Battambang, Cambodia: An Unexpected Journey

by Beej


Stax and I are headed to Battambang to check out a traditional wedding exhibition involving dozens of couples that is supposed to take place at a temple outside of town as part of the Khmer New Year celebration.

It is supposed to take 5 hours from Phnom Penh to Battambang. It ends up taking 8. To clarify, this is an eight hour bus trip for a 291 km distance (for you ‘Mericans this amounts to a paltry 180 miles, or what some folks commute during one day.)

Road conditions make default slow pace of Cambodian buses yet slower – deep ruts and giant pits force the bus driver to detour off into open fields several times, resulting in a crashingly bumpy ride akin to a safari.

In a noble but misguided attempt to distract us from the discomfort, the driver and his obligatory sidekick play scratched-up DVDs on a small screen up front (all Cambodian bus drivers have a sort of buddy who rides up in front with them, yaks with them constantly, nudges them awake to take over driving duties when they eventually nod off during their epic hauls).

The first movie is an early John Woo crime melodrama – made in the early 1980s, evidently before Woo found his groove. It consists of:

1. An excruciating Olivia Newton John-inspired pop soundtrack pumped up to full volume and blasted out of fuzzy speakers just above our heads

2. Ultra-“serious” histrionics – meaning half of the running time is given over to tight shots of women’s faces crumpling slow-motion in anguish;

3. Incomprehensible shootouts in pitch blackness with fakey blood; and

4. Dubbing into Khmer that sounds as if a Cambodian man and woman yelled all the lines into a cheap mic placed at the bottom of a plastic bucket in a Phnom Penh warehouse.

Also I don’t think the voice actors actually saw any of the movie they were dubbing over, because all lines are delivered at the exact same volume and tone- the man a monotone clipped yammer, the woman a shrill wail just short of a scream. After the dubbing session the poor woman must have been coughing blood for a week.

With some earplugs though, this all becomes manageable after a while.

I’m drifting off to beddy-bye when the bus shudders to a sudden stop. Not so unusual given the driving patterns here, where people pull out in front of you quickly. Then 30 minutes elapses with no movement. I part my window curtain to see what could be happening out there.

My bleary eyes adjust to the blazing shadowless midday sun. We are mired in a massive traffic jam just outside of a small farming station. Dozens and dozens of Khmer agricultural workers, most of them women in groups, walk quickly across wide brown plowed fields toward the work station about a kilometer up the road.

So many workers hurry this way toward the station, faces tight, unspeaking, I deduce something unusual has happened. Their body language suggests people who are trying not to panic while evacuating a disaster zone. But this far back, and stuck in this jam, it’s impossible to discern any problem. My first thought is that the road has gone out – either that or a bad accident.

Then I see the bus. Or what used to be a bus. Now it’s a hulking 12-meter long shell, windowless and smoldering and hissing smack in the middle of the road. The billowing smoke stings the nostrils with the sweet, acrid chemical smell of shorted-out wire plastic coating.

The bus still stands upright on its wheels as we pass, so it must have caught on fire while driving. The workers probably heard the explosions from where they’ve been in the fields and feared the worst.

Workers rush toward an accident at a field station near Battambang. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

Luckily we see no blackened forms welded to the seats, no piles of cinders on the asphalt barely recognizable as people. The passengers escaped without harm.

I think briefly of the grinding gears, the probable sparking of the bottoming-out exhaust carriage, the oven-like heat of the day, and the persistent smell of oil and clutch fluid on, well, all buses. I think of how unknowingly fortunate the majority of passengers are to survive long hot journeys on these old Korean clunkers.

Not so fortunate are the two poor men laid out unconscious on the road as we pass the field station. Their motorbikes, from which they have recently been violently separated, lay dented and twisted out in the ditch, so much scrap metal. Their flip flops are scattered on different parts of the road several meters back. The men appear to be on death’s door.

One man’s face resembles a giant purple-black bruise. His eyes are close. The flesh of his elbows and knees look like chewed up Fancy Feast cat food and a raw, serrated gash runs from his hip  down to his calves. The other man is in even worse shape – totally motionless, features completely obscured by blood and dust, arm bent behind his head, one spindly-fingered hand flopped out almost like he’s waving at us awkwardly, but backwards.

A crowd stands silently surrounding the men, bending over them curiously, faces blank, while a thin figure crouches down apparently trying to wake them up with sharp claps. It doesn’t seem to be working.

A huge irrigation truck plows toward us from a dirt outlet road and parks himself directly in front of the line of traffic that has been slowing down on the opposite lane, swinging around the melee widely to look at the accident. These rubberneckers have been the ones obstructing the Battambang-bound traffic.

