Wedding Hunters!: From Wedding Hunt to Wedding Crash

Or, The Practice Wedding. Continued from the previous post!

by Stax. Photos by Stax.

Saturday arrived, so we gathered our gear – stripped down a little, as this would just be a practice run – and drove to Oncesti to have coffee with Bud at his guesthouse (Pensiunea Bud Mariana) before we crashed the wedding. As we drove into town, lines of cars on either side of the road and boisterous accordion music gave away the location, a small house near the top of the hill.

At Bud’s, we ask one more time: “Is it really okay if we crash the wedding?”

As every red-blooded American knows, weddings are for GUESTS via INVITATION ONLY.  You do not walk through someone’s backyard right behind their houses as a shortcut through the village (as people constantly do here) unless you want a visit from the cops, and you DO NOT crash weddings. Our American brains have difficulty comprehending that yes, it’s often perfectly all right for a foreigner to show up at the wedding of strangers in Maramures.

“Yes. Yes. Of course. It’s okay,” Bud reassures us. “People are very friendly here.”

Unfortunately Bud could not attend after all, so we’d be on our own for translators – hopefully there would be a teenager who wanted to practice their English there. We approached the wedding, striding purposefully toward the house to hide our anxiety. The sound of music and dancing grew louder. We were going to crash this wedding of complete strangers and worse, we were going to invade the proceedings with cameras and try to get some footage.

We stopped in front of the large wooden gate, next to a gaggle of young women who were dressed in a variety of very old and very new styles. Modern black dresses mixed with traditional sheepskin and woven wool vests over white puffy shirts, black and red skirts, tights and black furry boots. Some heads were bare, others covered in a colorful array of scarves.

The Women

Two older men in traditional garb stood, wobbling a bit with slight smiles on their faces, in front of the gate. One of the men brandished a giant bottle of tequila to pour shots for those just arriving.

“Is there a wedding happening? ” Ben asked one of the men n his inquisitive manner.

Before anyone could answer, a woman spied us from inside the gate. Her face lit up. She walked straight up to us and began to speak in rapid Spanish. From her gestures alone, we surmised her meaning: “Come inside, I’ll show you around!”

Her words hovered around my the language areas of my brain like hummingbirds, searching for flowers of meaning to pollenate. I struggled to snatch the different words. I hadn’t spoken Spanish since our trip to Spain and Morocco last year. My skills had been sitting in the dark and dusty parts of my brain and it was plainly obvious.

I tilted my head toward her and squinted my eyes a bit in concentration. With our powers combined, Beej and I deciphered that she was the sister of the groom and her name was Ileana. She grew up in Maramures, but she’d been living in Valencia, Spain, with two South American women – which is where she acquired the rapid-fire Spanish. While Ileana talked her father handed Beej the bottle of Tequila and urged both of us to take a deep swig. (Seriously, guys. Welcome to Romania.)

The groom’s father clutching his Tequila.

After the introductions, Ileana lead us past the revelers and into the house to show us the “traditional room” of the house. Many houses in the Maramures region have a room where they display large hand-crafted items – wool rugs, tapestries, and clothing – that the craftier women in the family hand-make. Ileana took down a particularly bright and colorful red vest and helped me put it on, gesturing for Beej to take a picture.

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Not me, but another woman wearing the special wedding vest.

I took note of a row of heavy blankets and hanging from the wall, arranged similar the way that fancy wrapping papers or bolts of fabric are arranged horizontally in a store. Ileana grasped a part of one and rubbed the wool between her fingers. “Mi madre,” Ileana looked at us. “Mi madre hizo la manta.”

Her mother made this.

She pointed to my camera and mimed taking pictures. “Fotos.”

I held up my camera. “I can take photos?” I asked.

“Yes. Yes.” She nodded her head vigorously and waved her hand around the room. “Cualquier cosa.”

