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Royal Reflections

SEPTEMBER: How normal Cambodia

AUGUST: A week on the wagon.

Adventures in house rentals.

The trials and tribulations of developing a human interest story in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh Perspective:

Rats, bats and the meaning of life

by Bronwyn Sloan

November 2004

The best way to get a sane Phnom Penh perspective is often to leave the place behind, preferably by bus, or perhaps with the help of a left-hand drive Camry or Corolla and a taxi driver without a death wish. This month, Battambang beckoned.

Exotic dishes seemed to be the order of the day with foreign news subscribers, so with the help of my friend, who is also a radio journalist and a terrific translator, we set out to find rats, bats and other fruits of the Cambodian field.

A quick scan of Psar Nat, in the heart of Battambang, revealed nothing more exotic than some dead birds. So we found some motos and headed out of town.

Phnom Sampov is about ten kilometers out of Battambang town. Known for its "Killing Caves"—spectacular limestone caves the Khmer Rouge used as mass graves—in modern times it has again become the site of pagodas, with a local non-government organization making use of one side of the mountain to carve a giant Buddha. The sculptors are youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds or recovering drug addicts, and the project is not only bringing Buddha to the place of some of the worst atrocities carried out by the ultra-Maoist regime, but helping these children learn a trade, kick their addictions and reintegrate into society.

The mountain and surrounding limestone karsts are also home to millions of bats. In Phnom Penh, the rumor was that these bats had migrated from the National Museum when that establishment kicked them out some years ago with the clever application of chicken wire in the building's roof and the famous quote "This is not a bat museum". In Battambang, the rumor was that they were being eaten. But on the ground, the locals had other ideas.

"The bats have always lived here and no, we don't eat them," came the firm reply from a food vendor at the base of the mountain. "It is against the law and they are guarded by soldiers. We hear foreigners eat them though."

Thinking this response might have been induced by the buzzing of a blue shirted official intent on being paid money for a reason he was unable to elaborate on in any language; we left and ventured further around the base of the mountain.

If the foreign newswires are to be believed, Cambodians eat anything. The reason bats might be exempt seemed unclear. We reached a second village soon after and repeated our questioning. The response was the same.

"No, we don't eat them. We don't hunt them. They are guarded by soldiers. We heard that the penalty for catching them is death, and then a 2000 riel fine for every one you caught after that," a 17-year-old boy explained. That sounded serious—first they kill you and then they fine you? We pressed on.

People around the base of the mountain clutching metal basins began to materialize.
"The pots are to bang when the bats start to fly out so they fly high and fly in the right direction. Down the road, there are people who might eat them. We do this to protect them," a woman explained. These bats, it seemed, were not just off the menu. They were beloved local characters.

And then, in another village at the end of a winding dirt track, 75-year-old Aom Keab shuffled over to meet us and suddenly everything became clear. "Bat shit," he said enigmatically, then, noticing our need for clarification added; "The shit is worth more than the bats. We are farmers here. We grow rice. We need the guano from the bats to fertilize the rice, and if we sell the excess, a bag is worth 10,000 riel ($2.50). We need the bats. They help us. When there are fewer bats, we pray to the gods and burn incense and then there are more again. And anyway, they taste terrible!"

They also smell terrible. My friend and I have embarked on several adventures together. We have strolled up to the front doorsteps of senior Khmer Rouge figures unannounced armed with nothing more than a bag of fruit. He never flinched during our trips to prison to interview a convicted axe murderer seething with scabies and resentment. We have karaoked with the KR and dined with drunken military. But bats, and the stench that heralds their presence, was beginning to look like the point where he might just draw the line.

So we retreated back the way we had come, and stumbled upon the camp of the soldiers the people at the base of the mountain had mentioned before. The smell of bats was not so obvious here, despite the fact that the main cave the creatures were scheduled to fly from was high on the mountain right in front of the camp.

They laughed when they heard what the 17-year-old had said and invited us to sit with them and watch the nightly exodus with them over a meal of shells

"In fact, there is no law against catching them that we can enforce. We just hope we can discourage people with our presence," one of them said. "We fought the Khmer Rouge here in 1994 and when the war ended, we stayed. Now we help the local people guard the bats. We all own rice fields around here, too."

In a country so often criticized for pillaging its own wildlife, for corruption, for shortsighted policies and a lack of environmental awareness, this place was a pleasant revelation. What was more, it proved that local Cambodians could do this on their own. If there were NGOs involved here, the locals hadn't heard about it.

