Tag Archives: Battambang

Battambang to Siem Reap via the Sangkar River.

It’s as if a spring has sprung. From the doldrums of Battambang to the glories of Angkor Wat I am on sensory overload. There has been so much to see, so much to do I can’t help but feel I will leave something out.

First there was the B and B in Battambang, such a joy after the “resort”. I don’t think I do resorts very well, you are expected to stay within the compound and enjoy what they have to offer. I didn’t. The B and B was small, intimate and they really seemed to care that I was enjoying myself. So thanks Sangkar Villa. Up early one morning to catch the 7am boat down river to Siem Reap. What a heap the boat was, it looked like it might sink of its own accord even before the fifty plus passengers embarked. We all squeezed into the cabin with seating four across and an aisle in the middle, very narrow, bags, shopping, backpacks and cargo stacked around us and made our way out into the stream. Sitting, crammed all together in the cabin, reminiscent of a small plane, was more than I could endure with six or seven hours ahead so I clambered up onto the roof. With the now famous hat and scarf I was well protected from the sun and the hours sped by. I wanted it to never end. I made mental notes of my feelings along the way, all of which I have forgotten but I do remember that “there is something timeless about river travel”. The banks were alive with bird life, the jungle coming right up to the edge. Numerous dwellings, river traffic, fisher folk, everybody waved as we passed and then to the floating villages. What a concept. All the houses float and can be towed around by row boat (great if you don’t like the neighbors!). Everything was there, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, churches, Temples and they were all floating. Everyone went about their business as if they were on land but they weren’t, they were afloat, in boats. What a life. The river varied, sometimes hugely wide, maybe three quarters of a mile and then the driver would dart off into a side alley where the stream was as wide as the boat. People got scratched by the tree branches. We had to push our way through massive growths of Water Hyacinths growing on the surface. Then a most peculiar thing occurred.

Others, escaping the claustrophobia of the cabin, made their way up onto the roof and a lady sat next to me taking photos as if her life depended on it. She obviously heard me chatting to two Khmers when I mentioned that I was from California. I made some trite remark and we got to chatting. From California she asked, where? San Francisco says I, oh, where? Well Marin actually, oh where? San Anselmo says I. Ha ha says she, I live in Larkspur. There we were, on the roof of a boat, floating down the Sangkar river, miles from anywhere and we are neighbors. I might have sat somewhere else, caught the boat on a different day, chosen not to make a trite remark. But it all came together and oh my how we laughed. Sabine, travelling with her friend Bernadette, also from SF, have continued the journey, but mostly by tuk tuk.

Arriving at Siem Reap we negotiated the river bank and its mud and went to our various hotels. I had booked a standard room in a place downtown and when I was ushered into a poolside suite I raised an eyebrow. Jacuzzi, super shower all wood carved, sofas, armchairs, four poster bed, the works. BUT, it had windows facing away from the pool and without there was a most enormous construction site. Diggers, cranes, dozers, you name it they were all there. The noise was incredible. This did not last long and I left the next morning. They were pouring concrete at midnight and started work again at 7am. Now I am ensconced in what I think is a tour group hotel, never the same guests from one day to the next, lots of people for lunch and dinner but very few for breakfast. On the Western tourist circuit I think Siem Reap qualifies for one day, bus tour to Angkor Wat and that’s it, off to the next place.

The Bopha Ankor Hotel does have one major benefit, undiscovered by the people passing through. Down the dusty alley beside the hotel is this quite amazing restaurant, the Square 24, not one hundred yards away. The dishes served here are well up to Marin, San Francisco even London standards. I am now on my fifth visit and all the staff greets me with the usual bows and hand clasping, which I am now confident enough to return. Not only is the food absolutely delicious (organic ,locally sourced,  etc), the presentation brilliantly performed, the ambience perfect, cool and airy, the décor understated Khmer, but the place is often packed. The price is notable, I have not paid more than $12, though I now seem to qualify for complimentary ice cream and green tea. Even though reservations are recommended they have always seem able to find a corner table for me and here I am today, scribbling away, watching the upscale diners from Belgium, I think, drinking my lemonade.

Oh dear, I have reached nine hundred words and have yet to start on the wonders nearby. Angkor Wat, Tah Promh, Sokh Sang, Tonle Sap Lake, pub street. Lets see if I can make this a two post day.