Anything. People started to fill the small room. One of them, a younger cousin in his 20’s from the area of Alba Iulia pretty far south of here, had very good English. So Ileana appointed him our minder during the rest of the groom’s party.

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I know. It’s a dark picture. Sorry, guys.

At one point we were seated at a table outside behind the courtyard beside the musicians, who were playing up a storm. An older woman, explained to be the groom’s mother, came by with plates and pointed at the meat and bread on the table. The older women in the family tend to do a lot of the planning and cooking around the weddings, we are to find out.

Horincă was poured, of course, along with big bowls of ciorbă, a creamy and sour soup well stocked with chunks of of sheep and cow stomach lining (tripe) that Americans don’t normally eat.

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The mother of the groom. She gave us stomach lining.

Through talking to the cousin, we find that he was as lost as we were about some of the customs here.

“I am from another village in a different region,” he told us. “If anyone dressed like these people in my town, we would think he was crazy!”

The groom’s pre-party was winding down. Let me explain: before the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom have separate pre-parties where they eat, drink, dance and take pictures with their respective families. It’s kind of like a pre-game of opposing football teams, except the different teams will get married instead of pounding each other into the ground.

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The groom in the traditional room. It’s his party and he’ll smile if he wants to.

After this event, we were told, the groom’s party would drive a huge procession of cars about 20km to meet up in the bride’s town, Sighetu Marmatiel, to join with the bride’s side.

Now, it didn’t seem to us the safest proposition to be involved in this train of cars after the amounts of horinca we’d seen some of the guests drink. But with luck, the entire groom’s family would make it in one piece.

But even after this, the night wouldn’t be over. After carousing some more in Sighetu, the complete wedding party would drive east to somewhere in the mountains near Viseu de Sus – over 50km the opposite direction – to marry.

Anyway, we were pretty sure this was the plan, but we didn’t have much time to confirm because soon everyone was on the move up the street in a large procession. They were only headed to their cars; but what a grand parade they were.

Musicians played near the front and set the beat, while at the head of the pack, a guy we later identified as the the groom’s best man twirled and tossed a big colorful flag into the air like a majorette of a marching band. Cars arriving in town had to weave around the huge procession to pass through. At one point, the crowd moved to the side as a mammoth tour bus edged past them. As he passed, the bus driver honked enthusiastically at the groom’s party below while all the passengers stood, waved and cheered.

Though we didn’t get a chance to follow the rest of the wedding that night – this was practice for the main event later in the month – we managed to get some photos of the party.

Parade Time

Walking Guests

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Music time accordion to this guy. (Haha! Get it!)
Music time accordion to this guy. (Haha! Get it?)

Groomsmen

Stay tuned for Part Three!

The Wedding Search, Part One

by Stax

I think Beej and I should start calling ourselves “The Wedding Hunters.”

After decompressing for a couple of days at the Avenue Hostel in Budapest, we made our way by train to Cluj-Napoca, a comfortable 8 hours across the Hungarian border in Romania. The train was delayed so we didn’ t arrive until 2 am.

We flung ourselves into a taxi with a suicidal driver who sped at 100 km/hr around 30 km/hr corners through the town center. Then he dropped us off on the darkened street of our lovely friend Ilinca, with whom we spent several nights last year Couchsurfing. Ilinca is a night owl, luckily. She had just returned from a year abroad at a training/internship in Holland and was still readjusting to life in her home city.

In Cluj, we had a couple of days to re-center ourselves: brush up on our rudimentary Romanian (thank you, good day, where is the toilet?, etc.), tea at Papillon, stop by the Iulius Mall for last minute supplies. We rented a cheap bubble car (a tiny Ford Ka), and bob’s your uncle, we were off.

