Travel Diary - The Bong

The way Cambodians pronounce the name of the city Battambang sounds more like 'BattaBONG' so we 'old Cambodia hands' refer to it as 'the bong.' The word apparently means 'town of the lost stick' in  Khmer, which is somehow appropriate. There's a Khmer folk tale, that i don't know, associated with the name but even without that the town gives off a slightly lost stick kinda vibe. if I was making up a folktale to fit it would probably talk about the three year old son of a god or hero who had a favourite stick and lost it. Maybe the child's mother distracted him by taking him to splash in the river, or the town marks the spot where he held his breath till he turned blue. Nothing as energetic as a tantrum would fit in though, Battambang isn't like that.

It's a dusty, flat town, surrounded by rice paddies with a brown river snaking through the middle. There isn't a big tourist scene (really the only thing to do, besides buying junk at the market, or cycling out of town, is the bamboo train, which requires a post of its own) but there is a small and tight expat/volunteer community that seems to be centred around the Handa hospital, CCT and Phare circus. There are probably a bunch of others as well, but those were the organisations that I encountered. There is good coffee (by Cambodian standards it is EXCELLENT coffee), beer in tins, fixies everywhere and even the odd attempt at a moustache but still manages to avoid being hipsterish, so I think it's a really good place for Clare to be spending a few months. If I sound like I'm vacillating between loving the place and some misgivings it because I probably am. That's Battambang for you.

Clare has her work cut out for her at Handa. I went on a tour of the hospital, had a drink with the director of nursing and got a pretty good idea of the scale of the difficulties. I think she's up to the challenge but I don't think the results will be as quick as she'd like. It was really hard leaving her there, at the beginning of such a big task (particularly because we were both rather hung-over) but I take comfort from the fact she has a really good friend there and an endless supply of some of the best pot sticker vegetarian dumplings I have ever tasted.

So I left Clare and caught the bus back to Phnom Penh, and spent the afternoon just moseying about. I didn't get a cap for Sanjay or a cheapie pedicure but I did get a great massage from a blind guy, a ruby ring so big that people will assume it's fake (I don't think it's fake, I think it's just a very low grade ruby, but I don't know much about gemstones). I had dinner and a beer at the Foreign Corespondents Club and tried to get a glimpse into the past and imagine how it might have been to drink there during the American war with Vietnam and Khmer Rouge years. I think I need to find a memoir to read!

And now I'm sitting at a table on the rather lovely rooftop bar of my hotel, the Kolab Sor. there is some inoffensive RnB playing, a delicious breeze keeping the mozzies away, a distant storm putting on a light-show and I'm just finishing my final beer of the night and nibbling salty-sweet peanuts. A little moment of perfect that I want to keep hold of.


Travel Diary - Where was I up to?

Apsara Dancer
Siem Reap needs pictures. Well, to be fair, the town of Siem Reap doesn't, coz it's a fair bit like so many other Southeast Asian tourist towns. Full of young Japanese, French, Australian and Irish backpackers, Chinese and Korean tour groups, a generous smattering of families with young kids (mostly German, Dutch or Australian), grey nomads (North American) and 'voluntourists' of all ages and nationalities taking a break from their good deeds. There are lots of touts, a fair amount of children begging (dirty, but not deformed as they are in India) and more than
enough neon lit bars and restaurants for all of them.

Angkor Wat and the other temples however need pictures. Ideally lovely photos taken by professional photographers but if you don't want to buy a fancy coffee table book or even do a quick Google search you can see some of mine.

This is like holding the Taj Mahal on your hand, an almost obligatory cheesy tourist shot. 

They really are SO beautiful!

Angkor Wat at a slight angle. Our tour guide was not the *best* photographer, but he knew a lot and spoke great English.

One dollar for the blessing of one the guys who looks after the temple statues. Not a regular monk (no robes) but I got a red thread and lots of chanting over the knots as he tied it. 

The causeway to the temple of Angkor Wat. My fancy new camera (Olympus TG2. Waterproof, shockproof and it seems to have decent picture quality. Thanks Tim!) has a bunch of magic effects. This one is 'fisheye' which seems fitting somehow.
It was a long hot day, but really magical. We booked our tour with 'Beyond' which is owned by Australians apparently but they deserve a shoutout. It was US$28 for the full day which included all the (chilled!) water we could drink (I don't think they want any of their guests dropping dead of heat exhaustion) a hot lunch in a nice shady pavilion, a friendly guide who spoke excellent English, had a sense of humour and was really receptive to what our group wanted to see. The maximum group size is eight, but there were just four of us - me, Clare and a cheerful Malaysian couple. Did I mention the airconditioned van that took us between temples? Considering a tuk tuk would be about US$15 I felt this was actually pretty decent value.


Travel Diary - Phnom Penh and Siem Reap

If you're here for cute bear picks go and see Clare's blog. It's ok, I'll wait :-)

Ah, that's better, isn't it. Cuuuute sunbears and moonbears! I actually had quite a different perspective to Clare. I haven't really been exposed to 'voluntourism' much before so I saw the idea of paying a bunch of money and getting to spend a day doing what amounts to a behind-the-scenes tour and learning a bit about the Free the Bears organisation as pretty cool. It was cool, and I recommend it to anyone who might have a spare day in Phnom Penh.

Now that we've had the cute, we get the other side. Our first day in Cambodia we went to Cheung Ek, also known as the killing fields, and S21, also known as the genocide museum. It was hard going, too much for us to wrap our heads around really. The contrast at Cheung Ek between the peaceful area and the horror we heard about on the audio guide was enough to give me whiplash. By the time we got to S21 I was kind of 'horror-ed out' and numb. I was hot and hungry and feeling guilty for wanting to complain when we were in the place so many people had been murdered and tortured. Dinner that night was subdued. I think we brought our books because we weren't up to talking.

I had also started reading 'First they killed my Father' by Loung Ung. It describes the awfulness of going from middle class city kid to persecuted peasant very clearly. So clearly, in fact, that I couldn't think of anything but my kids, and the terrifying thought of my boys ever being caught up in something so horrible. The thought of not being able to protect my kids is... Unbearable. I realised that it was turning me into a depressed and anxious mess, so I got some silly funny books from the second hand bookshop to keep me going.

Actually, Phnom Penh was better than expected. Less hassle and more.... I dunno. So we spent an extra day wandering around, finding coffee, buying weird fruit. We are now in Siem Reap and have seen the Angkor Temples, but talking about that is going to have to wait.


Travel Diary - why am I in Phnom Penh?

Diary and dairy, I used to always get the spelling of those two words mixed up. Unfortunately nothing about cows today....

It was one of those lazy, boozy, funny after dinner conversations, where Sanjay and Franma were discussing the party I (don't) want for my upcoming fortieth birthday. I was joining in with the hilarity but stewing with anxiety about a party for me. I like other people's parties, but not my own. I end up taught anxious and exhausted, unable to eat or chat properly to any of my wonderful friends. I was trying to convince the others that we should have an animal costume party and I could wrap myself in my doona lie on the floor and be a sea slug and when we all went to bed the issue was unresolved. Over the next few days the questions kept coming, and I became increasingly uncomfortable with the plan.

I also had my sister Clare planning her trip to Cambodia. She has a three month volunteer position and she was putting off leaving for one reason or another. So one morning I joked to Clare that I should come to. She was enthusiastic so I emailed Sanjay - can I go to Cambodia for a holiday instead of having a big scary party? He replied 'sure' and that was that, decision made.