Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reflections On Battambang

In traditional Khmer style, the road from Siem Reap to Battambang is long and bumpy with about a million stops in between. As in India, vehicles toot their horns for varied reasons, some do it for lack of an indicator while others simply seem bored. One thing is certain though, this orchestral horn tooting will rip you from any philosophical quandaries inspired by the landscape faster than it takes to turn up the volume on your iPod.

The scenery switches back and forth between rice paddies and riverbeds, both of which are staple sights in Cambodia's heartland. The tranquil scenery is at odds with ugly traffic, but rice farmers in fields adjacent wave frantically at those passing by.

The bus comes to a screeching halt within city limits and as all others pile off the bus, I can only assume we have reached our destination. The bus driver certainly doesn't help and he appears confused when I ask if we're in Battambang, like he's never even heard of the town before. Descending down the bus stairs and into a raging sea of tuk-tuk drivers and touts, it's time to put on my game face and deny offers too good to be true.

At first glance, Battambang is noisy and crowded, with trash littering the city streets and orange dust forever coating the people who live here. I remind myself though, that first impressions of most cities are rarely flattering, due to the inevitable stress of travel and the amount of luggage hauled on your back.

I can't help but notice the colonial architecture and wide sweeping boulevards, indicating a preserved French legacy. The city's famous statues and figurines however, give every street corner and public park a distinct Khmer flair. After a quick trek from the bus station, I find a fancy hotel that's easy on my bank balance - Vy Chhe Hotel ($20 USD). As soon as I put my bags down, I'm overwhelmed with positivity and head straight back outside to find food. Optimism rarely dwells in hunger.

Despite a steady stream of tourists flocking to nearby Angkor Wat, Battambang has escaped the carnage and manages to remain authentic. No effort has been made to recreate Bangkok's 'Khao San Road,' while the same can't be said for 'Pub Street' in Siem Reap. This is a town where restaurants close early and nightlife is limited to karaoke bars and warm beers on the riverbank. For those who seek it though, great opportunities to soak up authentic Cambodian culture are also available.

I start my search for food at the city's main market, Psah Nath. I drift aimlessly between the surrounding restaurants, looking for something to catch my eye. The first restaurant that succeeds in doing so is Gecko Cafe, which sets a great precedent for employers worldwide by giving opportunities to people in need. These endeavours are highlighted with a short bio section for each staff member at the back of the menu. The food itself is magnificently presented, while the aforementioned staff are shy but friendly.

Patrons can dine on authentic Khmer delicacies like fish amok or sticky rice desserts, while standard western cuisine is also on offer. I take the recommendation of my waitress and order the traditional sour soup to start, with a veggie burger to round out the meal.

Battambang is home to more preserved French architecture than anywhere else in the country and this establishment is no exception. The layout is like that of an old manor, with large open windows and high ceilings. The balcony is where the best seats are had (although predictably full at peak hours), for the local artwork that adorns the walls and the bird's eye view of the streets below.

Both dishes are superb and despite more than generous portion sizes, neither plate lasts long before disappearing down my gullet. One of the advantages of being a travel writer on the road is not having to fuss over social etiquette or table manners when eating alone. If you receive an intense glare for burping too loudly or scratching yourself with a fork - just remember to laugh it off.

After scoffing down both courses, I have nothing left to do but take a few moments to savour the murky orange sunset. I hear Cambodian folk music blaring out from the back of a distant tuk-tuk - an eclectic but pleasant mix of flutes and chimes. I can't help but cock my head like a cobra and sway back and forth in response to the music, as if a snake charmer is pulling my strings from above. The rhythm follows me back to my hotel room, transforming into an exotic lullaby by the time my head hits the pillow.

Arriving at sunset the previous night, I'm shocked at how much the city transforms between night and day. The overcast skies combined with kicked up dust produce a sort of eerie fog in the early hours. Looking out from my window to the manicured gardens below, I pinch myself to check if I'm still asleep. Admittedly, I'm not a morning person.

A cow amidst frangipani saplings, ignores the morning traffic with an indifferent shrug and relentless grazing. It's early and I have to remind myself that I'm Battambang, not Bombay. Despite the pastoral scene, I can't help but hold my breath when I cross the road to greet the young bovine. The population here may only be 250,000 on paper, but the traffic scene is more like that of a major metro centre - without rules!

Seeking refuge from the snarl of angry traffic, I decide to cycle through the countryside instead. Wat Ek Phnom is a delightful ride out of town, anywhere between 10 and 14 kilometres depending on who you ask. Following the riverbed as it snakes through the surrounding landscape, it's the perfect escape from city life. The roads are paved and in good condition for the most part, while the lack of steep hills means everyone can give it a go.

Halfway between Battambang and Wat Ek Phnom, I narrowly avoid crashing into a game of Sepak Katkraw being played on the banks of the Sangkae River. This popular sport is a kind of hybrid between hacky sack and volleyball, with a bit of martial arts thrown in for good measure. Those taking part rush to one side of the path to let me ride through, hands shielding their eyes from the sun but beaming smiles in my direction.

Battambang really lives up to its reputation as a city of sculptures, with figurines and statues even stretching out to the outskirts of town. I stop to look at a giant Buddha that attracts many visitors, but it's the temple itself of Wat ek Phnom that I've come specifically to see. Built in 1029 AD under the reign of King Sorayak Varman II, little of the building remains upright, but the remote jungle setting makes you feel like an explorer of days gone by.

The vendors within the temple complex are a sight for sore eyes in this afternoon sunshine, as are their ice buckets and chilled drinks. Before rambling in the jungle ruins, I find a shady tree overlooking a lake of lotus flowers and ditch my gear for a moment. I kick back against the tree trunk and ponder the serene imagery before me. It's not a choice for my desktop background, it's real life and right in front of me.

"Do you know why this water has so many fishes?" asks Tung, a nearby vendor and tour guide in training. "It's because the Buddhist monks who live on temple grounds have forbidden fishing here."

"That's wonderful," I remark. "Life is bursting at the seams, so everything else seems more vibrant too."

"Such a waste," he nods, in what he thinks is agreement on my part.

Like some of the temples in Angkor Wat, the jungle too is reclaiming ownership of these ancient ruins. I guess it's inevitable when you give Mother Nature over a thousand years to catch up. Pillars remain behind, choked by vines, while what they once held up lays scattered throughout the complex.

Whenever I find myself in decaying ruins, I can't help but think back to what it once looked like in its heyday. I tend to focus on the finished project, rather than the fragile relics left behind. Archaeologists have their theories, but we'll never know for sure, which means that everyone who visits will have a different blueprint in his/her mind. One thing is certain though, if what remains behind a thousand years later is still impressive enough to warrant a visit, it must have really been revered to begin with.

It gets me thinking that despite being agnostic, we have a lot to thank religion for. It seems that throughout time and history, collective faith is what builds monuments. Whether it's a temple in Thailand, a cathedral in Europe or a mosque in Mecca - such buildings were the first skyscrapers to appear on Earth. It shouldn't matter if you're Buddhist or Catholic, these pillars of prayer were a vital building block in shaping the world we know today.