Heartbreak and hope in Battambang

Apologies in advance – this is not a very neat or resolved post!

Cambodia was at times challenging for me. Laos was such a gentle welcome back to travel and life on the road in Asia after my trip home; the peaceful energy and kind people we encountered put me so at ease.

The atmosphere of Cambodia was intense by comparison. Roman and I both found it took more energy to process the experiences we had there and I definitely needed a while to find my emotional footing with the country. Once I did though, I found myself feeling more open and moved than I have yet on the trip (being really, truly present and emotionally connected has been one of the big challenges of this big trip), and for this, I’m grateful.

Battambang was the place my heart started to open to Cambodia. It had started to crack back in Kratie, opening to the dozens of smiles, waves and other greetings I received on my village walk, to the laughter and energy of the kids I met along the road. I’m not sure what let me be more present and open in Battambang, but the day we spent doing the bike tour my heart just felt so light, so present, so open.

It was easy to relax with Sum and Dollar – energetic, enthusiastic and genuine, they were easy to talk to and good company. Maybe the beauty of the places we visited just helped to take down my intellectual defences. Maybe the work I’ve been doing on myself, with Roman and on my own, to be kinder to myself, to worry less, to savor the “now” more is starting to pay off. Whatever the grace that allowed it, the day touring around Battambang was just magic and delight.

The biggest highlight for me was meeting a young girl at Wat Ek Phnom, a quiet, beautiful, ancient temple that Sum and Dollar took us to. They stayed at the entrance while Roman and I went to go explore.

Naid (not sure how her name is really spelled) started shadowing us, and eventually enticed me into the ruins where she enthusiastically pointed out fat geckos crouching suspiciously in cracks. She must have been about ten or so, skinny as a rail and full of life. She flitted around the massive stones of the falling-apart temple, chirping in musical, broken English like a sparrow, pointing out Gods and histories carved into the ancient rocks.

Roman and I have had a many discussion about the children we’ve encountered on our travels. The stance we’ve adopted is to never give begging kids money – we don’t want to support, encourage or condone the situations where adults (parents or otherwise) will choose to put kids on the street to sell cheap souvenirs or simply beg (something we saw frequently especially at Angkor). Holding to this position has meant keeping closed in many instances – looking away or dismissing the little hands and faces that have implored us to buy a bracelet or simply hand over a dollar.

(Tough sometimes yes but not always when you see the kids going from “crying” to laughing and horsing around the second they know they’re not going to get any money from you. Tougher is seeing the kids who aren’t begging, like the scrappy, barefooted children I saw digging through garbage for scraps outside the night market in Battambang.)

We weren’t sure if our lovely tour was coming free of charge, but I couldn’t help myself. I just fell in love with this precocious, precious little girl. When we were ready to leave, she did ask for money. We brought her back to the front with us to explain the situation to Dollar and ask his opinion. He agreed with us completely about not giving money to kids at the tourist spots and on the streets. He questioned Naid and for him it was clear that her story was true.

With Dollar’s translation, we were able to ask her questions about her life. The oldest of three siblings, her parents couldn’t afford to look after her and had sent her to stay with a relative and attend school in Battambang. She studied during the day but came to the temple every afternoon to show guests around and try to earn a bit of money for school and food (it’s a given that students have to bribe teachers on a regular basis in order to attend school in Cambodia). At the end we gave her double the very modest sum she had asked for and we left to our next destination.

She’s stayed with me though. That day I wanted to cry every time I thought of her, brave, bright and beautiful little soul. What will become of her? Who will look out for her if even her parents don’t have the resources to do so? I said prayer after prayer for her: “Please let her path through this life be safe. Please don’t let any of those awful things one reads about happen to her – rape, violence, prostitution. Please let her be protected. Please let her fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher.”

I shared some of my thoughts with Roman and he pointed out that I was looking at things from a very Western point of view – who was I to make any assumptions or value judgements about her life (something akin to the parable about the man trying to help the butterfly by cutting it out of its cocoon).

