05.08.2010 - 08.08.2010 36 °C
I am so glad that I decided to spend longer exploring this amazing country, rather than rush through ticking some more sightseeing boxes. Vietnam will have to be next time. I felt that my time in the city of Battambang gave me a real flavour of genuine Cambodian lifestyle. I will never forget the warmth and humour of the people there. The relatively recent horrors that the people of Cambodia have had to endure is just too painful for words, but there is a feeling here of optimism, of a bright peaceful future.
I had booked a hotel room ahead of my arrival so was met at the boat jetty by a driver. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Engerland’ ‘Ahhhhhhhh be careful going up those apples and pears’. This guy was hilarious, well he thought he was and that made me laugh. He was obsessed with cockney rhyming slang, and was over the moon when I taught him a few new phrases including my favourite English exclamation ‘Gordon Bennett’. Try explaining that one to a Cambodian tuktuk driver!!! My first full day in the city I wandered the markets and streets. It was a beautiful sunny day, and a pure joy checking out the brightly painted French colonial buildings, still giggling to myself over the pyjama thing. Felt great to be back off the beaten track a bit, locals approaching me just to ask where i was from or to take my picture!
I found a pretty spot near a buddist temple to sit and write some things down in my journal but was soon joined by a group of monks wanting to practise their English! Another country, another monastery, another English lesson! This was becoming a habit, but a great way to meet the locals and I learnt a lot from these guys. The monastery at Wat Tahm Rai Saw doubles as a language school. There were several lessons going on at the same time around a little courtyard and I was invited in to give a speech. I ended up taking the whole lesson actually telling them about my travels, life in England, my job!!! I then helped out with another class to translate a local newspaper into English. Great experience and the kids here seemed really willing to learn as I was asked a lot of questions! Walking back to my room, i stumbled on what i thought was a carnival. People dressed in costumes, tuktuks decorated elaborately, people dancing and playing music. I then realised, when a float containing a coffin and monks went past, that this was actually a funeral procession!
Just after this it started to chuck down with rain, actually more than that, it pissed down like i have never seen before in my life. A complete deluge, the streets very quickly becoming rather flooded. I took shelter underneath a porch, i assumed was the front of a shop that was closed, and waited for the rain to stop. Soon realised this was actually outside someones house! The owner returned, a middle-aged lady in pyjamas, gave me a huge smile and ushered me into her house, closing the big doors and shutters behind us. She invited me to sit down and made me a cup of tea, she didn’t speak a word of English! Then, get this, she changed out of her pyjamas INTO A DRESS!!!! Hehehehehe OMG, I am so glad I was on my own as I was having real trouble suppressing the giggles. But, what a sweet lady. This kind of hospitality really sums up what the people here are like. Her house was basically two rooms, one with the bed and living area, the other a kitchen. It was a very cosy little place. I was there for about 2 hours til the rain stopped, trying to work out what was going on in the soap opera she had on the TV!
The adventure continued the next day too. Jeff and Sharon, who I had met in Luang Prabang, had recommended a cooking class in Battambang at a restaurant unfortunately called ‘smoking pot’. No funny business here though, we first went to the local market to get ingredients, very very fresh ingredients. The day market in this city is surely the best I had experienced in Asia. Absolutely fascinating place. There were stalls and stalls of the most amazing, colourful, fresh produce. Freshly ‘prepared’ chickens and pigs, and bits of them, were everywhere. Buckets and tubs full of things still alive, squirming around, catfish, eels, fish, turtles. You point at what you want and it is freshly killed/filleted/scaled in front of you. Some of the little wriggly bastards were making a dash for it, jumping out the buckets and disappearing through the market. I could have stayed here watching all day, but we had lunch to cook, all THREE COURSES of it! We picked up some chicken, fish, coconut and a whole load of fresh herbs and spices, including the biggest bundle of lemongrass i have ever seen (for less than a dollar!) My fellow chefs were mostly ex-pats from Canada or US who had moved to Cambodia on various projects to improve the infrastructure there in the orphanages. Many had done the cooking course before and were bringing friends along. I understand why, as it was a fantastic experience. The restaurant kitchen was open onto the street and we prepared our ingredients outside while people dined nearby! I learnt a lot about how to blend the different flavours to make a soup, fish loc lac and a khmer chicken curry. Of course, we used the famous Kampot peppercorn that is found locally. Actually, i bought some at the market and sent it home, so i will be doing a few dinner parties when i get back There we have it, a three-course lunch, rather tasty if i do say so myself.
With a very full belly I got the cockney tuktuk driver to take me out for a ride on the bamboo train, very very bizarre but so funny. This ‘train’ was once used by the farmers to transport rice and other crops from the fields into the towns. It is basically a crate, made from bamboo, that is sat on top of two sets of wheels for petrol-powered gliding along the track. They allow tourists to take joy rides on the train, through the fields and up to a nearby village. It is a single track running through but, is TWO WAY. So how does this work then? Well, you are happily chugging along and see somebody coming the other way on the same track. You stop and kind of look at each other, a bit of a stare-off, the loser has to get off the train and TAKE THE TRAIN OFF THE TRACK!! No joking, you firstly remove the bamboo platform, then the sets of wheels one by one, let the other train go past then assemble your train back onto the track to continue your journey!! OMG BRILIANT!!!!! We only had to do this the once though unfortunately as we were following close behind some other trains so as there were more of us than coming the other way we won the stare-off most times! It was also nice to see some of the countryside and see some small villages. On the way back, some boys came running towards the train waving so i waved back. They threw something at me, it landed on my train and i saw that it was flowers At one of our stops I met some cute smiley boys who sat with me my train and read me a story from their school books in English. I adore Cambodia and the people here, full of warmth, and full of surprises.
The cockney tuktuk driver on the way back to town was so intent on telling me jokes that he was turning right round to speak to me. ‘For goodness sake watch the road not me!!’ Yikes! We stopped off to check out the peace monument in a park just outside the city. Unveiled in 1997, this sculpture is made entirely of weapons that were destroyed following the atrocities. It commemorates the commitment, efforts and hopes of the Cambodian people in breaking away from their violent past and establishing a peaceful society. This is my wish too and i feel so privileged to have had the chance to experience this amazing country. I will be back I am sure....