Strolling up and down Battambang, you’d never guess it was a country’s second biggest city; if it weren’t for the endless parade of motorcycles you could even call the place sleepy. Still under the spell of their one time French rulers, you can buy baguettes under French colonial facades, and enjoy them on the street while passing French restaurants and crumbling écoles.
As it was with Phnom Penh, the city’s heart lies thumping in its darkly deco central market, a veritable gallery of curiosities for the westerner and perfect for window shopping. Bright and spikey fruits of every size lay segregated from tiny firm purple tomatoes. In another bucket, inverted green cones on stalks show off deep pores full of some kind of legume perhaps. Pyramidal stacks of slimy pink gore await their buyers, and nearly dead fish suffocate slowly below a wire net, to prevent the occasional escape attempt (I had earlier seen a fish leap two meters horizontally in a futile attempt at escape). You can scoop up pirated Xbox 360 games for two dollar USD. Dental floss is going to cost you quite a bit more than that.
With most of my last week spent in silent transit, I didn’t realize how starved I was for proper conversation until I was invited to sit down and chat by a table full of monks at Wat Damrey Sar monastery (Asians beckon with a slightly erected arm and a flapping wrist in a gesture that looks quite like a western “shoo”).
I’ve found myself adopting local gestures – single souvenirs from each of my destinations. I still find myself employing the Indian head wobble, a side to side wiggle to demonstrate unsureness, indifference, agreement, pacifism … whatever you want it to mean really. In Nepal I adopted their specific gesture for conveying “no,” a flat palm perpendicular to ground the ground and twisted back and forth as if trying to adjust a watch. In Burma, I’ve taken to giving and accepting money and goods the polite way, with my right hand only, and with my left hand tucked below my right elbow. …and in Cambodia now, the beckoning shoo.
I spent nearly two hours in the monastery, speaking to a rotation of monks as they came and went form their monastic duties. Topics of conversation happened to be dinner table taboos: sex, politics, and religion. The recent U.S. election and the Cambodian genocide. The principles of American and Cambodian courtship and marriage. Cambodians seem to have a great fascination with the love triangle – nearly every music video I’d seen so far featured a left out would-be lover or two romantic partners vying for the attention of the third. I ended up using the back and margins of my city map as scratch paper, drawing graphs to help illustrate my points where language failed, and interesting parallels ended up bridging the topics. Graphs of the three branches of American government looked a lot like graphs of love triangles, and everything seemed to boil down to a discussion and analysis of incentives, greed, and altruism, the basic economic forces that govern everything about humans.
While Tibetan monks were required to play instruments and I had seen fit Burmese monks kicking about in a football field, Cambodian monks seem quite a bit more ascetic and are required to abstain from both music and sport. They don’t, however, have to abstain from eating bugs, and as we were chatting they munched merrily away at fried crickets and chilies that they had purchased from women carrying great mounds of the insects on flat woven baskets upon their heads.
In the past, I’ve heard westerners espouse the value of Buddhism as a philosophy instead of a religion, but really, no one seems to regard it here that way, and Buddhsim is just as kooky, superstitious, and dogmatic as anything else. If it weren’t for the golden Buddha cross legged in the center of every monastery in Cambodia, you might assume you looking at a Hindu temple. The great snake Naga hisses from the corner of every roof and handrail, his slithering body streaming in even curvatures upward until culminating in a sharp spine characteristic of much of the architecture here. Monkey Hanumans and eagle Garudas spread their limbs valiantly from beams supporting the roof. Dog-lion chinthe guard the monastery doors against evil spirits – distinctly Buddhist compared to the Hindu characters – but then cement gravestones etched in Chinese characters contribute dashes of Taoism and Confucianism to the mix. Tiny monasteries on pedestals sit before every home and business and look as though built as places of worship for birds, but are in fact intended to house and appease wandering spirits, and every morning barefoot monks with tin pots in one hand and an umbrella in the other hit the streets collecting alms. Even the most impoverished of the poor pour their earnings into the monastery’s coffers.
