Battambang, CambodiaApril 6, 2011
Named after the vast, colourful and distinctive statue that squats imposingly at the Highway 5 roundabout (on the way to and from Phnom Penh) Battambang is Cambodia’s second city and the new kid on the tourist and traveller’s block. ‘Dambang’ means ‘stick’, whilst ‘bat’ means ‘to vanish’ – so welcome to the town of the vanishing stick, named after a peasant lad with magical powers who could control cows just by throwing a stick at them.
The peasant lad later became a king, who dreamt his reign would last for seven years, seven weeks and seven hours. As a visitor you needn’t stay around town for that long, but Battambang has much more to offer than a one night pit stop. Spend a few days here and you’ll quickly become a connoisseur of some of the most delightful scenery in Cambodia – all within day tripping distance of one of the nation’s most charming towns.
Now Cambodia’s second city, Battambang was for centuries a rather ordinary Asian town which was transformed into a 19th century Thai outpost. At the time of the Thai occupation in 1795, the invaders deported the town’s population to Thailand and Laos and newcomers moved in from Phnom Penh and Oudong.
The new city was visited by Henri Mahout, French naturalist and visitor to Angkor Wat in 1858. Mahout’s description applies today as well as it did 150 years ago. ‘‘The inhabitants enjoy a certain well-being which can be seen on first meeting them. Life is extraordinary cheap.’’
Mahout saw horse racing as a major sport in Battambang. He also observed cock fights and turtle fights, which he described as curious indeed. Two turtles were placed in separate cages with a plank between them and an exit space for only one turtle to pass. A candle was placed on the back of each turtle in the cage, and when the candle burned so low as to burn down the turtle’s back, it tried to escape through the door, where it met the other turtle trying to escape in the other direction. The suffering turtles fought to get through the door and to make the other turtle back away.
Batambang’s history is well described by Tauch Chloung in his book, ‘Battambang in the Days of the Lord Governor,’ published in Khmer in 1974 and in English in 1994. He tells how, to consolidate their rule, the Thais built a large rectangular fort, or kampheng in Khmer, in the 1830’s. This imposing five hectare compound, solidly made of bricks and mortar, housed elephant shelters and an arsenal consisting of more than 100 cannons.
The ‘Lord Governor’ who built the now abandoned Governor’s Residence in a Southern European style was not a French colonial administrator but Apheuyvong Chhum, the last Thai governor of Battambang who in the early 1900’s imported a team of Italian architects and designers to erect a new residence on the banks of the Sangker and close to the fort. Thailand had previously in 1893 agreed to maintain no armed forces in Battambang other than police and this treaty was then ratified in 1904 when the Thais agreed in principal to the province moving into the French sphere of influence. Finally, in March 1907, Battambang was ceded to the French and Apheuyvong Chhum was forced to leave town without having lived in the palatial splendour he had envisioned for himself.
Thailand took over Battambang in 1795, and so Battambang was under Thai domination for over a century. That is slightly longer than the 99 years of independence from 1907 to 2006. So Battambang has belonged to Thailand for the major part of the last two centuries.
The Battambang returned to the French in 1907 was not the compact and well designed city of today but rather, in the words of the architect Helen Grant Ross, an agglomeration “stretching along the Sangker River, from the area that now is Battambang to the Tonle Sap, with a population of about 100,000 people,”
To commemorate Battambang’s return to Cambodia as ruled by the French a monument was built depicting a French soldier on one side, and three goddesses, representing the three returned provinces on the other. The monument can be seen today near the base of Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh, near the present floral clock.
Turning their attention to the town’s architecture, the French administration dismantled the wooden houses then and now typical of Khmer dwellings near to water and instead designed and built a solid and well defined town centre complete with road and rail links to Phnom Penh.
As in other French run towns and cities in Indo-China, a merchant class of ethnic Chinese descent was encouraged to put life into the commercial centre of the town by running shops and small businesses. Psah Nat, the city’s bright yellow main market with its symmetrical lines, was added in 1936.
Further French development was put on hold by the Second World War when Japan seized most of Cambodia and in 1941 by the treaty of Tokyo when the Vichy French, at the behest of their Japanese allies, willingly gave to Thailand large areas of Siem Reap and Battambang Provinces including Battambang itself and a large strip of land stretching all the way up the Mekong.
During this time around 1000 Allied POWs of mixed nationalities were moved to Battambang and used (together with many local people) as forced labour on the reconstruction of Highway 5 – the main Phnom Penh to Battambang road – after which they were put onto barges and taken to Saigon.
The Thais, with great haste, did all they could to destroy all evidence of Khmer culture in Battambang. Local residents were dragooned into adopting a Thai mode of dress and Khmer script was barred from shops signs – these had to be written in Thai script from henceforth.
The Thais met their match when the crossed the monks and attempted to ban the speaking of Khmer in pagodas. The monks put up stiff resistance to this next step in a policy of what could be called ‘Thaisation.’
Nevertheless, times were hard for local people and the Thais were to prove a cruel and merciless occupier. Rice wasn’t planted so the locals went without food. Physical abuse from the occupiers was not uncommon and what can only be called a concentration camp was set up, by the Thais, at Boueng Chhouk Market. Thousands were to be interned there and many were beaten or abused by the unwanted occupiers.
By the mid 1950’s a wind of change was sweeping across the colonies of Europe’s imperial powers: the French finally left for good and Prince Sihanouk’s government turned its attention towards Battambang. There was a will to develop the city not only as the commercial and industrial hub for the region but also as a link between Thailand and Phnom Penh. During this period, the city’s infrastructure was further developed: canals were filled in, schools and universities were built, the railroad was extended to Pailin and the city got its very own airport.
By 1975 however, Sihanouk was gone from power and Lon Nol – Battambang’s provincial governor in the immediate post war period – was now a heading a corrupt and venal government on the brink of collapse and defeat to the Khmer Rouge.
It wasn’t until April 19th 1975, two days after the fall of Phnom Penh, that the city’s defenders agreed to surrender. Having been promised that they were being sent away for ‘retraining’, many Lon Nol soldiers were put into trucks, taken a few kilometres out on Highway 5 towards Phnom Penh, unloaded from the trucks and then gunned down by waiting KR soldiers.
It has been said that that the Battambang Khmer Rouge governor did not want pagodas destroyed. This may well be true because the city’s pagodas certainly fared better than those in Phnom Penh where many were destroyed or badly damaged during the KR years.
Following, the defeat of the KR in 1979 Battambang began, once again, and slowly at first, reverting to its role as a regional commercial centre. The austere Vietnamese sponsored regime of 1980’s Cambodia began to tolerate a certain amount of trade with Thailand and a great deal of illicit cross border smuggling also went on. However, as late as 1986 the town was briefly occupied by Pol Pot forces when as many as 1000 KR soldiers participated in a raid that forced the Vietnamese army to pull a regiment back from the Thai border. KR radio later put out an announcement stating that the raiding party had destroyed five Vietnamese typewriters.
Trade in gemstones from the gem-rich area of Pailin continued all through the 1980’s often through private channels as government reports of the time estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of all state workers in Battambang province were absenting themselves from work to go gem digging. All this came to end though in 1989 when soon after the Vietnamese withdrawal Pailin fell to the Khmer Rouge. It would be the KR who would benefit from the lucrative cross border gem trade with Thai merchants throughout the 1990’s.
The four-sided, well defined space of shady French designed streets is still a delight and retains most of its charm to the extent that it’s possible to half close one’s eyes and picture a sun bleached town on the Mediterranean. The faded and peeling yellow paint of the colonial streets stretching out from Psar Nat still provide the city with genuine character. Daryl Collins, researcher of Khmer architecture, has described Battambang as being still ‘quite pristine’, and as a city where evidence still remains of three distinct eras, ‘the Thai period and its fort, the French colonial town and the modern city of the 1960s.’
Today though, the city’s pristine qualities are facing the challenge of unregulated development, not on a scale seen in Phnom Penh which has seen Cambodia’s capital lose much of its charm, but on a slower but no less significant scale.