And just like that, we are roaring past the men, the smoking bus, the crowds and the workers, the blazing fields. The sudden momentum splashes me out of my waking dream. The clipped yammer of the man on the silly dubbed John Woo movie assaults my ears. The movie has been rattling on this entire time and is now just at it’s end point. I look up dumbly at the screen.

From a lens that appears to have been smeared with petroleum jelly, the legendary director has captured a funeral party gathered around an open grave in a green cemetery.

The huge gleaming 1980s perms and scarecrow-like shoulder pads of the silently weeping Chinese women on the screen fill me with distaste. Just underneath the distaste lies a weird emotion I can only describe as dread.

I quickly yank back the sliding window to let the hot wind flow past my sweating face. This doesn’t help matters. I’m ready for this ride to be over.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: The Cats of Wat Phnom

Beej thought that the spoiled temple cats of Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, were even more interesting than the temple itself (let’s face it, sometimes what he finds interesting boggles the mind), so here’s a little vid he shot and edited of them lazing around and spying on the visitors.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Getting to the Wedding Part III!

Continued from the last post

Now, there’s nothing to do but try to retrace my route from last night. The neighborhood appear to be stirring even at this early hour, but still I feel bad about the motorbike noise.

I buzz through a narrow gap between two concrete slabs – probably not more than a meter and a half. Large white eyes stare out at me from the near-total darkness inside one of the slabs.

A couple of scrawny little kids with wild hair sit on their mother’s lap near the ground. She glances out curiously too, stick legs folded under her knees on the hard swept dirt floor. The rest of the house looks patched together from wood and sticks and sheets of warped and rusty aluminum and whatever other materials might have been cast around left over in the weedy lots between the larger houses.

Income levels are all over the place in this city. Some houses stand strong and alone, made of brick and concrete with modern electrical work and even plumbing and insulation, and the roads in front of them are smoothly paved. But these others like the one I’m passing fit uncertainly in among the newer flats, squeezed against the wall of a big brother building, and appear to be little more than squatters’ residences. Natural light, maybe a gas hot plate for cooking, plastic green buckets for bathing water, and cotton rags hung in front of the doorway for privacy.

I wonder how these low frames and dirt floors handle even the slightest shower, let alone the monsoons that completely flood these roads during the long months of the rainy season. The people must just have to pick up and move every year, or they would constantly be half-submerged in mud and rainwater.

As I muse on these subjects realize too late that I’ve passed my turn. I was looking for the big Coke bottle billboard decorating the intersection, which without a street name is the only way I know the place.

But even as I pull up and turn around I can see that though we’re running very late – an hour at least – we haven’t actually missed anything. The wedding party is in a bit of chaos. And Stax is already in there somewhere with her camera, accompanied by Seiha with the sound recorder, getting it all down.

TO BE CONTINUED in the first segment of our series! We’ll premiere a sneak preview of the Khmer wedding segment very soon on
But of course, in the meantime, there is much more to come of our exploits in Cambodia and beyond right here on the old blog.

Where Am I?

Stax steps into the Happy Place in Phnom Penh, only to find herself in the world’s first Aussie-run, Cambodian-Californian fusion, fair-trade organic shade-grown New Guinea coffee-brewing, and American honkytonk music- playing burger joint.

Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.

p20140407-095500 The Ha:ppiness is Here in Phnom Penh

When I close my eyes, I could almost swear (if I were the swearing type) that I’m in a honky-tonk bar. Country and western twang, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley tunes drift languidly on the a/c currents circulating about the room.

When I open my eyes, I see the restaurant’s dedication to East and West Coast styles of the U.S.: The noodle/juice/coffee bar is so California, while the modernist look with its clean lines, simple white and green color palette accentuating concrete floors and wood paneled walls remind me of places I’ve been to in NYC.

Stepping outside of the air-conditioned building, I’m knocked over the head with heat. I breathe in thick, humid air, tasting bits of dust and oil as motorbikes buzz and whir by. I’m definitely in Phnom Phen.

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Getting to the Wedding, Part II

by Beej

We race through the steadily brightening pre-dawn of Phnom Penh on our rented scooter, en route to a meeting with our translator and all-around guardian angel, Seiha Kong.

Most of the mainly one and two story buildings of the city still huddle in darkness, though a few auto shop lights are winking on and a few pedestrians, mainly elderly, shuffle around the narrow streets.

We enter the highway leading out to the University district where we’ll meet Seiha and instantly, an overwhelmingly sweet scent surrounds us – the rows of jasmine bushes lining the kilometer-long park next to the highway have sprung fully into bloom due to the rains of the past day.

It’s barely 5 a.m. but many citizens of Phnom Penh are already exercising in the murky darkness of the park, their forms barely visible to the eye, taking advantage of the rare cool of the summer morning.

Somehow we’ve managed to fit all our gear and ourselves onto our tiny scooter. Wedged in front of me between the seat and the steering column is our gear bag, bulging with video heads, rigs, sound equipment and cords of all kinds. Stax’ backpack bears the weight of the camera equipment.