We bobble and meander up through the Romanian countryside while figuring out how to navigate crazy Romanian road customs. Here are a few rules:

1. Center dividing lines are just a suggestion. Many times we had to brake and get over quickly to avoid an accident so that oncoming traffic could pretend they were in a Bond film.
2. On the bigger highways, keep one half of your car in the shoulder when you can’t see who might be passing in the opposite lane. Cars passing dangerously and unnecessarily is a way of life here, even around blind corners, so driving halfway on the shoulder is the safest way to help you avoid a head on collision.
3. Watch out for cars that stop in the middle of the highway and park there for no reason. They’re just sitting there. I cannot tell you why.
4. Always remember that people with BMWs or Audis are higher in the pecking order than you. If you are stopped at a stop sign on a narrow city street, they will pass you to show their superiority. Or if they need to make a right turn and you are in front of them, instead of waiting for you to turn first, they will speed up, pass, then jam on the brakes and turn ahead of you. It’s macho posturing, but you just have to accept that you and your cheap car are inferior and they are important…until you buy (or rent) a more expensive car. Then you are worthy to join their death race.

Luckily, we survived the roads and now had two weeks to explore the countryside in search of weddings.At the Babou Maramures hostel and campground in Breb, we are given advice by a Romanian artist: go to churches and community halls, because that’s where everyone registers and schedules their weddings.

We hop from village to village asking at churches and then spread out to stores and people on the street. “Existe nunta tradicional this weekend?” (Are there traditional weddings this weekend?) we ask again and again in broken Romanian.

At one store near the monastery in Barsana, the cashier made phone calls to friends and family. No luck – all the weddings were in the summer. She showed us pictures of she and her husband at a traditional wedding in August. Then she invited us to drive up the mountain to meet her herd of over 100 long-haired sheep; but after glancing at our car she realized that the road would be impossible for us.

At an open-air market in Ocna Sugatag, a woman sold us goat cheese and then yelled out our question to sellers at other stalls. The consensus so was that we’d missed them in this valley. They were all in August or the beginning of September. We moved on farther east into the highlands, spreading our search into other river valleys.

Finally, at another open-air market near the village of Glod, a twinkly-eyed, mustachioed man addressed us in English. His name was Bud, and he was a teacher in Oncesti up the road. Our conversation turned to our wedding search. We’re in luck, he said. He knew of two: one this Saturday and the next. He invited us to his guesthouse in Oncesti for coffee later that week to discuss our options.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Breb, Romania: Welcome to Maramureş

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Text by Stax. Photos by Beej.

By the time we leave Romania, I’m going to be fat. They’re going to  have to roll me out onto the tarmac at the airport. Or better yet, just float me across the sea like a bottle.

After our long confinement on flights from Eugene to Seattle to Los Angeles to Oslo to Budapest, then the train to Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and finally our trip by car north to Breb, a nice open float doesn’t seem so bad.

When delicious food is combined with generous people who will keep feeding you until there is nothing left to feed you, it doesn’t bode well for the ol’ waistline. Our diet in Maramures consists of homemade broths and soups with tripe and other fats from various pigs, cows and sheep; potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, peppers and herbs fresh from the garden; mushrooms gathered from the hills; and bread. Lots and lots of bread that magically refills your basket when you turn your head away.

So Breb. Where the heck is it and why are we here?

It all goes back to last year. When Beej and I traveled through Romania, we were told that if “traditional” weddings were what we sought, we needed to head to Maramures.  And Breb is famously one the most traditional villages in the the region. So that’s where we be.

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Our tiny European-made Ford Ka bubble car, with its lawnmower engine, can barely handle the grades as we descend into Breb from the narrow highway zigzagging above.The fields spread down below us all the way to the base of the distant Gutai Mountains. The small fields are dotted with towering haystacks in that distinctive Romanian style – bell-shaped surrounding a central pole, which we are told keeps the water from rotting the hay over the winter and thus keeps animals alive.

