I’m still reading a book about recent Cambodian history and although I’m learning a little about the country, it’s all a bit doom and gloom. One thing that comes through the pages loud and clear is how rubbish the governments here have been. They don’t seem to have cared about the ordinary people for a very long time.
I was thinking about this as we were in a tuk-tuk being taken to see some Battambang sites along a bone-rattling ‘road’. It was the worst example of a road I’ve ever seen. The tuk-tuk driver commented on the state of it too. He said that he didn’t know what his government was doing, though he didn’t show any signs of anger or frustration. Maybe he was feeling frustrated inside but didn’t want to show it to us. This is the second-largest city in Cambodia – with such bad roads it’s very hard to believe.
Another sad thing is the begging which continued in Battambang, but less intensely than Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. When I first arrived in Cambodia I wanted to give money to everybody. Now I find myself getting tied up in knots over it. I don’t want to encourage people to stay begging, On the other hand, when you’re faced with people who seem so poor – many are missing limbs so I imagine it’s hard for them to find work – they’re impossible to ignore. Like with the roads, the government just doesn’t seem to be doing very much to help the people who seem to need help most.
Despite the terrible poverty and the ‘roads’, it has been interesting to spend some time in an ordinary Cambodian town, and it’s not all miserable. We’ve eaten some yummy Khmer curries, visited a few of the local temples, and wandered along by the river watching people doing aerobics and children having a great time at a funfair. At the moment food stalls are being set up along the river and people are getting ready for a water festival which starts tomorrow. Apparently there will be canoe races up and down the river for the next few days. Unfortunately we’re leaving so won’t be around for the festivities.
We came to Battambang to get an idea of what a regular Cambodian city would be like. We’ve not been here long enough to get a full sense of the place but it’s clearly very different from Pnomh Penh and Siem Reap. For starters, you can walk down the street and not be stopped every two minutes by tuk tuks, taxis or moto drivers asking you where you’re going. This is no small thing. It really makes the place seem a lot more relaxed. On top of that it’s very easy to find a place that does ice cold fruit smoothies for next to nothing – we’ve been partaking of these quite a lot.
Yesterday we went to a temple on a mountain just out of town. The scenery on the way there was lovely even though we were jiggled mercilessly the whole way there (the road was shockingly bad).
When we got to the temple we were approached by a young boy offering to be our guide. We took him up on his offer. He turned out to be very good – a great little joker with a big smile and very good English. He wants to be a teacher one day and he guides as much as he can so that he can pay for school. He’s only 12 years old.
The temple went through a brief stint as a prison and execution grounds during the Khmer Rouge times. There’s a deep cave just near the temple that people were pushed into and left to die. There’s a memorial at the bottom of the cave now with steps leading down to it. When you’re standing at the bottom of the cave looking up to the opening it sends shivers down your spine that people can be so cruel to each other. I think probably most people have heard about the killing fields near Pnomh Penh but there were many places like this cave as well – all over the country apparently.
The view from the top of the mountain was great and there was a lovely cool breeze. We sat and had a cold drink with Pea (our young guide) and he cheered us up with some stories and jokes. On the way back to Battambang we stopped off at a place where they make rice paper (for spring rolls etc). We saw the rice paper drying on racks left out in the sun.
Today is Sunday and it really feels like one. I love it when this happens. We have a day here and there where we really don’t do much at all. When a day like that coincides with a Sunday it’s so much the better – it just feels right. We’ve been just hanging out in the hotel, reading, catching up on things and drinking fruit shakes. Nice.