Groundwater sprays up from under the fender. I can only hope that the gear bag isn’t getting soaked through.

We pull into a gas station where a bleary-eyed Seiha is waiting. It’s too early for words and we’re in a hurry. We park briefly in a yellow pool of light. Stax quickly hops off the back of the bike and climbs aboard Seiha’s scooter.

For this last part of the journey to the family’s home, we can’t both be aboard this bike. The tiny Honda Dream  – the only one the place had left – is underpowered to say the least and rides dangerously low to the ground.

Overnight the heavy rains have swelled the puddles on the dirt road to lakes and the few paths not underwater are basically rock-strewn mud traps. Mangy-looking dogs scamper out from dark doorways and into the road. We swerve around them.

I follow Seiha’s taillight closely. This densely packed neighborhood is still a virtual maze to my sleep-addled mind. But suddenly I’m forced to stop. Seiha, pulling further and further ahead, doesn’t notice.

I’ve reached a puddle that is so deep and wide that it consumes the entire roadway and looks to have partially flooded the ground floor of the houses on either side. I hesitate. Seiha’s taillights are now far ahead. I can barely make them out anymore. He’s cleared the puddle easily. But he’s also lighter overall, and the suspension on his bike is also at least 8 inches higher than mine.

I slowly edge the bike forward into the water, sputtering through, keeping to the outside as much as possible. My sandals drag across the surface of the mini-pond.

I hope there won’t be a deep hole somewhere that will swallow my tire, I hope there’s no glass that will slice into the rubber, I hope a stone won’t jam into my undercasing, I hope the water won’t flood the exhaust system and choke the engine and foul the plugs and short out the electric or worse – and above all,  I hope that when I look down the precious gear bag itself won’t be half-submerged in the water.

I’m almost through when an unseen obstacle stops my front tire cold. The poor bike jerks and just about tips over into the drink. Why didn’t I rent a proper motorcyle? I curse myself.

I’m forced to give the throttle some more juice. Whatever the obstacle is, let’s hope it isn’t sharp. The motor whines. The back tire spins and fishes out pathetically. Then suddenly the front suspension pops up over the lip of a giant divot. The tire slams down on the road. Just like that, I’m out.

I gaze ahead, giving the engine a good rev to clear the system of mud and water.

I’ve lost Seiha. I can only hope my brain – as many of you know, not the greatest with directions – can remember the convoluted route from our brief shoot last night.


Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Getting to The Wedding

The security guard raises his foot, holds down the start button and stomps down for the umpteenth time on the choke lever of our scooter. The taillight weakly flickers. The engine emits a strangled chug. Then, silence.

It’s 4 a.m. on our second day of shooting, we need to get all the way across Phnom Penh and arrive at the family’s house by 5 a.m. to film one of the most important parts of the Khmer wedding – the Groom’s Procession – and our motorbike won’t start.

We parked it outside of our hostel in the BKK district here in Phnom Penh the night before, after getting back from dinner at our new favorite restaurant, Anise. We didn’t count on the torrential rain and thunderstorms that fell most of the night.

And now it appears we may have a short somewhere in the engine at the worst time it could happen.

Stax and I take over the kick-starting duties while the hostel security guards inspect the spark plugs and wipe down various connecting wires.

It’s looking completely hopeless – should we hire a car? Can we even reach one at this early hour? How will the huge luxury edition Toyota Camrys they use here as taxis manage to squeeze through the narrow mud roads of the family’s neighborhood, roads that hardly even allow two motorbikes side by side, let alone a large sedan?

It’s now 4:30 a.m.. We are officially running late to the Groom’s Procession.

Then suddenly, a mysterious tuk tuk drives up and parks in front of us.  A rumpled-looking city police officer emerges from the seating compartment. At first I think we might be in trouble for raising such a ruckus at this hour. But then it becomes clear the guards know him and he’s only here to help.

Probably, one of the guards called him at a loss with our situation, woke him up, and sent a tuk tuk over to collect him. He looks pretty tired.

The police officer notes our obvious agitation, takes one look at the bike, smiles, then calmly flips up the kickstand. He gestures for me to try the starter again. Miraculously, it starts up right away.

What it has taken 30 minutes for us to realize is that with this type of bike, the kickstand being down will prevent the engine from starting. It has nothing to do with the rain or anything else.

The guards look a trifle sheepish. The police officer shrugs.

“These guys.” He points at the guards. “Not so smart.”

This causes all the guards to laugh hysterically for several seconds. We thank the police officer and the guards who worked so tirelessly, then we take off, speeding through the early morning traffic around the Independence Monument roundabout, then out to the highway toward the University.

We don’t have a minute to lose. We have to get to that procession!