06 September 2012

Battabang, Battaboom, BATTAMBANG!

Local village boy feeling particularly colorful this day

Battambang (pronounced bottom-bong) is an odd little town that most tourists don’t go to when they go to Cambodia, but I wasn’t quite ready to leave Cambodia just yet so I took a few extra days to go to Battambang.  I arrive late in the day and decided to go for a long walk and discover the town.  What I discovered was that at sunset, all the locals are out either to the market or hanging out alongside the river doing some sort of physical activity.  This is a badminton town.  I walked along the riverfront and witnessed at least 50 different groups of people playing badminton along the river walkway (without a net, mind you), lots of children chasing each other, dozens of couples and families sitting on the benches of the river just looking out at the river and talking, elders walking and some jogging, boys playing soccer (football), and lastly, large groups of women doing jazzercise (or maybe that new craze, Zumba… they look the same to me) in groups.  We’re talking about 30-60 people per group with at least 20 groups.  An instructor comes out with a large cart that has a big sound system on it, blasts some upbeat music and then proceeds to get the ladies all pumped up to work out.  They listen to American music and the first song I heard that got my attention was Salt n Peppa’s “Short Dick Man”.  I’m assuming these ladies have no idea what the song is saying (if you don’t know the lyrics, you should look them up to know it’s not entirely appropriate to blast out in public with lots of children around -- and perhaps the title alone gives some of it away).  But... it does have a nice rhythm to it, perfect for working out to!  Hey man, whatever moves ya is what you should move to.

This is one place in Cambodia that isn’t on board yet with bombarding tourists to buy their wares or take tuk-tuk rides.  Don’t get me wrong, like any Asian country you’re gonna get harassed at the bus station, but other than that, this place is low key for tourists…. which is refreshing after Siem Reap where if you say no to one person to either a tuk-tuk, massage, buying a scarf/postcards, or fish massage, you’re gonna get asked in approximately 30 seconds again by someone else.  Outside of the bus station is where I met Yaya (or maybe it’s an excited "Ya Ya!"), my tuk-tuk driver.  He had such a nice spirit about him and wanted to practice English with me. So I agreed to take a day-tour with him for the ripe price of $20 including gas.  The next day I went on a tour with Yaya and he took me to more of the locals’ version of Battambang.  And it ended up being one of the more interesting days I’ve had…

Meet Yaya, my awesome tour guide!

There’s an interesting thing that some people in Cambodia have been asking me and perhaps it’s a matter of lost in translation and they’re not sure how to say it, or perhaps they mean exactly what they say.  Two different people have asked me if this is my natural skin color (do they have fake tanning here??) or am I black (as in African) (ummmmm…. Noooo, I’m not….????.).  This one caught me off guard.  They can tell I’m an Asian mix, but can’t always figure out my nose and my skin color… strange considering I’m the same color as them... but possibly because they can tell I'm Western too and think that they all have light skin (a sign of a wealthier family since you don't have to work in the fields).  Well, I don't work in fields but I sure love a good tan like any Westerner, but they don't understand that concept.  Yaya asks me this while we’re on our ride together… along with a plethora of other questions about being single, marriages in America, America in general, how much things costs, how much money I make, why aren’t I with my ex-boyfriend, am I unhappy he’s with someone else, do I plan to marry him when I get back to America, do the men have to pay the women’s family to marry their daughter, etc.  What I learned from our time together is that each other’s worlds don’t make sense to the other.  He couldn’t understand why I didn’t marry my ex-boyfriend, or that I even have several ex-boyfriends.  And I can’t understand why he won’t have a girlfriend because he doesn’t have a good job to give money to her family.  Funny thing, he didn’t understand why a beautiful, younger woman would marry an older man and asked if she did it because of money.  It was a day of really getting to know each other’s cultures including the parts we didn’t understand and really share a part of our lives and try to understand one another with his broken English and my complete lack of knowing any Cambodian/Khmer. 

Reassembling my train

Our train operator

Feeling like I'm on a roller-coaster!