"No—at least none of them have ever visited us," the soldier said. "Some Thai businessmen have been around asking if people would sell to them, but I don't think local people wanted to do that, either."

Here was a community which had recognized a resource and was protecting the animal that provides it with the cooperation of local military. What was more, the resource, guano, not only increased rice yields in the area but was totally organic and excess could provide valuable cash income in between seasons. I thought about a particularly self-satisfied and overpaid consultant I had stupidly worked for until I realized he was very PC, but not PC enough to pay his invoices. This was the sort of place he had made a huge song and dance about "identifying" and "turning into a project". I hoped he stuck to his dream of exporting organic bugs in woven corn leaf packaging produced by women with interesting disabilities to the Chinese market, or whatever his last proposal had waffled on about. I really hoped people like him never managed to find this spot.

"Sorry the bats are late," said the soldier apologetically, and suddenly they were there, with a soft roar like silk being rolled off a massive bolt, a black ribbon of them splitting the twilight in two. The muted sound of pestles on pots clanged from the surrounding villages as people began their nightly ritual, scaring the bats up and out of reach of nets and slingshots further down the road. Others rustled the dead leaves of the coconut palms to make sure the bats didn't roost. The soldiers watched as intently as if they were seeing all this for the first time. It is an incredible sight.

The living ribbon still showed no signs of thinning 20 minutes later, but the light was beginning to fade, and the motodops were restless. The road back to Battambang is a rough dirt path of potholes, and there are few villagers around to help mend a flat tire or a broken headlamp. We thanked the soldiers and left. There was one more place I wanted to find.

My friend called a friend from a local NGO when we returned to ask where we could find paddy rat restaurants. These are not like city rats, as they feed on the sweet, freshly harvested rice. They are a delicacy in some parts of the country, and I was interested in finding some.

We found a couple of likely motodops once more and my friend informed them we wanted to find the suburb called 1000 Rice Fields. The faithful dops seemed unsurprised. They knew exactly where this was, they said, and we again left the main town to a place on the outskirts that the friend of a friend had identified as a prime paddy rat restaurant strip.

The road became darker. And rougher. Groups of shirtless young men began to appear, swaggering up the road. The dops drove on, past the rice paddies. Shacks began to appear and the telltale pink lights of brothels. We reached an intersection.

"We can keep going, but it's dangerous from here," one advised laconically. It was certainly dark in both directions, save for sickly lights emanating from dozens more wooden shacks lining the roadside. Prostitutes of startling range and variety and their clustered clients were starting to dart us funny looks, even if the motos remained open minded and unfazed. A helpful bystander sidled up to suggest standing on the road was much more dangerous than going inside. So we asked the 60 dollar question. Where were the rats?

"Oh, you want to go to the rat restaurant?" For the first time, the motos looked surprised. One shook his head and the other clucked his tongue at our ignorance. "Why did you ask to come to the red light district if you want to eat rats? You should have said that in the first place. You want 100 Rice Fields—up the road."

Battambang is the rice bowl of Cambodia. We should have guessed its suburbs would be named after rice. Getting the number of your rice field right is the key to getting what you want in Battambang, quite obviously. This is the fine line between being offered commercial sex with a lady boy and dining on rats. It was tempting just to name a number and see what the local attraction was there. A mystery trip to 500 Rice Fields, perhaps, or a blind plunge into the uncharted delights of 10,000 Rice Fields. But for now, these trips would have to wait. We turned and headed for 100 Rice Fields.

The rat restaurants finally ranged into view. Fairy lights and beer advertisements had replaced the pink glow and fake satin curtains of 1000 Rice Fields. But alas, this show was mere preparation for the feast to come. The rice was not in and the paddies were still full of water. Rats were at a premium and there were none available today. Crickets and frogs were plentiful, but rodents were out of season.

"Come back in December. Then the sugar palm wine is ready too and there are plenty of rats to eat," a waitress advised sympathetically. My long suffering friend breathed a sigh of relief—rats, it seems, are second only to bats on his list of "Can Live Without". We returned to more mundane fare in a city restaurant, accompanied by a jug of cold beer and karaoke and soaked up the bright lights of Battambang. As usual in this country, nothing had turned out as planned, but it had been another great road trip. We were happy. And at the end of a long day, it was wonderfully clear to me that Battambang is a beautiful place to freshen up and get a whole new Phnom Penh perspective.

Specific comments regarding this column should be directed to Bronwyn Sloan.

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