Long time Battambang based expatriate Blair Armstrong has estimated that in a ten year time frame he has witnessed over fifty percent of the structures in the city’s French built centre either demolished outright or renovated unsympathetically with their original facades often being replaced at best with charmless garish tiling and new, and quite unvaryingly ugly windows or at worst with vast plastic advertising boards covering the entire upper storeys of previously untarnished shop houses.
Nevertheless, and in spite of some cosmetic changes plus rather more traffic on its narrow roads, Battambang still hangs on to much serenity and soporific charm, so untypical of a regional hub city, that makes it an ideal place for visitor to cast off the restraints of life in a clock obsessed society and enjoy the ambience of an enchanting city with honest and welcoming people.
Battambang has a small museum which can be found on the town side of the river in between the pedestrian bridge and the iron bridge. It’s open intermittently in the morning and afternoon and admission is $1. Inside you’ll find a small but fascinating trove of lintels, pediments, carvings and other artefacts that have been removed from nearby Angkor era sites for safekeeping and to avoid theft.
Day trips from Battambang
All these day trips can be done in two or three days. The trips to Banan and Phnom Sampeou can easily be combined into a single trip as can the trips to Ek Phnom and Basseat.
After walking the 358 laterite stone steps up the recently renovated stairwell you will have a commanding view for miles around. Looking down past below the steep stairwell and slightly beyond into the rice fields you’ll clearly notice the remains of the abandoned 100 metre wide and 200 metres long baray or water table that was built to support this Angkor era mountaintop temple. Beyond that lies excessively peaceful looking outlying countryside and this vast panorama, dappled with varying shades of green and dotted with sugar palms, continues for miles to the horizon.
Built imposingly on a hilltop, the Frenchman Henri Mahout famous ‘discoverer’ of Angkor Wat actually visited Phnom Banan in 1858. In his book, Voyage dans le Royalle de Siam de Cambodge, he describes a larger number of Buddha statues inside the temples as well as an infinity of smaller deities. He also describes an enormous statue at the entrance which he calls a guardian with an iron stick. Indeed many temples, both ancient and modern, have large yieks standing guard wit their magic wands.
Unfortunately, the statues along with the yiek, have all been looted and only the bare edifice remains.
A small Angkorian ruin still stands at the base of the stairwell which is guarded by six sandstone lions. This terrace at the base of the one remaining stairwell (there were originally four – traversing the north, south east and west of the hilltop temple) is still regularly used for prayer ceremonies.
You’ll see monks more often than tourists sauntering slowly up the steep narrow steps which begin with recently restored statues of garudas and nagas. The curious inscriptions on the sandstone banisters are the names of the many Khmer donors to have contributed to the renovation work and as you pass upwards you’ll see a number of lion statues created in slightly different styles. There is no symbolism for this, it merely reflects the fact that the statues were built by different local artists. It’s a lot of work getting up these steep stairs and there is little to mitigate the steepness, but eventually, you will eventually reach a cool shaded terrace where you can sit on a stone bench and share the glorious view of open country with a young monk or two.
The five temples atop the mountain were built of dolomite and sandstone in 1057, according to inscriptions found there and reported by the Pavie Exhibition of the late 1900’s. This places it in the reign of Udayadithyavarman, predecessor of Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat.
The temple five structures themselves remain intact with the central structure being the largest – the French hunter Boulangier said that local Khmers then referred to it as being ‘the navel of Cambodia.’
Look closely, however, and you’ll see the results of massive looting.
Shiva statues remain in parts but most of the apsaras on the temple walls have either been decapitated or not so delicately chipped off – with much of this looting reportedly taking place as the 1980’s when the hilltop temple was used as a military based during the Vietnamese occupation. Indeed, a large water tank built by Vietnamese soldiers still sits quite incongruously amongst the temples, although the artillery pieces they also left behind have now been removed.
Walking around the temple top you will notice the ruined, remnants of the three other stairwells and looking in a northerly direction you will see a verdant green forest covering an adjacent hilltop.
Back down below at the dusty entrance to the temple there are a few simple food and drink stalls, smelling slightly of the locally produced fish sauce and making it possible to have a simple meal of rice and stew to fortify oneself for the long, steep and breathless climb to the mountain top. It would be certainly be wise to stock up with water before attempting the journey.
2) Phnom Sampeou
‘Your House is near Phnom Sampeou’ crooned Sin Sisamout, the legendary Khmer singer in the 1960’s. Phnom Sampeou not only features in popular songs but also in the famous legend of Rumsay Sok – the mythical girl whose lover left her jilted, only to return causing Rumsay Sok to battle a vengeful crocodile which she would famously defeat by letting down her hair causing the water the reptile was swimming in to dry up. These days the tall and craggy Phnom Sampeou provides audacious views across some of Cambodia’s most striking scenery plus the chance to take a sombre look at cave shrines containing the remains of local Khmer Rouge victims.
The ride to Sampeou directly from Battambang is straight drive out of town along Highway 10. The conditions of this road vary according to the season – repairs do take place, but the road isn’t sealed and at the end of the rainy season whole battalions of potholes appear. It’s still passable, but the 13 km journey to Phnom Sampeou becomes a longer ride than it ideally should. In the dry season the road can become a seething dustbowl so wearing a kramah around the head can help in keeping off both the heat and dust.
As the road takes you on your way through fields of gently swaying rice, it seems somewhat incongruous that as recently as 1994 Phnom Sampeou was a battleground with government forces camped out on top of Sampeou and Khmer Rouge troops occupying the nearby Crocodile Mountain (Phnom Krapeu).
At night the roads weren’t safe and this situation continued until 1997 when the KR were finally pushed back to Pailin and Samlot.
Arriving at the foot of Phnom Sampeou (less than 13km from Battambang), you’ll see the craggy mountain approaching to your left. There are a couple of ludicrously overpriced restaurants on the main highway but really it’s best to eat before leaving Battambang.
Swinging left towards the entry point to Phnom Sampeou will take you past an eyebrow-raisingly vast Buddha being carved out of the mountain rock and thousands of wooden scaffolds supporting the workers doing the carving. Work on this enormous edifice was started in 2004 and will take an estimated seven years to finish.
The untidy squatter camp at the base of the mountain (which it is rumoured will soon be cleared as the squatters have no land rights) is a good enough place to leave your transport and grab some extra water. You’ll certainly need the extra water as the climb up the mountain is a steep one.
You now have two choices of ascending Phnom Sampeou. The direct route takes you through the main entrance (completed in 2000 and showing a small boat floating in water surrounded by an unusual fresco of camouflaged soldiers in modern day combat overalls) but this way of getting to the top is overly steep. It’s an easy way down though.
Instead, you could take the winding route to the left of the squatter camp. This has now been paved for two thirds of the way and as the road winds around the mountain you’ll notice countless names inscribed into the road. These are the names of the overseas Khmers who sent money (in numerous small sums) that paid for the road to be built.
Eventually this winding and gradual road comes to an end and there, amongst the banyon trees and lychess and the chattering of monkeys and squirrels, you’ll stumble upon a small temple. This squat unadorned temple – a simple whitewashed affair – was used as a secret interrogation camp. It was an S21 albeit on a much smaller scale.
It’s said that local people were unaware that Phnom Sampeou had been used as both an interrogation and execution centre and that the senior KR cadre (a Comrade Cham) responsible for killing hundreds of locals connected to the old regime tried to make his escape whilst leaving his own troops to fight the Vietnamese liberators. He was eventually caught hiding in a nearby forest and, together with his entire family, executed by locals wanting revenge.
Moving further up Phnom Sampeou will take you to the two ‘killing caves’ or ‘caves of the dead bodies’ – ‘l’aang teng kluan’ or ‘lang pipkiep’ in Khmer.
Both caves are eerie, sobering places with a noticeably chilly atmosphere. After torture and interrogation the victims were simply thrown down the shafts of the caves to their certain deaths. These days, the bones are kept locked up in rust red cages in the first cave. The cages contain the remains of soldiers and officials loyal to the Lol Lon regime (who were the first to be executed), rich Chinese merchants (who were next to go), teachers, doctors and other professional people (who arrived after that) and ex Khmer Rouge officials (who the regime had accused of disloyalty).
