – something that was made all the more enjoyable after a couple of drafts of beer or alcohol.