We pass a big white church with two towers and lots of rustic wooden houses that look handmade. Smoke rises from chimneys, obscuring the view as the pavement degrades to dirt and mud scattered with fist-sized rocks unearthed by the recent rainfall. The road narrows even more as we struggle in first gear toward Babou Maramures Hostel. Sometimes we have to stop for long minutes to let teams of horses pulling wooden carts full of pumpkins, hay, or tree limbs pass us by. I feel like we’ve entered into the Shire–if we give ourselves enough time, we may just find Hobbiton.

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Elderly women in traditional dress (patterned scarves, baggy black dresses, wool leggings, boots) – some carrying mean-looking scythes across their backs from the fields – stop us for a chat. They can’t speak English and we can’t speak Romanian, but somehow we manage. The two most common phrases we hear:  “Buna seară” (good evening) and “De unde sunteti?” (where are you from).

“America,” we answer.  They nod their heads in amazement. “Ahhhh…Amehreecaaaaah.” Sometimes they raise their hand to mimic a plane, suggesting we’ve come a long, long way.

For our first night, we stay at Pensiunea Maramou, a farm bed-and-breakfast owned and operated by a local woman, Maria, and her mother. We had planned to stay at the hostel, but they were booked.

I can’t complain. Though the cost is twice as much as the hostel, the comfort and free meals makes it seem like a steal at 100 RON a night per person: a beautifully decorated room with hand-woven wool rugs and heavy sheepskin comforter on the bed for maximum coziness, plus an all-you-can-stuff-your-face home-cooked breakfasts and dinners made mostly fresh from the animal products on the farm. To top it off there is a nice view of the town from our room.

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That first night at dinner, we chat with Mihai, the Romanian head of an ecological NGO, and two Icelandic National Park rangers who are staying at the Pensiunea. They all met 15 years ago during a National Park exchange between Iceland and Romania, and the three have been visiting each other in their respective countries ever since.

(In a weird sort of coincidence, Mihai and his NGO, Romanian Ranger Association, had written one of the first papers detailing the environmental destruction of the planned Rosia Montana gold mine back in 2001, when it was first proposed. We had gone to the FanFest at Rosia Montana a year before and met the filmmaker whose documentary chronicles the movement against the mine. Small world we meet someone so influential in that movement, which grew to encompass the E.U., here in Maramures a year later.)

Our talk is only interrupted by Maria and her mother try to burst our stomachs by giving us more food or to admonish us laughingly for not drinking enough horincă. We try to explain that while they’ve been working up huge appetites working in fields and farms, we have been sitting in a car.

And we can’t be blamed for going easy on the horincă, a clear plum-based sort of brandy distilled by everyone and their mothers in Maramures. While all ţuica is strong, the Maramureş version, horincă, will clean your insides. One sip from my tiny shot glass and I feel like I’m breathing fire.200

So anyway, here we are in what could easily be Middle Earth, but on our own Fellowship journey to find traditional weddings.  We aim to spend the next week narrowing down our search.  And we’re starting, of course, with the wooden churches.

More on that in the next post!

PHOTO ESSAY: Ek Phnom Temple or Can I get a wat?

Ek Phnom Temple

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The ancient ruins of Ek Phnom Temple are quiet most days of the week.  Monks peek curiously out of their bare wooden stilt houses at travelers. Dogs sleep in the sun, leaves rustle and families from surrounding villages picnic upon giant blocks of weathered and chiseled sandstone.  It is an impressive, but also defiantly local, attraction.

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Thought to have been built by the Angkor Empire in the early 11th century during  pre-Buddhist times, the original Wat still stands, but barely.  It has been semi-demolished by hundreds of years of looters – especially the Khmer Rouge, as legend has it – and also by time’s steady hand.

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Eighteen trees surround the Wat,  rumored to have sprouted from saplings from the original Bodhi Tree in India (under which the Buddha  attained enlightenment).

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Beej’s note: Mural in the new temple depicting mythical origins of the Buddhist holiday Madhu Purnima. The monkey traditionally offers Buddha honeycomb while the elephant offers fruit or bamboo. Not sure what these substances are in this painting..