Prior to 1993 the bones were not gathered together in cages but instead were scattered all round the caves. Then they began to vanish. It’s said that the senior Khmer Rouge cadre, Ieng Sary wanted to destroy evidence of his crimes so put a bounty on bones by paying local villagers to collect and hide them. Reportedly, bags of bones and skulls were later found secreted in nearby forests.
It’s a challenging ten minute hike from the killing caves to the Phnom Sampeou which sits at the top of the mountain. The uphill path is rocky and scattered with Tamarind trees and other wild plants that Khmers use for traditional medicine.
On the way to the summit, you may well be distracted by a large German made anti tank gun which has been abandoned by government forces and left to rust away in the heat. Nearby (and somehow unnoticed by KR forces) is a small stupa erected by Lon Nol in memory of his family. Quite why this stupa wasn’t discovered and dismantled remains a mystery.
Shortly before arriving at the summit is a small café which is as good a place as any to sit down, recover from the climb and enjoy a bottle of cold water amongst the monkeys that have made their homes here.
The path to the top leads to a small pagoda which unlike the surrounding views is unspectacular. Looking out from the top of Sampeou however, gives panoramic views for miles around and makes it well worth the tough slog to the top. It’s rumoured that this place is a favourite for rain gamblers wanting to set the day’s odds on rain occurring on a certain day.
The main stairway provides then provides an easy descent.
3) Kamping Puoy
Another 45 minutes journey after Phnom Sampeou (the turn off is just a kilometre past Phnom Sampeou and look for the road to the right immediately beyond the Turtle Pagoda) will get you to man made reservoir of Kamping Puoy.
The road out there is an awkward, dusty affair and makes for an uncomfortable journey at the best of times.
There are still some older people living on Battambang who were forced by the Khmer Rouge to work on the construction of this vast, flat dam and those that survived the experience count themselves as fortunate.
If you desire solitude, then it’s best to avoid Kamping Puoy at weekends as the area becomes a popular ‘picnic and swimming’ day trip venue for locals who tuck into food served up by local vendors and float about the reservoir in car inner tubes.
Such is the local appetite for the wild duck and goose that make their homes around Kamping Puoy that in may not be so long until there are none left to hunt.
4) Ek Phnom
The northern route out to Ek Phnom will take you along the river road with the normally benign and muddy stream of brown water weaving its way to your left of Battambang old town. This route has recently been sealed for most of way out to Ek Phnom but could previously get muddy or even flooded in the wet season; nevertheless, it’s a lovely shady route out to one of Battambang’s biggest tourist draws.
Your journey begins at the boat dock with the chance to stock up on French baguettes from the city’s best bread shop. The municipal hospital is across the road to your left and by continuing along the river road for a handful of minutes, you’ll soon have left behind the city’s brick houses, traffic and loud impatient car horns and be looking at the typical wooden stilt dwellings of Khmer communities who live near to and often make their livelihoods from the river.
The first Wat you’ll pass is Wat Leap in Wat Leap village; built in the modern Thai style it has little to offer or detain visitors.
Soon after, however, you’ll see, to your left, Battambang’s former Pepsi Cola factory which has an intriguing history.
This large complex of distinctively designed warehouses still carries the Pepsi Cola logo and apart from a few bullet holes and some slight shell damage is structurally intact. Walking inside though, involves stepping back in time. The vast warehouse still contains the original bottling machinery from the 1960’s plus about 10,000 bottles, stamped ‘1972,’ of Pepsi, Miranda, Singha Soda and Teem. The sense of history here is palpable.
The story goes that the Thai government of the time signed a sweetheart deal with Pepsi’s competitors, the Coca-Cola Company and therefore only Coca-Cola could be manufactured under license in Thailand. Pepsi, therefore, set up a bottling plant within easy reach of the Thai border and exported their fizzy drinks until 1972 when the border became no longer secure.
The factory was abruptly shut down when the KR took Battambang in 1975; however, every Khmer New Year the KR opened the factory for a few days to make ice before shutting it again for another year. When the Vietnamese came they re-opened the factory to make ice and these days the factory produces fresh drinking water.
Carrying on and passing as always wayside tables selling small snacks of dried and cured fish (with a rich sea shore smell), baked banana and corn, you’ll find also to the left, Wat Rum Dual. Rum Dual is the name of a flower and was also the name of a song popularized by singer Ros Sereysothea who was born to a poor family in Battambang Province and achieved great fame in the 1960’s as the leading female proponent of Khmer Garage Rock.
Khmer Garage or psychedelic rock was a frenetic and purely Khmer 60’s genre of popular music epitomised by loud thrashing drums, wailing guitars, the full-on use of the farsifa electric organ and Khmer language reinterpretations of Western rock classics set to a frantic beat.
Eventually, Ros Sereysothea, the Queen of Khmer Garage Rock, was honored by King Norodom Siahanouk with the royal title, “Preah Rheich Teany Somlang Meas”, or the “Golden Voice of the Royal Capital,” but sadly her career came to an end with the takeover of Cambodia by the KR in 1975, after which she was sent out into the fields digging irrigation ditches like the rest of the ‘new people.’ It is known that she was made to sing songs honouring Pol Pot and was placed into an arranged marriage with a KR cadre: however, after 1977, the trail goes cold and no one really knows what became of Cambodia’s most popular ever woman singer. These days the fine Californian musicians, Dengue Fever (who come complete with an expatriate Khmer female singer) have re popularized much of Ros Sereysothea’s music thereby allowing her legacy to live on.
Continuing on and passing a Muslim village (as ever, identifiable by ethnic Cham women pottering about wearing long and brightly coloured headscarves) you’ll arrive at Wat Slaket which is surrounded by tall palms and has been painted in a rich, vivid and less than gentle cream paint. A decrepit and ruined vihear sits alongside. Standing astride the wat (where you will be welcomed by curious but genial monks) there are two imposing statues of battle elephants, both rich in symbolism. One portrays a man cutting off the elephants tusks and is thought to represent an ancient Khmer folktale. The elephant has purposefully allowed itself to be caught by a hunter who is then inadvertently trapped and killed by other elephants.
The second elephant is painted entirely white and wears a blue sash. This is meant to represent the UNTAC period of recent Khmer history and shows the UN colours, although for those with a different take on UNTAC, the white elephant might illustrate a quite different metaphor.
After travelling a short distance from Wat Slaket look again to your left, across from the palm-shaded river and you’ll see a fabulous, courtly French built colonial villa sitting in its own grounds with accompanying stables, outbuildings, servant’s quarters and a large plantation area to the rear. The Khmer family currently living there have taken reasonably good care of the structure and have resisted the temptation to tile the exterior, rip out the shuttered windows or do anything else that would vandalise such a glorious property. They found the building vacant in 1979 after the KR had been chased out of the area, moved in, and have been there ever since.
Another Wat lies not much further ahead along the road to Ek Phnom and this is Wat Kadol, an older Wat built in the lower style. The unusually large expanse of flat concrete in the foreground of the Wat is a legacy of the KR period when it was built to lay out and dry rice whilst the monk’s quarters to the right were converted into a sewing factory. The KR met their match, however, inside the Wat’s vihear as they found themselves unable, however much they tried, to shift and despatch a statue of an enigmatic, enthroned, four-faced Buddha. Eventually a tractor was brought in, roped to the statue and still failed to complete the task, after which the KR miserably gave up. These days the same statue is reputed to bring good fortune to gamblers who, after bestowing an appropriate financial offering to bless the statue, are allowed to rub it gently and then after looking very closely and perhaps squinting their eyes a little, might just see some winning lottery numbers in the stone.
Wat Kadol is also well known for the raucous celebrations that take place there every evening during the yearly Water Festival when families travel for miles to join in the fun.
When you get the village of Dun Teaw, there is small bridge leading to a deserted, vaguely derelict and bombed out looking factory. This compound (bombed with rockets by the Khmer Rouge in 1991) used to make jute (a vegetable fibre used chiefly to make cloth for wrapping bales of raw cotton and to make sacks) and provided jobs for many local residents. But for several reasons, including the ASEAN treaty which made jute imports from Thailand extremely cheap, the factory was forced out of business in 2000.
