After leaving Siem Reap we where in that lovely position of needing to be nowhere in particular at any given time, we have reached the stage where travel is dominated by whims of fancy and chances happenings. On the evening in question it just so happened that Sarah and I decided it had been a little too long since we had last been to the coast (Hua Hin was 3 weeks ago and Goa a distant memory) so it was decided we should head in the general direction of the sea. Consultation with the map and a little research suggested that the next largest town in the direction of travel was Battambang, a provincial town a few hours south of Siem Reap with a surprisingly active art scene. Within ten minutes of our arrival we had deposited our bags at Ganesha Guesthouse and found ourselves sitting in a very comfortable coffee shop called Lotus. There are many similar spaces in Battambang, part shop part cafe part exhibition hall, all seem to be doing very well and would not be out of place in Europes most gentrified suburbs. In fact I could quite picture being back in Liverpool sitting in bold street coffee if it wasn’t for when I looked out the window there was a lazy Cambodian backstreet in 35 degree heat rather than a drunk Irish man shouting at his dog in torrential rain. We browsed the exhibition spaces, making friendly conversation with the artists – all of whom where very welcoming before exploring the small night market, grabbing some street food and having some delicious egg custard like desserts that they have here, we shared them with some kids on the street.
That evening our next destination presented itself in the form of a short film. We had settled in to watch a documentary about the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge at the upstairs cinema room in Lotus and a couple of short films where screened preceding the featured film. One of which, filmed in the cardamom mountains caught our eye. Shot in the Areng valley the film aims to defend the area against destruction by Chinese energy companies for the construction of a Hydro-Elecric Damn. There is no doubt that Cambodia is in desperate need of more energy, it’s a country on the rise, lagging behind its neighbours due to political atrocities rather than the enterprise of its people, but as the film conveyed Cambodia now faces a battle to preserve its natural wonders against the big money of foreign investment. We where particularly swayed by the mention of Asia’s largest mangrove forests and the opportunity to trek up into the remote cardamom Mountains, at the same time satisfying our need for proximity to the sea.
The following morning we rented a motorbike and set off in the direction of a nearby hilltop temple and the rather somber killing cave. Anyone who comes here cannot avoid being swept up in the history of the genocide in the 1970s thanks in no small part to the goings on in our next destination-Vietnam. We didn’t have to travel far to find ourselves completely surrounded by rural Cambodia, and it’s absolutely stunning. After climbing up to the carved Buddha we took a few minutes to survey the beautiful country below us. Firstly, Cambodia is flat, very flat. It was covered by sea up until (relatively) recently and you can picture the plain as one great sea bed, the only noticeable differences are small hills like the one we where standing on which would have formed one of many islands. At one point the plains would have been covered in rainforest but sadly as we looked we could find nothing but farmland as far as the eye could see.
We had the hill top temple to ourselves save for the resident monk and some fearsome looking monkeys. While at the top we treated ourselves to a fresh pineapple, the woman also had a pot of crickets on the go which she offered me, I accepted without thinking it over too much and was pleasantly surprised. After descending and grabbing a more conventional meal (rice of course) we turned our attention to more serious affairs. The grim murals on the stone reminded us that this place was the site of mass murder years earlier, a cave the Khmer Rouge used for killing and dumping a small portion of the 1.5 million+ people slain during the Pol Pot regime. All that remains are the heaps of skulls and bones in the dark cave and a small shrine where we found one man sitting and praying, he had obviously been there a long time, mourning or repenting we could not decide. We took no pictures here.
We had just enough time to sneak in a visit to Banaan temple taking us off road on our trusty Honda. We arrived to a foreboding and rather daunting staircase, reminiscent of the monkey temple in Kathmandu, leading way up into the sky where the temple sat, beyond our view as we set out at the bottom. Clearly the stamina that saw us climb the Himalayas had not remained with us as we both collapsed on the top step taking in the strange mix of ancient temples and cacti plants that surrounded us. To Sarah’s delight that evening we found an Australian cafe that screened friends non stop in the upstairs room which she demanded we make the most of.
Fresh with excitement for our next leg we set off once again on the bike having secured bus tickets to Koh Kong Province. This time we headed North and before long were totally lost, thankfully there could have been worse places to get lost. We sat under a palm tree and enjoyed our beautiful country surroundings while munching on the curious sweet pork buns we purchased from the local bakery. Conscious that a gruelling overnight coach journey lay hours before us we headed back to chill out and read in the lovely coconut water cafe. I’ve said before that anywhere with a hammock is onto a winner and this place was no exception. We had a few hours to kill before our bus to Koh Kong so we decided to head back to the guesthouse and watch the daily screening of The Killing Fields in the cinema room. With Sarah now reading a book called The Pol Pot Regime which reads like something someone studying a history degree would own with regards to its detail, we are trying our best to learn as much as we can about the events that have had such a profound effect on the country.
We got onto the coach saddened but enlightened nonetheless, glad to be heading towards the Cardamom Mountains and our first taste of the Cambodian coast.
Lia suhn hao-y
P.s. Album links for Siem Reap and Ayuthayya are now on the posts