Battambang, Cambodia: “The Bong”. Part II

by Beej

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Croc-headed hero at Wat Prithhearam, Battambang. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

In the last post we talked about some heavy history. But Battambang has a ton more to offer these days.

For example, there are places you can scarf down mezze platters while ogling fine art, browsing literary works of spiritual gurus, or watching indie films in a small theater. Namely, the Lotus Bar and Gallery.

The Lotus Bar and Gallery. Image courtesy of movetocambodia.com
The Lotus Bar and Gallery. Image courtesy of movetocambodia.com

On the night we wander in, the British owner, Darren, lures us upstairs brandishing half-price cocktails for a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s 1990s black and white Johnny Depp vehicle, “Dead Man”.

(I’m a fan of many of Jarmusch’s films, but “Dead Man” is not one of them – it’s indulgent, simple minded, and much too fixated on Depp’s disturbingly angular, expressionless face. But it’s a chance to get a taste of home – it was filmed in Southern Oregon – so I give it another shot. Nope. Still sucks. Stax disagrees: expect a spirited defense of “Dead Man” from her soon).

The bland blankness of Johnny Depp in
The bland blankness of Johnny Depp in “Dead Man”. The proto-“Indian-face-painted hipster douche”? (Image courtesy of ImageShack)

After the screening we peruse the comic and curio shop next door, aptly named The Lost Stick. The British owner is an underground comic artist of some renown who opens up whenever the mood strikes him. I’m pretty sure he is this guy  – if so, he’s a great artist.

But not a conversationalist per se. As we poke around the store’s addictive mish-mash of old books, nihilistic comics, and 1960s Asian pop culture artifacts he’s focused, head down, on his galleys (he often works all night on his own art). He’s done wonders with the store though, with enough weirdness piled on shelves to fuel any collector’s imagination. I never would have guessed that this unassuming city harbors so much artistic talent. (The Guardian apparently knew, however.)

Just down street 2.5 sits the Madison Corner, a diner-style joint where jovial, self-described “French gypsy” owner Patrice blasts rockabilly or visiting live bands while he and his managers jaw and throw down shots. The overhead flatscreen stays tuned to Cartoon Network – an “Adventure Time” marathon – while servers crank out giant, delicious bacon burgers with slushy Cokes.

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Madison Corner. A great place to watch cartoons and drink. Image courtesy of visitbattambang.com

You can choose from plenty of young “gourmet” upstarts to choose from if that’s your bag, including Choco L’Art (awesome chocolate hazelnut cake) and Jaan Bai (great cappucinos and Thai food) – both these places are run by very worthy NGOs that help out local women and young artisans. There’s also some fancy-pants establishments like Pomme d’Amour (reportedly fantastic but too rich for our blood). But my hands-down favorite cafe in Battambang has to be Kinyei.

If there is a hangout spot in Battambang for foreign NGO workers and discerning local coffee connessoirs, Kinyei is it. The cafe doubles as a bike rental and repair center as well, the jumping-off point for bike tours of the town and countryside, although sadly we’ve arrived there just as it’s closing for the long New Year weekend.

In the lounge upstairs I pluck a dusty guitar from the wall while Stax talks to a web developer who’s working for an NGO in town. She’s an Aussie who volunteers and travels all over the world. After her hair-raising story of having to escape through the broken back window of an overturned bus in South America, our merely inconvienient Cambodian bus rides seem quaint and mundane.

Kinyei cafe's upstairs lounge is the perfect place to relax, pluck a guitar off the wall, and guzzle Battambang's best coffee drinks. Photo (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Kinyei cafe’s upstairs lounge is the perfect place to relax, pluck a guitar off the wall, and guzzle Battambang’s best coffee drinks. Photo (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

Coffee, art, drink and desserts we’ve covered. But what of comfort food?

Most every Battambang expat will point to one restaurant that a first-time visitor should try. A magical place where the trifecta of cheap prices, awe-inspiringly voluminous menu, and good, plentiful food meet in one giant French-colonial style, balconied building. That place is the White Rose. Just look at my face in Stax’ photo and you can guess that we might agree with the expats.

Beej is so happy to find good dark beer in Cambodia that he's close to tears. Photo (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
Beej is so happy to find good dark beer in Cambodia that he’s close to tears. Photo (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto

Later on as we hunker in our comfortable room at the Here Be Dragons guesthouse, it seems that everyone in town is either leaving for New Years’ festivities in other provinces, going on holiday, or celebrating with families in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Thousands, though, will reportedly head to the temple complex of Ek Phnom about 15km away, where a giant celebration is planned – including, intriguingly for us, large staged weddings involving dozens of locals who act out the ceremony step-by-step.

The temple sounds like the perfect place to get some footage for our doc. Simple decision, really. But in Cambodia at Khmer New Year, we find out that even simple plans can yield craziness.

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