Retracing your route over the bridge and returning to the Ek Phnom route, you will notice that the road is now rough and ungraded. In the wet season this could lead to muddy and uncomfortable conditions, albeit on one of the most beguiling stretches of the route which takes you through a landscape of coconut palms and mud caked buffalos.
This small and fascinating area is assailed on all sides by houses that specialise in making the rice paper used to wrap the local nem or spring rolls served in many restaurants and street stalls. Amongst all the cooking pots and other household odds and ends, look out for the metallic looking spiral shaped discs hanging out to dry like chilli peppers at regular intervals and on wooden frameworks outside the local wooden dwellings. The process of making them is aided by the heat of the rice chaff after which they are laid out to dry.
Look out also for the bottles and clear plastic bags of ‘blood’ festooned across gateposts in this area. This ‘blood’ (actually coloured water) is an attempt by locals to distract blood-eating monsters from entering their houses. Monsters, we would perhaps call vampires. It is clear that the seeds of the vampire myth have fallen on fertile soil in Daun Teaw.
The route onwards and towards Ek Phnom now has a stillness and tranquillity as the houses and shacks thin out. Jolly children will wave as you drive through rice paddies and across open country before finally reaching the ruins of Ek Phnom situated on a small hill surrounded by a lily and lotus filled moat.
It’s possible to stop here and have a cold drink or perhaps even a plate of dried and cured snake meat in the shade and next to a shimmering lotus pond. Directly in front of the drink stall is Wat Ek Phnom constructed six years ago (after its ruination in the 1980’s when it was used as a Vietnamese ammunition dump) which is possibly the most garishly coloured wat in the province and somewhat reminiscent of Norman Lewis’s description of a Cao Dai temple, being ‘an example of fun fair architecture in extreme form,’ and liable to provoke a reaction of fascinated horror.
Looking beyond the clashing reds, oranges, other assorted colours of the rainbow and glistening glided and painted features, one notices that unlike most pagodas, Wat Ek Phnom contains no crematorium. Instead a simple coffin sized and makeshift crematorium is used for deceased monks but local villagers have to make their own arrangements, which usually involves chopping down a banana tree and constructing a funeral pyre with that and charcoal.
Surrounded by placid lotus and lily ponds, Ek Phnom was built (prior to Angkor Wat) in 1027 as a Hindu Temple by Suryavarnan 1.
The temples themselves are now ruins and giant blocks of masonry languish here and there, with what is left still standing perched awkwardly.
Ek Phnom is still a hugely popular venue for locals, especially at Khmer New Year when hundreds of people will descend on the area. At a separate festival (that of Chenh Vossa) to mark the end of rainy season, locals gather at night to place candles on small, hand made boats and then watch their crafts gently float away down the river.
The prevailing wind tends to blow travellers out to Banan, Ek Phnom and Sampeou and, whilst these venues hog the attention, Bassaet is nearby and those who give the journey a couple of hours of their time will be well rewarded.
Many of those who do venture out to Bassaet do so from the river road and along a straight and fairly dull dirt track that leads like an arrow to the temples.
An alternative approach would be to take Highway 5 past the Battambang Statue (heading towards Phnom Penh) and through Alongvil just a kilometre away.
On the right, and not so far after the market, is Wat Alongvil. This small traditionally designed wat until recently had its very own killing fields monument. The bones had been retrieved from a mass grave found in 1979 when the Vietnamese liberated the village and found the wat to be a Khmer Rouge saw mill and motorbike garage. The machinery, bikes, equipment and anything other useful things were all taken back to Vietnam as spoils of war which meant that the villagers could have their wat back.
Until fairly recently the skulls were kept displayed in the open air but are now kept locked away inside a dull grey stupa recently built for that purpose. Apart from a gaggle of ancient nuns to be found with their pet crow, Wat Alongvil also has a very distinctive four-faced Bayon stupa and is home to the shrine of Luk Yiey Ess.
The shrine of Luk Yiey Ess can be found on Highway 5 itself under a Banyon tree just outside the wat. Some say Luk Yiey Ess is a mythical goddess whilst others say that she was a real woman who lived locally and had strong magical powers – what we today might call a witch. Either way, her small shrine (or ashram) is known for its potent magical powers and is still in daily use. Locals often visit this animist shrine to present offerings, particularly before they embark on long journeys, as Luk Yiey Ess is known for her ability to protect and safeguard travellers. You’ll see Luk Yiey Ess sitting inside the simple white shrine wearing gold robes.
From Alongvil it’s entirely possible to get to Baesett humming close to one of several streams all of which are hugged by shady, cooling foliage.
Cross over Highway 5 head a couple of minutes onwards and then take a left where you see the arch and sign for Wat O Meuni then follow shady path until the road bends sharply right where Wat O Meni sits. You’ll then head out into open countryside and rice fields until you arrive at the peaceful village of Rokor, where you might even be able to rest and buy some water. There is a large wat at Rokor which comes complete with gaudy tall pink and gold gates.
The wat (surrounded by Acacia trees –which the Khmers use for herbal medicine) has an ornately gabled five tier roof which was rebuilt in 1995 after the Vietnamese had left. Prior to that, the KR had used the wat as a pigsty before the Vietnamese used it as a weapons base in 1982 and 1983 when fighting was still going on locally. The KR had destroyed all the monks’ quarters but these have now been rebuilt and one old monk (an ex Lon Nol soldier) tells of how the entire village had been evacuated as a mobile work party in 1978.
After going around the wat turn left and the road eventually winds towards Tapon where you meet with the main Battamang road to Basseat. Turn right here and it’s a mere kilometre or so to the Basseat ruins.
Tapon itself was uninhabited until 1990 because of the continued Khmer Rouge menace and farmers would tend their fields in the day before returning to the safety of Rokor for the night. Opposite the wat here is a large tree named a Chan Kiri or ‘full moon’ tree where travellers can stop for a drink. Villagers here are highly superstitious, as is the way for many rural Khmers. One explained that before the Khmer Rouge time, twice a month a small golden boat would briefly and magically rise to the surface of a local pond near Bassaet – but the golden boat hasn’t been seen since 1975 as the Khmer Rouge managed to kill the magic.
At Basseat itself just a kilometre away, you’ll find further evidence of magic at work. Basseat temple had survived the rigours of time reasonably well until the Khmer Rouge came and decided to tear down the 11th Century buildings in order to use the stones to build a dyke or dam somewhere else. At first, things went well and several structures were demolished, but before the temples could be completely destroyed, the KR workmen started to die. Locals will explain that the KR, realising they had been cursed by the spirits, then became frightened and gave up before Basseat could be totally trashed, and that is why one temple is still standing whilst the stones from the other demolished temple were never taken away.
It’s been established that Bassaet was dedicated in 1042 by King Suryavarman 1 but to this day, nobody is totally sure whether it was a Buddhist temple or a Brahmin temple. It’s believed that as many of the statues originally here were moved to the National Museum in the 1960’s.
These days, amongst the large square stones laying scattered about the ground and precariously balanced ruins, you’ll find a handful of elderly nuns and behind the ruins a rather attractive 11th century sras or man made pond with laterite steps.
Although the very clear evidence of Khmer Rouge destruction is there to see, Bassaet remains a tranquil place and you feel a considerable distance from Battambang despite the fact that the town is just a 20 minute drive back down the straight dirt track leading out of Bassaet.
6) Wine from Battambang
Heading out of Battambang Town on the road to Phnom Banan, after about twenty minutes you come to the Phnom Banan vineyard; the brainchild and business of Mrs Chan They Chhoeung. You could almost miss it if you blinked; a small blue signpost on the left hand side of the road with the name of the owner in English and Khmer and a small painting of a bunch of grapes.
Pulling into her driveway, the first thing that you notice is how organised everything is; from the well manicured bushes, to the tidy rows of vines stretching out along the eyelevel trellises.
To the left is a large gazebo; spacious and airy it is a welcome respite from the midday heat and a more than pleasant place to stop for an hour or two. Inside is a large ornate hardwood table, several chairs and a bar display showing off bottles of her latest vintage. To the side a glass cabinet contains a selection of tasting glasses, presumably to protect them from the dusty road that is, almost hidden behind the building.
