Battambang, Cambodia: The Wreck, Part One

by Beej and Stax

The wreck happens during our third attempt in three days to reach Wat Banan, a five-towered hillside Buddhist temple thirty kilometers west of Battambang.

We have heard from other travelers to expect a steep and exhausting climb in the 100 degree heat and humidity to the top of the temple once we arrive. The reward, though, will be a spectacular view from the top – a tableau of steaming far-below fields stretching all the way to the Cardamom Mountains in the south and the Thai border to the northwest.

On our first attempt to reach Banan, we went the wrong way and found ourselves lost among a maze of shacks and muddy dirt roads. Par for the course in Cambodia, on the map it just looked like we simply needed to follow the river.

“This way. This way,” cried an older male.

He got up from his chair on the side of the dirt road we were struggling down. It was a terrible road, but it was a road we had hoped (since it followed the river) would eventually cut across to the paved Wat Banan route. Now we were sure it was a dead end.

One of the guy’s arm waved while the other held a beer can. He pointed down toward a smaller narrow path that cut off to the right.

We looked at each other. Here we were, two obvious foreigners driving without a guide through a tiny village away from populated areas, and a strange man appears, pointing us toward a lone footpath leading into a field with lots of tree cover. It looks like it just wanders off into the jungle. Should we be trusting this guy? We’ve heard a lot about scams and to be wary of strangers, especially in this province where the Khmer Rouge had so recently been top dog.

Suddenly, a few more guys from the village appear. They all start pointing in the same direction.

So we find ourselves off-roading the motorbike through the trees and across the large field, despite dire warnings from locals to avoid makeshift trails in small villages outside of Battambang. The reason? These fields quite often are littered with buried, unexploded American shells and mines, from back in the day when America believed the greatest threat to the free world was from a few thousand subsistence-level farmers with no running water in the rural backwaters of Southeast Asia, and so set about dropping more mines and bombs on Cambodia in just several months than they did throughout the whole theater of World War II.

These unexploded ordinance explode on the daily – it’s so common, we were told nobody even looks up when a distant mine explosion is heard – and kill or maim whoever happens to be in the vicinity. Luckily it wasn’t our day to die. And of course the villagers meant well and were correct. After holding our breaths across the field, we finally reached the main road.

But we had started out late as it was. We still had over 30 km to ride, our bike peaked at 40 km/hr and the sun was sinking below the horizon. Visibility even without our busted right headlight (that’s what kind of motorbike $4 a day gets you) would be nil on our long ride back, and people were driving more idiotically than usual due to the busy Khmer New Year holiday. So we decided to scrap the plan for the day.

The next day we started out fresh, ready to reach Wat Banan by the early afternoon. In town, the sky was blue, birds tweeted, what have you. But immediately outside the city, a fell wind blew. Huge black and green clouds massed, taking up the entire southern skyline, and mean-looking streaks of lightning snaked out along the horizon to the south, just about where our destination lay. It was like gazing into the gloom of Mordor from the top of Minas Tirith.

“It’ll blow over”, I thought, and we started out. But it didn’t blow over. Halfway to the temple and lightning struck all around us, wind gusts threatened to dislodge us from the bike altogether, and thunder clapped so loud and constant we hardly heard the engine. Most ominously, other motorbikes were few and far between. Finally we had to turn back.

I’ll admit I was a bit discouraged by this point. But I can be stubborn to the point of idiocy. We would reach this Wat, no matter wat! And the next morning, the sun shines and the birds sing and… oh man, this is our day! Or so I think.

To Be Continued