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Battambang!

rain 20 °C

Battambang is Cambodia's second city, and since we didn't want to spend our whole trip in touristland, and since we'd been given Friday off from school due to the floods, we decided to take the 5 hour bus journey to see what Cambodia really looks like. The journey to the bus was easy enough, after being picked up from Globalteer by minibus we arrived at the, rather chaotic bus station. With some tepidation we sought out the bus we needed and got on board, only to find people sitting in our seats. We figured it would be typically Cambodian for the seat allocations to mean very little so we moved to the back and hoped noone would turf us out of our seats.

Fortunately noone did and we had a rather picturesque journey through the countryside (which John mostly slept through) and soon enough arrived in Battambang. Almost immediately the bus was bombarded by Tuktuk drivers and street sellers. Some pressed at the windows with signs, while the others queued (mobbed) about at the front of the bus. We had been recommended "The Royal Hotel" by some other volunteers who had been a week previously, and fortunately enough the majority of the signs were indeed for "The Royal", and even better, for free! We got to the hotel on 'Mr Olas' tuktuk' quickly and were warmly welcomed by the staff inside. They took us to see the rooms, posh, with aircon for $20, or John and Susie budget with a fan for $8. We elected for the $8 which was actually really nice, got settled, then headed out to find some food.

We had a rather nice lunch at "the smoking pot", which was a little walk away down the river, but while we were eating the clouds drew in and the rain started. We managed a little walk to see some nice old French Colonial buildings, the old Governors house (with cannons!), a strange dilapidated fun fair reminiscent of the ferris wheel at Chernoble, and some bbq snake, cockroach and crickets! Unfortunately the rain got worse so we had to call it a day and find a tuktuk to take us back. It was a shame and a bad start to the weekend but we hoped tomorrow would be better!
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We had elected to take a tuktuk tour with Mr Olas over the weekend, which included a visit to some temples, a trip to the countryside, the killing caves and a ride to an ngo circus in the evening, all for only $5 each! So at 8 o'clock on Saturday morning we headed off out into the wilderness. First call was the "Bamboo Railway", an incredible example of Cambodian, "making do". The 'official' railway in Cambodia has been shut for the last 2 years, and even before that trains were infrequent. To make up for this the locals recovered some old tank wheels, a moto motor, some bamboo sheeting and connected them all together to make a bamboo train! Of course there's only one line so when another bamboo train comes from the other direction they just stop, take the train apart and put it by the side of the railway, let it go past and then put it back together again! Who has to get off is decided by which train has the most people (or cattle!) onboard.We had to do this 4 times on our half an hour trip but it was too fun to feel put out. Definitely a highlight of our trip so far!

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Next stop was Banon temple and 353 steps........

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(flanked by multiple "Beware Landmines" signs)

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later......we made it to the top. The views from the top were amazing and because Cambodia is such a flat country we could see for miles! Unfortunately it rained while we were at the top which made going down a little hairy, but the steps weren't nearly as ridiculously narrow or steep as the ones in Siem Reap.

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One the way from the temple the rain really started, and despite the Tuktuk having a roof and side flaps John got soaked, typically. After a while we arrived at the hills for the killing caves. At the bottom we were told it was 800 steps to the top or $3 moto ride. We opted for the moto and got duly soaked on the way up. At the top we took shelter in a pagoda which was used as a prison during the Khmer Rouge time. The pagoda itself just looked like any other pagoda we'd visited which made the fact that people had been severely abused there all the more sobering. After this we headed down into the killing caves. It was shaped more like a cavern with a large whole in the roof and a slope dropping down from it with a lower level below hidden in darkness. According to the guide (who had escaped to Thailand in the 70's by evading soldiers shooting at him) people were murdered at the top of the cave by the roof and thrown down into the cavern below. Later when this became full they were thrown into the lower cave. He also told us of how people were killed differently depending on their profession. Teachers were shot, anti-government protesters had their throats slit and government officers were beaten to death. According to him this was to allow the people to make a confession before they died, or to disclose information. Beating gave the longest time but was also the most painful. This was all pretty upsetting and it wasn't made any better by the skulls that had been recovered from the lower level and placed in a shrine. A real wake up call for all of us.

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After this we were supposed to go to see another pagoda on the top of the hill which would have had beautiful views. However by this point the rain was torrential and all we could see was grey. We opted to head back down the hill, whose road now resembled a waterfall. Fortunately we made it down without any dramas and took a tuk tuk home, soaked, a little disappointed about the fairly wasted $3 but with a memorable experience from the caves.

After drying ourselves off we headed to the circus!Phare Ponleu Selpak The story of the circus from their website is that "Eight returning refugee's from Battambang have taken what they learned in a cultural workshop during their time spent in a refugee camp on the thai border, and now help other refugees and other problems, overcome trauma through artistic expression. The group, based on the outskirts of Battambang in Cambodia, combine a circus with music, as well as providing school for over 400 students." So some at the centre do art, others crafts, while the really bendy ones are sent to the big top! We can't lie, we were a little dubious about parting with $8 for a show which could be two clowns and a unicycle short of a circus but the show was AMAZING! The kids were all incredibly talented and the script of their show, which was their interpretation or life in Cambodia for young people, was original, funny and very entertaining. There were acrobatics, interpretive dance, contortionists, juggling.....you name it. A really really great night and we'd recommend it to anyone. The group are also touring the world atm so you might see them in a town near you!

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Sunday was the 7 hours (yes 7) boat ride back up to Siem Reap. It was arranged by our hotel and was a little pricey at $15, but other volunteers had recommended it to us so we decided to give it a go! Things started with a bump when we had to go much further away from the landing point because the water was too high for the boat to fit under the bridges. Never mind we thought and got onboard without too much hesitation. The view along the river was pretty incredible because a lot of it is lined by floating villages or endless wetlands. For most of the journey we took a shortcut down some really narrow waterways which only just fit the boat! As we went down all manner of insetc were catapulted into the boat by the tree branches we were snapping along with us. We're pretty sure it was only due to the rain and flooding that we could fit at all. Also all the foliage kept getting caught around the propeller which they removed by putting the engine into reverse. This unfortunately made the engine sound like it was about to explode, fortunately it didn't. Incredibly, despite being seemingly in the middle of nowhere the boat managed to deliver some chickens, boxes, computer equipment and even a sim card to specific floating houses along the way. God knows how they knew where to stop, but they did! We also had to cross Tonle Sap lake (more like a small sea than a lake really as it swells from 2000km2 in the dry season, to 12000km2 in the wet!) the lake itself had full on waves on it and the boat really didn't appreciate them. Luckily it had the tenaciousness of Drommie and we cruised across in about 40 minutes....only to find that when we reached "the edge" the water continued in every direction, only this time dotted with trees. We guessed this area was completely dry at other times of the year but thanks for the flooding the wetlands just went on and on and on! Eventually they did come to an end, however, and we docked up at another floating village. Immediately the boat got swamped by tuktuk drivers offering us a trip to anywhere for just $1. Obligingly we took up one of their offers and headed back to Globalteer.

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A short but, very filled weekend! Photos to follow when the internet stops being crap.

Posted by John_713 02:11 Archived in Cambodia

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