Mrs Chan Thay Chhoeuay started growing fruit grapes in 2000 as an alternative to the usual rice or oranges that dominate agriculture in Battambang province.
After a few early set backs, not to mention several people telling her that you could not grow grapes in Cambodia, she eventually started producing wine as well, her first vintage was in 2004, when she produced a red wine made from the grape varieties Black Queen and Shiraz. Now ordinarily Black Queen is a fruit grape, not used for making wine, however her initial efforts in viticulture led her to purchasing vines from Viet Nam, where they grow Black Queen as a fruit grape. Since she decided to start making wine, she has subsequently planted Shiraz and Chardonnay from which she intends to produce a red from pure Shiraz and a rosé from a Shiraz and Chardonnay blend.
All in all, she has around 3 hectares under vine; half of which grow fruit grapes, the Black Queen, the other half wine producing grapes. She currently wants to expand the amount of wine producing vines she has planted, but land is expensive and producing Cambodia’s only wine is a costly business with slow returns.
The trellises, pruning and care of the vines are all self-taught, as is her knowledge of the fermentation process. A few years after she started, a random French tourist was passing the vineyard and he could not believe what he saw when he saw the rows of carefully tended vines, so he strolled into the house to find out what was going on. After he returned home to France at the end of his holiday he posted several books on viticulture and wine making back to her, which she painstakingly read using a French / Khmer dictionary, word by word.
Harvest time comes twice a year here in The Topics, and harvesting 8,000 plants by hand is no easy task, in fact she has to hire in as many people as she can afford to help, ensuring that fermentation can be started the same day.
Initially, the fermentation process takes place in plastic barrels for ease and speed, the grapes being crushed by hand. After this first step, the wine is transferred to stainless steel barrels for the next six months, being filtered and the barrels changed every month before bottling. The stainless steel barrels she was able to purchase in Cambodia, but she was forced to go further afield for the rest of her equipment. The bottles are French, but were bought from a wholesaler in Thailand, the corks and foil capsules are from Italy. A pH meter from France and the pump and filtration system from Canada were particularly expensive. Although a local printer in Battambang Town makes the labels to her own design.
In March 2005, when the first batch of her 2004 vintage was ready, she submitted it to Cambodia’s Ministry of Industry for certification; to qualify it as a foodstuff fit for human consumption. In her tasting and sales gazebo she proudly displays certificate number 3319/05 signed by the Minister of Industry. In fact, so taken by her unique endeavours the Prime Minister of Cambodia has asked to meet her at an upcoming trade forum.
Even more remarkably for this impoverished country, she has had no financial or technical assistance from charities, aid-workers or NGO’s. Despite tens of millions of development dollars being spent on researching and funding ‘alternative livelihoods’ she has managed to get this enterprise off the ground almost entirely by sheer willpower, determination and vision.
She freely admits that she is still learning about making wine, as well as acknowledging the faults, but as she says ‘it is early days and I will get better’. Despite the rustic nature of her product, it has to be one of the more interesting stops to be made in Battambang and a bottle or two is definitely an interesting purchase; either for oneself or for wine enthusiasts back home.
At the time of writing, the 2004 vintage was still available, at a farm gate price of US$6, the 2005 vintage was still maturing.
About the author:
Darren Conquest holds a diploma in wine tasting from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (UK). He formerly worked for ‘Wine Magazine’ in the UK; where he also helped organise the world largest wine tasting. He has managed and owned several successful wine-bars in England and has contributed to several books on wine; as well as writing independent articles.
La Villa is Battambang’s most charming and upmarket accommodation option. Set in a previously shoddy but now artfully restored 1930’s French villa (and French owned and managed) La Villa combines perfect taste and charm. Rooms go for between $40-50 but represent good value.
The Teo is highly popular with overseas Khmers, Khmer government people and Khmer business travellers as well as tourists wanting great value, spotlessly clean air-con rooms. Service is friendly and efficient. Rooms go for between $12 -$44, but $12 will get you a double room with all facilities including air con, cable TV, fridge and hot shower.
On the way into town from Phnom Penh between the statue of the Disappearing Stick but before the iron bridge over the river, can be found the Park Hotel . A/c and fan rooms with attached bathroom, cable TV, hot water and fridge. The fan rooms go for $5 and the aircon rooms go for $12.
Tel: 053-953773, 012-817170
Very conveniently located on the river and close to the Smokin’ Pot, the White Rose and Battambang Bus Stop, the Angkor Hotel even has terraces on the rooms overlooking the river. Ask for a front room. $12 will get you an air con en-suite room with all the usual facilities.
Spring Park Hotel
This tall modern hotel (built in 2005), is owned and managed by the same company who run the nearby Park Hotel. Facilities and prices are very similar. All rooms have en-suite facilities but the cheaper rooms have fans rather than air con.
Chaiya Hotel – Street 3
The Chaiya has long been popular with backpackers and is a reliable budget option. The cheaper rooms come with fan and cold water, the more expensive with air con and hot water. You will find an abundance of motorbike tour guides keen to meet you outside the lobby.
Royal Hotel – off Street 3 and opposite Psar Nat
This, (like the Chaiya) is another budget traveller favourite and offers similar deals on rooms together with similar deals on motorbike tour guides.
vii) Drinking and Dining
Eating Options: Asian
The Smoking Pot
The Smokin’ Pot, initially a joint Khmer/German venture but these days very much a Khmer run operation can be found near to the river and along the road leading from the Angkor Hotel to Street 2. Most of the kerbside cafes here cater for the Khmer market but the Smokin’ Pot is an exception and is highly popular with Western travellers seeking out good value Khmer and Thai food.
Set in a colonial-era French built cottage, the Smokin’ Pot has a slightly rustic ambience but the food is excellent. Most dishes including the popular lok lak, amok and coconut curries go for 6,000 riel. The Khmer sour soup (som low midch kreung) comes highly recommended as do the barbequed fish dishes.
Vannak, the owner, speaks excellent English and also organises daily Khmer cookery classes. He’ll take you to the market, help you choose you own food and then bring you back to his restaurant and show you how to cook it. At the end of the class you’ll be given a neat folder of recipes to take home with you.
The White Rose (on the corner of Street 2 and a gentle stroll towards Street 3 from the Smokin’ Pot) is a long time favourite and famous in Battambang for being the first restaurant to open up in 1979 after the Khmer Rouge left. This long established hardy perennial has continued to serve up hearty portions of Khmer food ever since – these days to a mixture of travellers and local Khmer families.
ASEAN – River Road East, directly across the river from the Angkor Hotel
The unusual drive through ASEAN is currently one of the most popular beer garden restaurants in Battambang. All the usual frills of a beer garden restaurant can be found here – the uniformed beer girls, the fairy lights, the live band, the singers and dancers etc – but the food (Khmer or Khmer/Chinese) is excellent value and well within most travellers’ budgets. A three or four dish dinner with drinks should cost less than $10 for two. If you don’t like loud Khmer music then ask for a table at the rear of the restaurant.
Pkay Prouk – street 3 (south)
Pkay Prouk is one of a number of similar restaurants along this stretch of road heading southwards away from the main town. It’s a similar deal to the ASEAN but possibly a little less noisy and is part of a Thai owned chain. The Fire Mountain (Phnom Plung) DIY dinner here is excellent
Noodle Shop – directly opposite Smoking Pot
If you enjoy local food and are making an early start then why not try the spacious noodle shop opposite the Smokin Pot. This un-named double fronted venue is the most popular breakfast venue in town amongst locals as evidenced by the double parked landcruisers you’ll see there at 7am.
Spacious, clean and open for breakfast and lunch with typically fast paced Khmer/Chinese service, pork with noodles, dumplings or won ton goes for 3,000 riel as does duck soup. Bi Bop Lok costs 1500 riel.
Riverside Drink Stalls
As well as extremely refreshing fruit shakes which are made fresh to order and come with ice and the obligatory condensed milk, these stalls sell a variety of sticky sweets and dried or smoked fish and squid. Plus you’ll often see a pot of large white eggs on the boil over a charcoal stove which come served with pepper and salad and which are doubtless both tasty and filling if only you can get past the fact that each and every egg contains a fertilised duck embryo.