On an intellectual level I am sure he is right. On an emotional level though all I know is that something in me recognized and loves this little girl who I will probably never meet ever again, and for me that’s real and precious and part of the experience I have been seeking on this trip. I can’t make any more sense of it than that, but I’m so glad that I met her, and I’ll keep carrying those hopes and wishes for her around in my heart.

Photos from Wat Ek Phnom and our time with Naid

DSC 0880
The wat before the ruins

DSC 0883
Afternoon sun on the outer wall

DSC 0890
Naid invites me to come explore

DSC 0905

DSC 0915
Temple carvings

DSC 0919
Lovely Naid

DSC 0926
Pointing out some Sanskrit carvings

DSC 0929
Buddhist flags at the doorway

DSC 0931
Moon rise

Backtracking to Battambang

We’ve made it to our sixth country – Vietnam! Just got in to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City last night after a loooong day of bus travel. I’m excited to be here but for now I’m going to try to finish my posts about Cambodia, which means a bit of backtracking….

Our next destination after Kampong Chhnang was Battambang, where we had another short stay.

Fun with bus travel

Getting there from Kampong Chhnang was an experience. We’d bought bus tickets the day before and expected the short trip to get us there by early afternoon. The guy we bought the tickets from picked us up from the hotel and dropped us off at what we assumed was the bus station.

Apparently, however, there is no real bus station. Buses barrel down the road on their way to or from Phnom Penh (where they fill up – problematic for us). You have to flag them down and if (and it’s a big if) they have any free seats, they’ll stop. It took about three hours and five or six buses until one showed up with room for us. Not awful but it was a hot, dusty wait on the side of the street – be braced for a longer wait if you’re following the same route!

About Battambang

Battambang is Cambodia’s 4th most popular tourist destination (following the Angkor temples at Siem Reap, the country’s capital Phnom Penh and the beaches of Sianoukville). With a population more than three times that of Kampong Chhnang, it definitely feels like more is going on there. Hotels are plentiful and there’s a bit of a backpacker/missionary scene with a good number of cafés/restaurants catering to Westerners, ranging from pretty boring to pretty decent (Gecko Café was our favorite).

DSC 0945
Delicious spring rolls at Gecko Café

Hard to say how accurate my perception was, but to me, Battambang, unlike Phnom Penh, seemed to have more “middle class” Cambodians and that tourism hadn’t taken over. Walking around the streets and parks, it felt more grounded to me – I caught myself feeling relieved to see “normal people doing normal things” – like having picnics or doing aerobics or line dancing in the park, just having fun. Maybe somehow we managed to miss this side of life in Phnom Penh, but anyhow we enjoyed it in Battambang.

There was more to see in town than in Kampong Chhnang. We did our best to overcome the oppressive heat (felt like a giant sprung up from the molten depths of the earth sat heavily on the city, occasionally pushing the heat around with fiery sighs) and took in some of the crumbling French-era architecture, every day life along the riverside and the charmingly desolate train repair sheds, abandoned since colonial times except as an improvised playground for local kids. DSC 0624
At the train shed

More photos from around town here.

Out and about with Sum & Dollar

While there was more action in the center of Battambang, like Kampong Chhnang, the real beauty was outside the city. We got lucky again and had two great moto drivers/guides for a day’s excursion out and about (photos and details about sights seen to follow in a later post).

Dollar and Sum were young and energetic and good fun. They drove like mad men between destinations (great for me – anything for a stronger breeze! ;-)) and shared stories about their lives and dreams.

Best of all was chatting with them over a drink at the end of the day. They got sodas and then they got sugar rushes! Dollar kept us all laughing with really awful magic tricks and really awesome impersonations of tourists he’s met. He’s got a great ear and his Scots, British and Aussie accents were amazing! I loved the day we got to spend with them. 🙂

DSC 0944
Sum (on the left) and Dollar. To quote them, “Small but strong!” 🙂