Owing perhaps to Cambodia’s more progressive nature, I’ve noticed a great deal more western expats here than anywhere else in Asia I’ve been: lots of multiracial couples and white people working in non-profit restaurants and speaking fluent Khmer. So is it that I’ve been regarded with the least amount of curiosity from locals than anywhere else I’ve been, but whereas in India, the locals’ increased exposure to white people means increased likelihood of touts and scam artists, I’ve found the Cambodians to be terribly polite and exceptionally honest. I’ve even seen quite a few transgendered ladies in my short time here, and they seem to be treated with fair indifference, rather than condemned the way they are in most countries or even the helpless gawking that happens in America.
It’s been much more difficult as a vegetarian in Cambodia; I don’t think there’s even a word for vegetarian in Khmer, so I’ve been mostly sticking to the more expensive tourist restaurants, where many even understand the concept of veganism. I did find a local veg restaurant in Battambang where I would be the only whitey around, and it had some of the best noodles and dumplings I’ve had so far. I’ve been going there twice a day. It’s also harder to supplement meals by snacking here, because even many of the bagged snacks aren’t vegetarian – lots of chicken and prawn crisps – and if they are vegetarian, they’re usually terribly bland and nutritionally bankrupt.
(Weeks after originally writing this, I realized I had frequently been eating bread buns topped with an innocuous looking brown fibery substance that I later discovered is called pork floss (eww eww eww eww eww))
Cambodians are awfully fond of gingham. Colorful checked sashes called krama are an important part of the Cambodian wardrobe and heritage and they’ll be seen often worn as scarves, bundled up around the face like a turban, or wrapped around the waist. I noticed them first in photos of Khmer Rogue soldiers and the awkward experience of thinking, “my that’s handsome,” when looking at genocidal murderers.
Every country seems to have their own variation on the rickshaw. Here they’re called remorques and consist of a comfortable trailer with a decorative prow attached to a motorcycle. It’s cheaper, however, to hop onto the back of a remorque-less bike, as I did on my last day in Battambang to inspect the sights of the city’s greater area.
Just getting to and from places proved to be just as pleasant as the destinations themselves. The rich country side was very diverse in landscape and we zipped past bamboo jungles, palm fringed swamps, ponds with simply perfect lily flowers, and long dusty plains. In villages of stilted shacks, I could see transparent discs of homemade rice paper drying in the sun and it must have been quite an auspicious day as we surely passed at least half a dozen weddings (in Cambodia, both bride and groom dress in red with cheesy haircuts that would be more appropriate for prom – come to think of it, most of the couples weren’t much older than prom age, so I guess I’ll let it fly). Brief stops included a leather farm full of grumpy grey crocodiles and a long abandoned Pepsi plant.
A hilltop temple from the Angkor period was built of giant stone Jenga blocks and looked as if a sneeze could cause it to topple. Despite its ruined state, it still summoned worshippers that would climb the 358 stone steps to prostrate themselves before Buddha. Walking along algae coated ponds at the base of the hill had me disturbing long salamanders from their rest and caused them to dive synchronously into the water, creating momentary blue-black apertures in the green film resting on the water.
12 kilometers southwest of Battambang is Phonom Sampeau, a family of monasteries (atop a mountain of course). The lush pathways running to the top overlook steep canyon drops and deep caverns, including one where Khmer Rouge cadres would bash their victims’ heads in before kicking them down the hole. Steps now lead down to the bottom of this killing cave where a Buddha sits placidly next to a glass shrine interring the remains of the victims: a huge pile of skulls with fractures that have you wonder morbidly whether they were caused before or after their owners plummet to the bottom of the cave.
In the lovely late afternoon ruins of an abandoned train station, now trafficked with grazing cattle and playing children, I met a friendly couple from Brisbane decked out in khaki adventure gear. We sat cross legged among the grass covered train tracks and swapped tales and introspections of travel until the sun set and cued us for dinner.
I dropped at least a few extra dollars to take a river cruise to my next destination instead of a bus. In my imagination, the cruise was going to creep slowly up serpentine riverways with towering jungle growth leaning over the banks and cutting the rays of the sun into a billion dappling shards. That the caws of bright parrots and howls of swinging gibbons would fill the air and that some point the boat driver was going to have to fire shots from his revolver to deter angry hippopotami from attacking the boat (a la Disney Land’s Jungle Cruise, if you don’t know, and yes, I know there aren’t hippopotami in Cambodia). Well the extra cost didn’t end up buying me a pristine shooting location for a Vietnam War picture that I had drummed up in my head, but it did afford me white neighbors! (uncomfortably, the few Cambodians on board had to sit at the back of the boat)