By day Cambodia’s second city is bustling. Hardly an urban metropolis, granted, but the main streets throng with students riding piggyback on bicycles, sellers juggling an array of fruit and packs of instant noodles beneath ancient Honda scooters. Military officers and the nouveau riche behind the wheels of SUVs plough through the traffic, slowing down for jaywalking orange-clad monks and speeding up for street urchins.
From dawn till dusk builders get over enthusiastic with loud machinery, sellers haul out speakers and blast the streets with the inescapable pop hits of the month. Somewhere, in the not so far off distance, a wedding tent has blocked a main thoroughfare; close by, the long ago death of some half-remembered relative requires a gaggle of chanting monks for hire.
Hawkers sell fruit and boiled crabs from trays balanced atop steady heads, toothless and battle scarred elderly scrap dealers buy discarded beer cans, cardboard and plastic bottles – their wares and old scales stacked around antique bicycles. An ice cream van bumps through surrounding villages and shanties, repeating the same incomprehensible pre-recorded mumblings, ‘Blahdi blah blah,’ followed by an enthusiastic call of ‘Pram roi!’
Tourists, laden with backpacks, bottled water and outdated Lonely Planets stroll up and down the same four streets. Others chug by on tuk-tuks, off to the Bamboo Train, Killing Caves, temples and,erm, other touristy places.
It isn’t a large city by conventional standards but spreads out, along the river and into the countryside, a sprawl of new developments, swallowed up villages and squatter shacks. However, most visitors never stray far from the ‘old quarter’.
The hive of activity shuts down every evening at 6pm. saleable goods are trundled inside, shutters are drawn and gates firmly bolted. At 7pm most schools and universities kick out and the dark streets throng with motos as students rush home to eat rice and avoid the evening parental curfew/lock-out, imposed, seemingly, on every Khmer aged 15-30.
Rush hour is all but over by 8.30pm. Even the late-night language courses have wound down and protective parents have re-bolted locked gates. The city sleeps.
Restaurants catering to tourists will stay open, perhaps to the outlandish time of 10 o’clock. Late night places sell rice and beer. Bored, painted-up girls sit around outside kitschy KTV bars outside of the old quarter. Stray dogs bark, cats slink about hunting scurrying rodents and discarded plastic bags swirl around a gang of glue sniffing kids, but little else stirs in quiet ol’ Battambang. Even the tuk-tuks have disappeared off to bed, leaving the odd prowling dop, more willing to sell illicit wares or provide the services of a lady than actually drive anywhere you need to go.
‘What is there to do in Battambang?’ ask the backpackers; vomit stained memories of Pub Street, Pontoon and all night piss ups on Otres Beach still etched into their young, shot- necking minds. The answer is always the same.
‘Erm, well you could always try Sky Club, it’s a bit, erm, Cambodian though’
The famous Sky: Battambang’s premium clubbing experience – heralded with the sort of obnoxious flashing neon that only Asia can pull off with that certain flair of vulgarity. There can be no mistaking, once outside, that you have come to the right place.
After the most half-assed of frisks by security, the hallowed glass doors are held open and entry is permitted. Inside the décor is a carbon copy of almost every upmarket Asian discothèque. A dance floor of dancing kids groove under flashing lights under the watch of a DJ, raised up high on his platform, a baseball cap worn at a jaunty angle- the very essence of Battambang cool.
At first glance there is little to distinguish Sky from, say, the equally awful Hip-Hop in Siem Reap. It’s only on closer examination that the unique attributes of Sky become apparent. The kids are the same, rich brats, sipping down expensive bottles of Heineken and cheersing each other, as is the wont of spoilt little shits everywhere.
Loud music. Check.Decent air-con. Check. Overpriced beers. Check. Drunk rich kids. Check. Occasional screaming or attempts to sing over the microphone by the DJ and/or his mates. Check.
There is only one thing missing – women.
Now accuse me of being a dirty old man (I’m not actually so old), but when sipping on warm, heavily taxed Dutch lager, I at least want to slyly ogle a bit of eye candy as my ears begin to bleed and I’m instructed to ‘Put my fucking hands up’ again and again.
Any females, apart from staff, are heavily chaperoned by a bunch of half a dozen, brothers, cousins or not-so-secret admirers. Khmer courtship is a strange affair to observe.It’s not a pick-up joint for sure, and that’s fine, but this club is a regular sausage fest. As with most conservative societies (and up here society is really conservative), hormonally charged teenage boys, whilst not technically gay, turn as camp as a row of tents at a Boy Scout meet.
Back when I were a lad, going to a club involved post-pub drinking, possibly buying an unknown pill from a scally in the bogs, dancing to the popular music of the day and, once in a blue moon, striking lucky with local female talent. I don’t think being repeatedly groped by young lads happened much in Tramps, The Purple Turtle, Golddiggers or Q-Club and personally I’ve always shied away from the rainbow persuasion brigade.
Buyer beware! All that glitters isn’t blah blah…. there are some short skirts milling around the Sky. On the dancefloor, beneath the pulsating lights, they appear much more alluring to the eye than the sweaty youths trying to put their arm around your waist, cheersing your beer whilst an equally spotty kid takes a photo of this scene on his Samsung I-phone 17 or Apple Galaxy SX32, or whatever the hip kids are carrying this week. These ‘skirts’ are more often than not members of that mysterious 3rd sex, katoyes, trannies, lady-boys, call them what you will.
Whilst Alan Partridge may consider these hotel/motel sort as ‘fascinating creatures’, when one gruffly whispers “I want to make fun in your room, I have pussy for you now’, it’s time for a sharp exit.
Toilet attendants who give neck rubs whilst you are trying to have a slash are commonplace enough but still disconcerting for the novice visitor. It’s hard enough maintaining a flow around so many other dudes (a normal phobia, I’m told), and is made even tougher when a 4ft 3 Khmer is busy rubbing your shoulders with gusto. I half expected him to give it a quick shake for me afterwards. Instead he offered soap, turned on the tap and handed out paper towels.
There’s one thing which makes Sky quirky and perhaps one of a kind – closing time. Not only does Sky stay open until the shockingly late hour of 1am, but the way it closes is an incredible sight. No turning on the lights, no bouncers trying to shepherd revelers out the door, no drunken pleads for ‘One more choon!’
At precisely 12.50, without any warning and seemingly by some secret sign, the entire club will put down drinks and all head towards the exit together, in an exceptional display of orderliness. You can literally be ordering a drink from the bar, to turn around and see the disco version of the Marie Celeste – DJ still bobbing over a deserted dancefloor, and unfinished bottles of Heineken and Angkor stand on the tables around the edges.
The party’s over, until tomorrow, when the same DJ will press the button on his Macbook Pro to play the same songs, in the same order to the same crowd who can afford to attend. ‘Put Your Hands Up!’ he will insist, once more.
And that, my friends, is what there is to do in Battambang at night.