Beer is served over ice and usually costs 2,500 riel a can. Some stalls stay open late.
Many of the stalls sell the Khmer equivalent of desert – sweet, jellied fruits, jelly, different sorts of sweet beans etc. All of which are chosen in a ‘pick and mix’ style.
Your selection is placed in a bowl, to which a couple of large tablespoons of crushed ice is added, along with some milk, or sweetened milk. 1000r a bowl (US$0.25)
Eating Options: Non Asian
Bus Stop – Corner of Street 2 and next to the White Rose
Only recently opened, everything is squeaky clean and ready for use. The owner is a young Australian guy who has managed successful businesses in Cambodia for years.
This is the only Western managed bar and guesthouse in Battambang Town and also offers lightening fast wi-fi internet connection. Open from breakfast til late at night, the Bus Stop is the place to go for a cheese burger, to watch a Western movie, check your emails and listen to great music all at the same venue. Plus, the Bus Stop Guesthouse is just upstairs.
Sunrise Café – across the road from Psar Nat and along the same road as the Golden Parrot.
The Sunrise or ‘The Bakery’, as it’s known to local expats, serves up Western breakfasts and lunches together with soups and sandwiches made to order. The soups can be very good but, to be candid, the over bright décor, graffiti strewn walls and slapdash service are all minuses.
Food to Take Away
Cheap local bread can be found all over town and a baguette usually goes for around 500 riel. A baguette filled with greasy pate and spicy salad costs around 2500 riel wrapped up to take away. Look out for simple glass kiosks, especially on the riverside.
Many Westerners, though, complain that Khmer bread can be both over sweet and insubstantial. But Battambang does have one bread shop where the produce is cooked to a Western recipe, with a thick doughy filling and without sugar. The International Bakery can be found adjacent to the boat dock nest to the Rith Mony Bus Station and directly opposite the city hospital. At the time of writing, large crisp loaves go for 1000 riel and the smaller baguettes cost 500 riel. The bread is excellent and the choice of the city’s Western eateries.
Battambang does not yet have any chain Western style supermarkets but it does have Chea Neang, a friendly family run Chinese store to be found on Street 3 directly opposite and to the rear of Psar Nat.
Khmers have an extreme tendency to congregate their commercial activities and where you find one ‘drink store’, you’ll most probably find five or more in a row. Chea Neang however, is the store most directly opposite the market and below a large sign advertising the nearby Green Parrot Guesthouse.
Much favoured by Western NGO workers, you’ll find all manner of comfort food on the shelves and in the fridges, including tins of tuna, pork, and imported pates, bottles of mayonnaise and vegemite, imported butters, cheeses and meats, chocolate and savoury snacks such as Pringles, plus a much larger than might be expected selection of imported wines and spirits. It’s quite possible to combine a journey here with a trip to the bread shop and find everything you need for a day trip picnic; something to think about as good eating options are few and far between once out of Battambang.
Rice and Pork, bai suh ch’rook, at 2,000riel is more often than not the usual breakfast for most Khmers so why not let it be yours? Street eats abound but for rice and pork in a spic and span seated environment, then try the nameless (but highly popular) breakfast restaurant directly opposite the Smokin’ Pot and mentioned above.
Wat Pipithi Food Stalls- two blocks from Psar Nat heading north.
Bathed in late afternoon beautiful honey coloured light, numerous street food vendors set up shop here in the afternoon and dispense inexpensive local treats from pots and pans. The food is cheap and cheerful, and the atmosphere down this quiet street is relaxing.
There are a number of internet cafes situated on Street 2, south of Psar Nat. Sopheak Web is probably the best known and most reliable but even they can’t do anything about Battabang’s frequent power outages. Net access usually costs around 2000 riel an hour and Sopheak Web will also burn photos onto CD. A similar CD/DVD service is also provided by a computer shop next to Smokin’ Pot. Remember, however, to always check that the CD contains the photos before erasing them from your camera’s memory. Another option for net access is the wi-fi service to be found at Battambang Bus Stop next to the White Rose.
Acleda Bank (east side of the river) provides Western Union and the Cambodian Commercial Bank has an office near the Railway Station where travellers can get cash from their visa cards for 2% fee.
UCB Bank (next to Psar Nat) allows you to draw money on your visa card at no commission.
ANZ Royal Bank has now opened a branch on Street 3 with cash machines linked to Cirrus, Plus, Maestro, Visa and MasterCard.
All the above banks also change traveller’s cheques.
Most net cafes also provide internet phone calls. These are surprisingly cheap and effective although there can sometimes be a slight time lag.
There are no cyclos in Battambang so the ubiquitous moto is (apart from walking, which is often the simplest way) the only mode of transport. Motos aren’t to be found in the same quantities as in Phnom Penh but it’s usually possible to find one within a few minutes during the day. At night however, it’s more difficult. Prices usually go for 500 riel (short hops) and 1000 riel (longer journeys) with a slight surcharge in the evening. Some hotels (the Teo for instance) can arrange moped rentals ($5-8 per day) and there is a motorbike shop on Street 3 (East side, near the Paris Hotel) which will hire out a 250cc dirtbike at $10 per day.
Most travellers to the outlying attractions usually arrange an English speaking motordop/guide via their hotel lobby as many of the guides are associated with particular hotels. They usually charge $8-10 per day.
v) Further out for the more adventurous
Why go to Samlot? Aid workers, both foreign and Khmer go there as do missionaries, but rarely do tourists or visitors get to this isolated, edge-of- the-world north-western district of Cambodia.
Apart from the aid workers and missionaries, Samlot, as a last redoubt of the Khmer Rouge, is home to many former foot soldiers, middle level functionaries and higher level people of power and influence of the Pol Pot regime, all left in this remote part of Cambodia to where they were harried and chased by the Vietnamese in 1979. They’re still there and visitors should neither feel threatened nor deterred by their presence. In most cases they are ordinary, genial people simply trying to make the best of their lives in precarious and difficult circumstances.
Samlot is also home to thousands of ordinary Khmer people previously left stranded in Thai refugee camps not just by the conflict of the late 1970’s but also as a result of the faction fighting in 1997 when the Khmer Rouge leaders in Pailin made a deal with the CPP faction of the then Khmer government to defect on condition that they could continue to rule the local roost and enjoy the financial benefits of cross border gem trading.
The local Khmer Rouge didn’t go along with this deal. Rumours abounded in Phnom Penh that the local KR leadership would side with the FUNCINPEC faction of the government and all hell broke loose.
After the coup-d’etat in Phnom Penh and several hundred extra judicial slayings, many of the losing FUNCINPEC faction found their way up to Samlot and the fighting became vicious.
Due to the government fearing a counter attack by the retreating KR, it has been estimated that between 3,000 -5000 mines were being laid a day during this period, to which can be added the many thousands of mines left over from previous Vietnamese and government offensives against the Khmer Rouge, and other unexploded ordinance such as mortar shells.
Not only did Samlot become, as a result, one of the most heavily mined regions of Cambodia, 15,000 local people were displaced to refugee camps across the Thai border. When the refugees, together with the thousands of defeated Khmer Rouge troops and their families returned in 1998, not only did they find fields fallow and unusable due to mines and unexploded ordinance, they also found their homes destroyed and their land confiscated by the conquerors. In many instances, whole villages of people picked up sticks and moved elsewhere. This has led to a massive unclarified mess over place names, as when they villagers fled from, say, O Samrel, they decided to call their new village by the same names. Consequently there are now two O Samrels.
In 1999, UNHCR brought back the refugees and launched a reintegration project that was as difficult as it was ambitious. Roads needed to be reconstructed and de-mined. Large databases of relocated persons were set up to help in order to assist the most needy. However, by the end of 2000, UNHCR had finished its work, leaving the rest to NGO’s and especially to the de-miners CMAC and MAG who still continue their work today.
