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.

The Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeu: or How Cambodia’s History Continues to Break My Heart

Stax describes the overwhelming experience of visiting the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeu.

Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.

We walk up a short hill through thick green vegetation. The flowers surrounding us smell so delicious, I want to drink them in a tea or press them onto my skin.

From up on top of this 1000 foot limestone mountaintop, the highest peak for miles around, you can see why Battambang has been nicknamed “the Rice Bowl of Cambodia”– rice fields run as far as the eye can see below.

My tiny young Cambodian guide leads us to a set of stone stairs that will take us down into a dank cave. He pauses, then points to his left. I crane my neck to see where he is gesturing. Then I see a second, smaller opening in the same cave system.

“You can go there,” he says.

I walk over and look down into the dark hole. I would need to get on my belly to squeeze through this…

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