The temple is now a visually chaotic jumble of gravity-defying, crazily leaning archways, stone blocks and crumbling walls.

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Its disrepair seems even starker next to the massive, gleaming new white and gold temple built just 10 years ago, and constructed (for some reason) directly in front of it.

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When we motorbiked out to the Wat, it was busier than usual due to a local festival.  We were there to film a large traditional wedding re-enactment put on during the festival by the people of the local villages along the Sangker River.

BUT…. the re-enactment didn’t happen. And nobody could explain to us exactly why.  We made the most of the day anyway, with Stax in her finest people-watching mode:

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Stax note: I really want to be part of whatever conversation they’re having. Looks intense.

 

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Stax note: This shot was taken right before the boy caught me and smiled. My favorite pictures of people are natural ones, and those aren’t easy to capture in a country where most people seem to love being in front of the camera.

 

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Stax note: I’ve been spotted. I wasn’t fast enough, but neither were the kids. The girl’s peace sign is only half way up.

 

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Stax note: That look between father and son right there…

 

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Stax note: And finally. This is one of my favorite pictures I’ve taken. It’s all because of the girl in the center with that huge grin – she just looks so darn happy to be sitting there, having her photo taken. It makes me smile every time I look at it.

Read Our “Nomad is Beautiful” Interview!

Ivana and Gianni,  from the great digital nomad travel website Nomad is Beautful , interviewed us about our travels, our web series project and everything under the sun for their series Love on the Road ! We were thrilled to be featured and show off some of our photography, and Ivana’s questions were really thoughtful.  To read the interview click here!

P.S. And for those who have somehow missed it, here is our teaser trailer for our currently crowdfunding webseries, “I Do: A Wedding of Cultures”:

Here Be Dragons: There be Great People

BY BEEJ

The time came for us of course to leave the town of Battambang.

It was a reluctant good-bye:  a place we had gone on a total whim to investigate a possible segment for our Web series became one of our fondest memories of Southeast Asia and a must-return destination. The town and surrounding areas were the real draw, of course, and we’ve written loads about them already. But we would be remiss if we didn’t mention how much fun we had at Here Be Dragons.

The greatness of this backpacker hangout lies in the constant events they put on; the enthusiasm, conviviality, and creativity of the owners; and last but not least, the bar’s effortless Cheers-like atmosphere where indeed, everybody knew your name – though, par for the course for me, I can only remember a few of those names that everyone else knew. (I won’t even use the names I do know in this article, though, both to protect the guilty and because I haven’t asked anyone’s permission).

IMG_3073In our week and a half at Here Be Dragons, we watched rooftop movies (forgotten Outkast vanity film Idlewild, anyone?), participated in absurd trivia nights, danced to live bands, sucked at poker games, and gorged ourselves at the weekly barbecues that seemingly drew the whole town.

In fact, we liked it so much that we came back unannounced a couple of weeks later, this time as part of the Kampot Playboys’ entourage – more on this later.

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Movin’ and groovin’ at Here Be Dragons, Battambang. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto for Misadventurist Media

Now, it sounds like a cliche (ok it IS a cliche), but the people really were the best part about Here Be Dragons. They can be roughly divided into:

1. The English expats:
a. The guy who taught science at a local school by day, was the bar’s counterpart to Cheers‘ “Norm” the rest of the time. This guy was all intellectual-like, a fountain of knowledge about the region’s politics and history. He and I got into some hair-raising discussions about U.S. interventions in Cambodia (uh, yeah we Yanks didn’t think that through too well).)

b. Owner 1: An anarchist-leaning bartender and motorcycle enthusiast. He watched Fox News online just so he could yell at the screen. He also slung cocktails and made good-natured fun of America. Glad, he said, to have left the “boring” “hellhole” of England, his mind brimmed with conspiracy theories (most of which I believe he espoused solely to have a laugh at getting a rise out of people).