Nevertheless, and despite the fact that Samlot has slipped down to second place in terms of parts of Cambodia with the most mine casualties, Samlot remains infested with anti personnel mines, especially just off the roads and tracks. Despite the beguiling, serene nature of the landscape here, visitors should express extreme caution as every week mine casualties are ferried to Battambang for treatment and every village contains unfortunate souls missing a limb or two.
1999 was also the year that Comrade Douch, the notorious former camp commandant and mass murderer of Phnom Penh’s S-21 prison where many thousands were tortured prior to their killings at Chung Ek, was discovered working in the field of ‘health promotion’ for the NGO, American Relief Committee. Douch having changed his name, but not his highly distinctive appearance, had previously found his way to Battambang where he’d been wooed by one of the many zealous American missionaries that abounded then – and continue to abound now – in Cambodia’s second city. Having been immersed for his baptism in the brown, muddy waters of the River Sangker, Douch, who had for some years been working as a senior Khmer Rouge bureaucrat in the Pol Pot administered Camp 505 over the Thai border, dropped his zealous commitment to Marxism and embraced the happy clappy type of evangelist Christianity still propagated in Battambang so fervently by enthusiastic Americans to this day.
He was eventually discovered – working hard and with the resolute discipline he had previously reserved for murdering people – for ARC and in collaboration with another Christian NGO, World Vision, out in the village of Adeo Hep in between S’dau and Tasanh in the Samlot district of Battambang Province. Following his discovery by the British journalist Nic Dunlop, Douch vanished for a while before handing himself in to the authorities. Since then he was been kept, with his ex boss Ta Mok until the latter died, in a military detention centre not so far from Tuol Sleng prison where he oversaw the deaths of many thousands of people.
Samlot is a place of truly wild beauty where tigers, bears, elephants, rare deer, peacock, civit cats, leopards, porcupine and other species of rare, endangered flora and fauna can still be found hiding in the Cardoman Mountains as can be small communities of forest monks. Plus, as the forests of Banlung have been felled for their luxury hardwood and as Rattankiri has become overrun with tourists, Samlot, whilst under threat, still remains abundantly stocked with rolling hills of virgin forest and valleys of lush and uninhabited jungle.
Neverthless, deforestation is a major concern. Large commercial interests chop down luxury hardwood for vast profit; impoverished locals encroach on forest land and chop down trees so they can plant crops on land formerly occupied by virgin forest. Much timber finds its way over official border points between Samlot District and Thailand such as Sen Choav, 400 pass, Peam Tang and Ting Mong. Other luxury timber finds its way across the border on ox carts and pick up trucks using unofficial border passes.
And when an area forest is chopped down everything else of value is also ruthlessly taken. Animals are trapped either, in the case of rare deer or wild forest pigs, to be eaten, or, as is the case for bears and tigers, for their body parts to sold on to the lucrative and ever hungry Chinese ‘medicine’ market via traders in Battamang.
CMAC and MAG are continuing to demine roads and free the land for agricultural development. This is crucial work as most villages in this place of rugged natural beauty do not have sufficient agricultural land to be self sufficient in food. Many produce just enough rice (‘mountain rice’) to last just five months a year. As a comparison, Muslim Chams – considered Cambodia’s poorest ethnic group – produce enough rice to last themselves nine months of the year.
One positive factor is that Samlot has begun to slip down the list of areas of Cambodia with the highest number of current mine casualties. Sadly however, one new problem is that people with small plots of land are beginning to clear land further away from demined areas and as a consequence many new mine victims are appearing on the roles.
Setting off to Samlot from Battmbang involves either, jumping on a pick up from Psar Leu, hiring a bike or negotiating the services of a motorbike guide.
After that it’s a straight drive to S’dau along the much fought over Highway 10 where a decade ago the front line with the Khmer Rouge lay just 20km out of town and the refugee –filled villages were subject to night time curfews. The rain-damaged and badly potholed road from Battambang to S’dau has received a quick patch up, but for miles out of Battambang the air remaines thick with petrol fumes and dust kicked up by over laden pickups and dilapidated trucks blasting their horns whilst transporting newly picked rice around Cambodia.
Battambang gets further away and the road narrows as you pass small hamlets where pigs forage and people live lives that are plain and simple but not so easy. Rice fields of brilliant green extend for miles in every direction and eventually you arrive in the nondescript town of S’dau which stands midway between Pailin and Battambang and is the prompt for a swing left towards Samlot. You are about to enter a part of Cambodia a world away from Battambang with its surplus of too spruce, freshly varnished and glided pagodas and dead-flat emerald hinterlands.
From here on, the rice paddies and pagodas faded away and are replaced by forests and plantations, fallow mine-filled fields and most of all by the Cardoman Mountains which sit glowering on the horizon.
Bound on, and be amazed by the changes in the landscape on all sides. In the late afternoon the sun begins to drop in the sky and its light bounces off wildflowers growing in the meadows, while swallows swoop, silhouetted in the muted sky. The land grows greener and more verdant as you thunder through dips and hollows and eventually reach the largest settlement in the area, Tasanh.
Tasanh is the base for everything in Samlot. Emergency, the Battmbang based, Italian funded medical NGO has an office in Tasanh that serves as a triaging centre and a first port of call for victims of mines and unexploded ordinance, who are still ferried from there to Battambang at the rate of one or two a week. The Emergency office, surrounded by neatly cropped lawns and scented jasmine flowers, also serves as an ad hoc guesthouse where for a couple of dollars a night, guests can sleep on camp beds in a room used to store medical equipment. The jolly one-legged caretaker and ex-Khmer Rouge soldier (who lost his leg in combat rather than to a landmine) is happy to go to the market and cook whatever local food you request.
Next door to Emergency office is a rickety, run down and very noisy karaoke establishment which is open late and serves beer. Klang Beer seems to be the preferred brand in these parts, but the locals don’t call it Klang; they call it damrey saa meaning white elephant after the logo of the tusker on the side of the can.
If you return long the road for about 3km you will see about four identical houses on each side of the road. This part of a project for the disabled funded by the popular actress Angelina Jolie, the subject of whose benevolence we will return to later.
Whilst much of Tasanh is ragged, the market area has a uniquely shoddy ambience complete with wretched mustard coloured dogs constantly snuffling optimistically around in the abandoned plastic bags that seemed to be, like the dirt and potholes, everywhere. We shuffled into a restaurant of sorts, in a self-conscious manner, hoping that the grimfaced lady owner might be induced into feeding us. This proposal didn’t seem to please her but eventually and, it seemed, begrudgingly she left and then after a while reappeared with a meagre dish of rice and small whole cold fish which we ate whilst being scrutinised by clusters of young men, obviously bored and with lots of time on their hands and no money to spend.
Next morning, the mountains that surrounded us on all sides were floating above a calm sea of mist and the verdant colours of yesterday had gone and all now seemed strangely muted and smoky. The spectacular and pristine scenery contrasted with the disorder of the town’s market. Upon waking at 7am, the early morning chill, much colder than is normal during the Khmer ‘cool’ season, caused my companion total paralysis of his will to wash or shave at the large water filled earthenware pot which had been left for our benefit outside the guesthouse; indeed I brooded long and hard before committing myself to the icy water.
We returned to the market with its forlorn dogs, abandoned plastic bags and caked dirt. At the far end and next to the previous night’s ghastly restaurant was a pick up truck framed by oversize amplifiers blaring out distorted music at the highest possible volume. In front of the pick up and attached to a length of thick chain was a very large and aggrieved looking monkey refusing to be intimidated by one of the braver local dogs which was, quite wisely, choosing not to get within striking distance of the tethered beast. A moon faced man seemed to be in charge and was busily preparing a show that we had no intention of watching.
Avoiding yesterday’s scowling woman we found a different place to eat where the attraction lay not in the blaring TV or the chain smoking locals braced for the cold in anoraks and woolly socks, but with the take it or leave it breakfast of ‘bai sak jruk choo’ (tender pork on rice with soup) complete with coffee and ‘tuk dok go’ (water, tit, cow) which came to an acceptable 2,500 riel and fortified us with energy. Energy we needed to embark on the journey through the mountains which at this time in the morning were blue and grey and still sketched in mist.