The not so straight track

The one thing that I had to take was the bamboo train.  It’s not exactly a train… it’s more like a bamboo raft on steel wheel bases with a lawn mower engine and two rubber belts that can be disassembled in less than two minutes when an opposing “train” is close.  Whoever has the least amount of people or cargo is the one that has to get off the train to let the other one by, then wait for the train to get reassembled again.  In addition to the fun of watching your train get disassembled and reassembled again is the ride!  OK, it’s not that great.  Those little suckers go super fast but they are also rather jarring.  About every 12’ or so, the two different rails that should have a smooth transition, don’t.  So the steel wheels jam against the edge of the rails and it bangs you around.  The bonus is when the plants hit you in the face as you speed by.  I only needed to learn that lesson three times before realizing I should move to the center of the platform.  Yeah, I’m not always the brightest bulb in the pack.  

Best thing once we got to our destination, some town I don’t remember the name of, these little girls come up to me with these little decorative stars and grasshopper made of palm leaves, then they follow me around for 15 minutes as I do my tour.    I find it so strange that people are so curious about me, I mean, I’m half Asian!  I surely am not that exotic.  Maybe it’s my nose.  And my height.  And my American build.  And that I speak English.  And that I’m traveling alone… as a female.  OK, I guess I’m a bit exotic to them.  But I love that they're just as curious about me as I am of them.  I want to follow them around all day and play!

One of the more unique things I’ve done while traveling is go to this world-renowned circus that is here in Battambang.  It’s comprised of  a group of students that attend an art school and are typically in their teens.  They are amazingly talented and several of them have even moved on to Cirque du Soleil (!!!).  They put on performances several times a week and people attend the different shows that are put on.  The cost is $8 and it lasts for about an hour.  These children have some amazing and fun energy, are constantly in motion, have so much courage to pull off some of the stunts that they do and the shows are quite creative.  They are 100% heart in these shows!  Their enthusiasm is infectious!  One thing I really loved about this school is that they support locals in giving them an education and help kids discover their creative talents be it various art mediums or in the circus.  I spoke with one of the directors for a little while at their art opening prior to the show and they really do try and cultivate different talent and nurture kids into more developed artists to help them move on to either a university or just continue their art.  Really amazing things they’re doing here.  Really worth seeing if you come through Battambang if not to at least support the local arts. 

I just love their enthusiasm and overacting!  So much fun!

While I will likely not go back to Battambang, several things left quite an impression on me besides Yaya and the circus.  Things like Yaya showing me a cable bridge he helped build when he was in high school and was proud to show it off to me.  He called it the Golden Gate Bridge of Cambodia which brought a smile to my face thinking of San Francisco, a little piece of home. And things like seeing the one and only fruit bat tree in Battambang… and my first time seeing fruit bats at all.  Those suckers are as big as a very large cat in body, plus wings.  Scary looking creatures!  And the Killing Caves.  Another gruesome memory of Khmer Rouge where they use to bludgeon people over the head and drop them deep down into this cave to kill them to save bullets.  Barbaric and loathsome people those Khmer Rouge.  I’ll never forget the chill going down into that cave and looking up where the people were dropped from along with the unclaimed bodies of people that were never buried later by their families.  And finally, the truly warm and hospitable nature of the Cambodian people.  All the other towns that I had been in at that point in Cambodia were full of tourists and opportunistic Cambodians constantly approaching tourists and here in Battambang, I felt like I was their guest and they wanted to show me good service, ask about me without asking for money, and share in each others lives. 

There was a girl I met who worked in a store of handmade items by women where she was so curious about me and my travels alone and she seemed truly in awe that a woman could be on her own anywhere outside of her town let alone country or even family.  So we chatted a while about how she could start trying to travel even within her own country and start feeling more comfortable being independent.  Having that conversation with her was inspiring to want to help others especially women.  In this age of technology where nearly anything is accessible and as the roles of women in developing nations are changing, I’d love to be able to share my experiences and “American confidence” with them.  Who knows, maybe I can help inspire at least one woman out there see that life can be different should she have the courage to see it through.

Two older gents who were either friends/brothers.
Wish affection and/or assistance were more like this in America.  


At December 1, 2013 at 1:26 PM , Blogger ciaran ebbs said...

Just stumbled on your blog while planning a trip to Cambodia next year, I've been to Thailand etc before and want to escape the normal tourist traps - thanks for the insight ...Battabang may just get another random traveler float through there next year!


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