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Cambodia

Battambang

Come for the statues, stay for theÖ ummÖ errÖ statues

July 2000

There are many reasons to visit Battambang Ė the train from Phnom Penh goes there, itís on the way to Pailin (casinos! rubies!), itís an excuse to take a cramped speedboat ride from Siem Reap, or more seriously, itís one of the best places in the country to observe the rural Cambodian way of life.

Until the recent reconstruction of the Siem Reap to Poipet road, many travelers going overland between the two towns would detour by way of Battambang. Now that travelers can make the overland journey in three hours, Battambang is losing out on these overnight guests. So hereís a plug for Battambang.

Battambang is Cambodiaís second most populous city and likely boasts the highest statue to resident ratio in the country. Ah, yes, the Battambang statues Ė every circle, every park, every plaza sports a statue. While this is hardly unique to Cambodia, Battambang seems to have taken this to a new level. Animals, mythological creatures (some apparently quite horny), divinities, you name it, if someone can carve it out of stone youíll probably find it in Battambang.

The town is quiet, too quiet for some. Lined along the banks of the Sangker River, itís your basic provincial city with plenty of French Colonial architecture in the typically Cambodian semi-neglected state, a large central market, and a handful of decent places to stay. During the UNTAC days a flurry of hotels went up and when UNTAC left, the hotels, well, letís say I wouldnít bother calling ahead and making a reservation.

But the real charm of Battambang lies not only in its urban offerings but in the surrounding countryside as well. I had good fortune to first visit Battambang in July 2000 Ė during the height of a most generous rainy season. The countryside flashed in the electric green of rice paddies lined with the requisite sugar palms, stilted wood houses shaded by coconut palms with sundry hills framed this setting in a picture perfect postcard.

I arrived by boat Ė a three-hour ride from Siem Reap which, though cramped, I didnít find it all that unpleasant as I enjoyed the wetlands rushing by. I did at times wonder if the driver didnít think he was racing through the streets of Le Mans and not piloting a boat with a dozen passengers behind as he zig-zagged through the flora only slowing down barely enough to avoid splitting in two some poor villagerís pirogue.

As expected, on arrival motodops and touts for the trucks to Poipet besieged us as we disembarked. One of the would-be motodop/guides seemed pleasant enough and possessed a reasonably good command of English so I hired him.

I spent two days going around the countryside visiting most, if not all, the important sites within thirty or forty kilometers of the city. I could have added Pailin to that trip, 80 kilometers to the west on a crap road, but saved that for later. Go here for that story.

Battambangís main attractions are Wat Ek Phnom, Phnom Sampeau, Wat Banan, Kamping Puoy, and a crocodile farm even less secure than the one in Siem Reap.

Phnom Sampeau, about twenty-five kilometers along the road to Pailin, offers pagodas, war remnants, and holocaust memories. During the Pol Pot years a small temple on the hillís summit was used as a prison. Like most Khmer Rouge prisons there was only one way out - prisoners were marched about a hundred meters to a small cave opening, bludgeoned and pushed down a fifteen-meter deep hole. Many of the bones have since been collected and placed in a small enclosure as a memorial. A reclining Buddha lies nearby keeping vigil over the bones, another thumb in the face of the Khmer Rouge. A second cave not far away also houses a number of bones. A bit of military hardware lies about including some guns pointed at nearby Crocodile Mountain, so named by its obvious crocodile shape, a one-time Khmer Rouge controlled outpost. Apparently opposing forces spent a lot of time firing shells at each otherís respective mountains.

Another ten kilometers beyond Phnom Sampeau is the village of Kamping Puoy, noted for its large Khmer Rouge-era dam Ė one of the few KR dams that has survived and remained functional. Built by hand and costing thousands of lives, I am told many bodies are buried in the dam. Today it is a popular swimming hole and weekend picnic site.

A pair of tenth-century temples lies to the west of town, the better of the two is Wat Banan, sitting atop a small hill fronted by a steep set of stairs. At the top, not only is the view nice, there is an old anti-aircraft gun sitting defiantly in one corner. If the gun doesnít do it for you, expect to be met by friendly students wishing to practice their English. You should be used to this by now as Battambang seems to have an unusually high number of monks all of whom seem most eager to practice their sometimes limited English skills on the occasional foreigner they meet.

Wat Ek Phnom isnít in such good shape. My guide tells me the Khmer Rouge had dismantled large sections by hand, resulting in what one sees today - a few sections of temple recognizable as such and many piles of stone recognizable as, well, piles of stone - definitely a temple for fans of rubble. For those who have been there, it reminds of Chau Srei Vibol in Siem Reap province.

Next to Wat Ek Phnom is an active pagoda, hence the area sees a lot of visitors. On the day I visited a funeral was taking place Ė while this kept the adults occupied, the kids grew weary of the proceedings and the old temple was populated with about twenty kids from 7 to 17 who found a couple of barangs far more interesting than the solemn proceedings for the dearly departed.

Near town is a crocodile farm. Though not as populated as Siem Reapís crowded facility, itís not very secure, either. Visitors walk along a cement walkway about five feet above the pens and there are no barriers to prevent you from jumping (or falling) into one of the pens - donít bring your children to this one and come sober unless you're looking for some new playmates.

Battambang is a reasonably attractive, laidback town. Some people have had negative experiences due to the high military presence thatís always existed here, but I have yet to be so bothered in the two visits Iíve made and most other visitors Iíve spoken with enjoyed the day or two they spent there. So check out Battambang for a good place to observe rural Cambodian life in an attractive setting.

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Due to its proximity to Thailand, Thai baht is readily accepted here. To get to Battambang, all forms of Cambodian transport are available Ė pick-up trucks to/from Phnom Penh, Sisophon, and Pailin, trains to/from Phnom Penh, speedboats to/from Siem Reap, and airplanes to/from Phnom Penh.

Many lodging options. I like the Teo Hotel, a large, clean, UNTAC-era hotel with a good restaurant. $11 for a single. The Chaiya and Royal Hotels have had some decent reviews and you can get a fan room for around $5 at either one.

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Cambodia

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