Tasanh market in the early morning light is a disorderly place with hyena like dogs trotting through piles of rubbish and chubby, greasy faced children wrapped up well in colourful nylon jackets. As we picked at bai suh ch’rook, breakfasts fortifying us for a ride out to see waterfalls and on to the Thai border, our host’s earlier cautionary words came to mind. Making small talk, he had circled around one subject returning to it again and again: mines.
This district of Battambang Province is ridden with mines. Even as late as 1997, as many as 4000 landmines were being laid a day in this remote part of Cambodia which was one of the last hide outs of the Khmer Rouge. One in 27 people in here have been maimed by landmines, in 2000 alone 700 people stepped on landmines alone, and Samlot district has about 10 times the national average in a country which already has the highest rate of land mine victims in the world; only last year, fresh unmarked mines were found in the settlement of Tasanh itself close to the river and straight across from the health centre that triages the obligatory weekly mine victim and by coincidence serves as a guest house for strangers.
So, traveling in Samlot is a rich and beguiling experience but it’s as well to be wary of mines, especially as most accidents take place very close to the paths which snake through this most rugged and beautiful part of Cambodia.
The road northwest of Tasnah bends around to become an east-west road rather than a north-south one and a couple of kilometers later there is an intersection with a dusty settlement. This is Tasanh Cheung and there are a couple of cafes and drink stalls here but not much else.
Carrying on along this road for a further kilometer takes you to a T-junction with the left route leading to a Rattanakiri-like open grassy forest and the right route heading out to the Thai border.
We traveled towards the Thai border along a good sealed road passing dull featureless country and a wooden school donated by the actress Angelina Jolie before taking a sharp right turn at an enormous World Vision mine awareness sign, one of many gruesome tableaux’s warning the populace of the dangers lurking just off the beaten path.
The road north through Stung commune bend sharply and thereafter the scenery changes. Fields of tall feathery stalks sway in the light morning breeze which in December was cool enough to cause the locals to be bundled up in assortment of colourful but ragged sweaters and jackets. Other fields were bare apart from red tin signs warning of un-cleared mines.
The track narrows and here are there dotted around are isolated hamlets smelling of fish sauce and small clusters of huts that don’t merit the title of village. Locals squat in the shade, watching over ordered mats of recently harvested rice or tending dented pots over smoky fires. They silently size us up as we bounce past through the dirt tracks which are sometimes sandy but more often made of sun baked mud with ridges, deep ruts and trenches caused by rainy season erosion.
Before the wars started in the late 60’s Samlot was the only developed zone in the entire area. Samlot also saw some of the first events of the revolt that eight years later put the Khmer Rouge into power when, on April 2nd 1967, veterans of the first Indo China war and local communists acting independently of Pol Pot’s orders murdered soldiers who had been sent there to collect rice and grain. This policy of forcibly buying crops at a low rate from farmers, known as ramassage du paddy, prevented locals from selling their produce at a higher and untaxed rate to Vietnamese and had provoked widespread dissent particularly in Battambang province.
The furious villagers and peasants responsible for the killings grew in confidence, stole weapons from the corpses and went on to burn down local government buildings later that day. Thirty years later, the district was still a Khmer Rouge stronghold.
Much of Samlot reverted to jungle over the thirty year period of war and unrest but now bounding on towards the waterfall we passed fields of banana, peanuts, cashews and huge durian trees, growing far bigger than durians can ordinarily be expected to grow. Elsewhere, we passed fields of low scrub and frequently the stumps of chopped trees jutted mournfully from the ground providing stark evidence of logging.
This is a Cambodia of remote stillness without pagodas or broken temples. The land is hilly and undulating and people are few and far between.
Eventually, after about an hour of riding, the track leads to a pristine forest which has been rescued by the actress Anglina Jolie on her world tour of salvation. Ms Jolie has built her Cambodian home here and is spending around $350,000 a year over a 15 year period to rent the land across the river from the waterfall and develop a number of projects dealing with environmental protection.
The spotlessly clean conservation centre she has built here employs around 40 rangers and border police whose job it is to prevent agricultural encroachment, illegal commercial logging and the wholesale butchery of local wildlife for food and medicine. There are pit vipers, leopards, wild pigs, pheasants, porcupines, civits, loris, honey bears, sambur and other exotic creatures in the forest and all of them are vulnerable to poachers. As are the tigers which are still reputed to be out there in the forest somewhere and whose bones fetch locals $475 a kilo when sold on to the unscrupulous merchants who then profit vastly when the crushed bones are moved into the Chinese traditional medicine market.
The waterfall itself lies down a track which plunges steeply through about 300 metres of lush forest next to the conservation centre.
It’s neither a large nor spectacular waterfall but its set in a tree rimmed depression beneath blankets of vegetation; trees, creepers, ferns, lianas, bamboos and the virgin forest come in countless shades of green. The trees, including one spectacular large tree with an intricate root system running through the waterfall, provide both cool and shade and the pool of clean and clear turquoise water is ideal for swimming and bathing in.
Sadly, some signs of civilisation are beginning to appear in the form of discarded water bottles, chewing gum wrappers, shampoo wrappers and other unlovely bits and pieces of litter discarded by the occasional Khmer visitors who come to picnic and enjoy risking their lives by climbing the trees up through the waterfall in typical daredevil style. These visitors are still fortunately few in number though and the area around the waterfall is still beautiful and far from trashed. It’s an intimate, peaceful and memorable place.
x) Getting there and away
1) Phnom Penh to Battambang
A number of bus companies ply this route and for costs and length of journey read below. Probably the most popular is Capitol tours situated on St 182 near Orussey Market . An alternative is the Red Dragon Bus Company which has an office on St 108 in Phnom Penh close to the river. The buses leave from the park in front of the concert hall opposite. Cost is $3.50 one way.
Share Taxis and pick ups
For prices see below, but share taxis and pick ups leave Phnom Penh from the shabby area extending to the West of Psah Thmai.
2) Battambang to Phnom Penh
You can ride to and from Phnom Penh in air conditioned splendour for a mere $3.50 (except at the major Khmer holidays when the price jumps to $5). A growing number of private companies provide this service and competition between them has kept the price of the ticket low and put out of business the daily commercial flight to and forth from Battambang to Phnom Penh. The journey time used to be six or seven hours but competition amongst rival companies to provide the fastest possible ride has shaved an hour or more off the trip’s length which can now be a white knuckle ride of around five and a half hours; meaning that a 6am start can get passengers into Phnom Penh by noon. Capitol Tours is the favoured choice of most Khmers and they run an efficient service departing on the hour from 6am until 11 and then every half past the hour until late afternoon. Capitol Tours is tucked away in a nondescript part of town North West of Psah Nat but most motodops will know where to take you. It’s usually fine to buy tickets on the day of travel except at major Khmer holidays.
A useful tip on arrival in Phnom Penh is to hop off the bus as it nears the Japanese Bridge in the industrial area of Sisowath Quay and continue the journey from then on by motorbike taxi. This will avoid the bus’s subsequent journey through central Phnom Penh’s traffic jams and snarl ups.
Share taxis are even faster option than the bus albeit marginally more expensive and somewhat less comfortable. They leave from the taxi stand on Highway 5 at the north end of town and consist of pick ups and the ubiquitous white Toyota Camrys.
3) Battambang to Samlot
Share taxi 100 baht
4) Battambang to Pailin
Share taxi 200 baht
5) Pailin to Battambang
Share taxi 200 baht
6) Poipet to Battambang
Share taxi 100 baht
7) Battambang to Poipet
Share taxi 100 baht
8) Siem Reap to Battambang
Boat times vary on the season and water levels. $10-15pp
9) Battambang to Siem Reap
Boat times vary on the season and water levels. $10-15pp. Leave from the boat dock on the river near to the main hospital.
Battambang is a very safe place and its citizens are, almost without exception, both friendly and law abiding. The chance of getting robbed is almost non existent. However, a handful of homeless street kids sometimes gather around travellers (especially in the evenings near the river) and beg for money. When they are given money they spend it on solvents, so giving money to these kids is only compounding their problems. Better by far to donate to a local NGO. Vannak at the Smokin’ Pot will be able to give details on which NGOs currently work with street kids.