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c. Owner 2: A mellow blond artist who laughed easily and was chock full of generous vibes and curiosity about her guests. A lot of the elaborate paintings covering the walls could be attributed to her artistry and I believe most of the theme holiday parties (robot-costumed New Years Eve, etc) are of her concoction. And when Stax limped in covered in scrapes and bruises from the motorbike crash, she was genuinely concerned and helped us find provisions.
Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 9.36.49 PMd. The bartender, who wasn’t really English at all, but an Aussie from Perth (yes, I know I just offended all of Australia, who are rising up as a nation right now and wondering where they can find this….let me consult my Oz slang book….”dopey Seppo bastard” and “bail him up”.). She was friendly and hilarious and possibly had a “few roos loose in the top paddock”, but she “barbied” (barbecued) up the best ribs we had in all of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam.

2. The crack kitchen staff
They prepared delicious Thai Red Curry and Amok (whitefish steamed in banana leaf) after we stumbled in exhausted from riding all day. Judging from her giggles and head-shaking, the counter assistant found our traditional wedding project dubious if not downright wrongheaded. But she dispensed invaluable advice on all the places we should explore.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 9.36.03 PM 13.  The on-call tattoo artist, massage therapist, and tuk-tuk driver
Even though we never used any of their services, we heard good things from other guests about these people. And it’s cool that they were there for us if the urge ever struck to be inked, soothed, or driven about town. The tattoo artist hung out in the restaurant a lot and was so cool he intimidated me a bit – I’m used to being the hippest cat in any room.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 9.27.50 PMHere Be Dragons became our home in Battambang. It was a place to recuperate and have a laugh, to recover from heat and mosquito bites. Or, to simply chill with other travelers and the friendly staff. Out of nearly a year of travel through 18 countries, it’s saying something that they stand out as one of the highlights. We’ll be going back.

VIDEO: OUR KICKSTARTER PAGE IS LIVE (HUZZAH!)

At long last the Kickstarter campaign to fund  “I Do: A Wedding of Cultures” is live! We’re pretty excited if you can’t tell. We have 30 days to get backed to the tune of $7000 for the web series. Check out our Kickstarter Video below:
https://vimeo.com/132988361

Or if you’re having trouble with the Vimeo player (mobile units sometimes do) here’s the Youtube link:

And if it sounds interesting to you, please check out/read/recommend our Kickstarter Page to friends (where we have a ton more detail and info about it). Also, gaze upon the sweet, sweet rewards that await backers when we’re funded. Click the Kickstarter Logo below to have your mind blown!

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Even if you can’t back us with a pledge (we have $1, 5, 10 and up), of course we’d love you to spread the word through the WP community or like and follow this site. Can’t wait for the challenges that await us over the next 30 days!

VIDEO: Khmer New Year at Wat Ek Phnom!

While Stax recuperates from several days of excitement back in the guesthouse, Beej ventures out by motorbike through rural riverside villages to capture some of the experience of Khmer New Year.

Ek Phnom is a destination for New Year revelers around Cambodia, and the Misadventurists have heard that they may even be holding mock marriage ceremonies there – a perfect addition to the episode. But almost 15 kilometers of (water) war-torn landscape lies between Battambang and this temple: a daunting prospect on the New Year.

Lines of marauding water-bag chuckers immediately ambush Beej from either side of the dirt road.on his motorbike; almost all grinning pixie-ish toddlers who, seeing pale skin and bushy beard a mile away, scream a chorus of cute “HE-LLO”s as they fling plastic bags of nasty river water at him.

While many of these disease sacks sploosh harmlessly between his spokes or sail above his head, many find their marks perfectly on his bum, torso and helmet. And they are not as painless as water balloons. The plastic smacks stingingly before they explode.

What one must go through for Art.