The river was narrow.

The river was narrow.

The river was wide.

The river was wide.

There were shops.

There were shops.

A new take on "moving house".

A new take on “moving house”.

Wash day maybe.

Wash day maybe.

Life goes on.

Life goes on.

Off to school.

Off to school.

Monk in a hurry.

Monk in a hurry.

Waves!

Waves!

A lady picking up supplies from our boat.

A lady picking up supplies from our boat.

Through the flooded forest.

Through the flooded forest.

Battambang, and a kink in the road.

Something went quite wrong for a little while. I was permitted to stay in my room in Phnom Penh with the great view of the river front but only for an extra day so rather then make do in a not so great a room for the rest of the Water Festival I jumped on a bus to Battambang. The bus ride was no great journey, maybe six hours, and at the bus station at my destination there was a tuk tuk driver with my name on a sign. This was something of a surprise as I had not booked a ride, but a pleasant one nonetheless, and I was happy to be transferred to the hotel for the princely sum of two dollars. My room was pleasant with a small shaded terrace in front but this is where things went slightly awry. I had a huge attack of lethargy. Just the thought of buying another ticket, waiting around for another bus, finding another hotel became overwhelming. I think I had what they call ‘hit the wall’. I was really quite miserable for a couple of days and was just a little concerned that maybe I was getting sick, malaria crossed my mind. The hotel was set a little ways out of town and I couldn’t even get up the get up and go to find a tuk tuk to chug the short distance to downtown. I have actually read that solo travelers get afflicted in this way after a while alone, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember the solution. Clearly this could not go on, so I texted my symptoms back to the family in far away San Anselmo and back came the solution, change hotels. Of course, palm to forehead. I moved. To a small villa run by a French couple from Paris, they have only owned it for six weeks and have a one year old and a four year old, Max, who goes to a Montessori School here in Battambang.

Well, Montessori is not unknown to me (!), we chatted, they immediately organized a tuk tuk tour of the town for me and insisted I join their family that evening for a trip to the circus. Lethargy fled away. Off around the sleepy town in the tuk tuk I saw many interesting things, one of which was a statue made entirely of melted down AK 47s (guns) created after the madness, it was really quite moving. Another was the enormous statue of the town’s founder (Ta Dumbong) with his stick. Battambang means “town of the lost stick”. It’s a great story but not worth going into here in any detail, just search for Battambang, lost stick and all will be revealed. I found some great restaurants, ate Western food a couple of times, walked the market, ambled through the streets admiring the colonial French architecture and generally threw off my funk.

Those in touch using Social Media will have seen me on the bamboo train, very funny in the pouring rain. This train, if it can be called a train, was created by the French and partially resurrected after being destroyed by the mad men. The little carriages (norrie or norry) are basically bamboo poles, strung together, making a bed, powered by two stroke engines, very loud, they can achieve speeds of 30 MPH, they seat four and are a big tourist attraction. I remarked to my tuk tuk driver that the clouds were looking a bit black, oh no, says he, it will not rain. We arrived at the station, a collection of shacks, and had to shelter as there was a shower. Climbing aboard we made our way down the track, the rain increased, a late monsoon, I got soaked and was on the verge of a sense of  humor failure when we arrived at the turnaround. Dashing into a shack we found hats, ponchos, water for sale and everybody smiled.

Off in the morning on the 7am boat, down the river, across the Tonle Sap Lake to Siem Reap. More tales of Angkor ahead.

The AK 47 statue.

The AK 47 statue.

Not much doubt what it is made of.

Not much doubt what it is made of.

Colorful market scene.

Colorful market scene.

The shoe department.

The shoe department.

Ta Dombong and his stick.

Ta Dombong and his stick.

The circus.

The circus.

More at the circus.

More at the circus.

The Bamboo Railway. You can see our carriage, or norrie, in the background, on the ground. someone has to give way!

The Bamboo Railway. You can see our carriage, or norrie, in the background, on the ground. someone has to give way!

The track ahead. About ten miles of it.

The track ahead. About ten miles of it.

Me on my Norry!

Me on my Norry!

Sleepy downtown Battambang.

Sleepy downtown Battambang.