For over an hour Beej weaves through knock-down, drag-out, epic water wars between what seems like whole villages – pickups with 10 teenagers in the back, standing and screaming, sound systems regurgitating deafening, hyped-up Cambodian pop as they man water cannons against their foes on the ground and in other trucks. Nearer the Wat, nefarious colleagues join the water-truck hooligans: skinny-jeaned, floppy-sandaled teens who run out in the road and form human chains to physically stop cars and motorbikes. Their dark purpose? To smear what appears to be Johnson’s Baby Powder all over the faces and necks of innocent motorists.

Very likely, the New Years shenanigans have a fascinating cultural or folkloric root in the mists of Cambodian history. But you can be sure that Beej is not contemplating this academically as he brakes, weaves, and struggles to avoid hitting people hell-bent on being hit by somebody.

(For a great overview of the Khmer New Year experience by another expat in Battambang, please check out this article by Jocelyn Post from worldnextdoor.org – it’s really well-written and is accompanied by fantastic images of the kind that Beej was too busy struggling to not fall over to take).

Finally, soaked through and dripping, beard dusted white, Beej arrives and parks his bike safe and sound at the Wat.

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).

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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.

Battambang, Cambodia – “The Bong”

I’ve done the charming city of Battambang an injustice with the focus on horrible roads and personal injuries. Experiences here need not be confined to falling off motorbikes (not recommended) or sampling health care options (limited). There are some great places to see in Cambodia’s second city.

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A protective statue along the Sangker Riverside Park. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

Battambang’s recent history is not a glorious one. After spending hundreds of years (on and off) as a colony of the Siamese Kingdom, French colonial treaties with Thailand restored the Battambang and Pailin regions back to Cambodia just in time for two World wars, Japanese occupation, the disastrous American incursion, and finally the Khmer Rouge regime and subsequent Vietnamese occupation (Battambang to France- thanks a yahoo)

Battambang’s fertile countryside became a particular stronghold of the Khmer Rouge regime, who cleared out the city and forced most people to work in rice fields. Its agricultural riches (it’s still Cambodia’s wealthiest province) and military strength made it one of the last major regions the Vietnamese secured in 1979. In the people’s rush to move on from four years of sheer terror, the house never really got clean.

We hear tell from expats that former regime honchos still retire under the radar, occupying the most spacious estates and lucrative rice-growing farmland in the surrounding villages, riches looted from the bourgeoisie intact.

Stax enjoys the view of Wat Piphetthearam in the middle of Battambang City. The Wat was an execution site and prison during the Khmer Rouge era and has now been restored to a serene park and Buddhist center of refuge.
Stax enjoys the view of Wat Piphetthearam in the middle of Battambang City. The Wat was an execution site and prison during the Khmer Rouge era and has now been restored to a serene park and Buddhist center of refuge.

Discerning the truth behind these tales would require treading dangerous waters – journalists, even foreign ones, are heavily persecuted here – so we aren’t exactly knocking on doors in villages to get comment. But it is a widespread belief.

More of the Battambang story unfolds through rumor and hearsay. We meet an ex-U.S. army mine-hunter from Denver who trains groups of local military (and jungle rats) to sniff out unexploded ordinance (UXO) for a Japanese non-profit. He regales us with incredible tales of run-ins with rebel groups that roam jungles and mountains west of the city.

Unique statuary restored at the park grounds, Wat Pithetthearam, Battambang City. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Unique statuary restored at the park grounds, Wat Pithetthearam, Battambang City. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

Reduced from the glory days of fomenting statewide revolution to (these days) shitting in the jungle, running drugs and (the UXO-hunter insists) kidnapping tourists for ransom, the groups can still create havoc..

He vividly describes being trapped on a military truck departing Battambang during the 2013 elections as a five-hour firefight raged between a military convoy and groups who had materialized out of the countryside  to – as he puts it – “kidnap foreigners”. (I cannot find reports to verify the event he described, other than to confirm that the main opposition party contested elections nationwide).

But if this kind of unrest really occurs, we see no sign of it. In spite of the holiday this weekend, the town feels subdued. Positively enlightened, in fact.