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.
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.
Eighteen trees surround the Wat, rumored to have sprouted from saplings from the original Bodhi Tree in India (under which the Buddha attained enlightenment).
The temple is now a visually chaotic jumble of gravity-defying, crazily leaning archways, stone blocks and crumbling walls.
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.
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:
Ivana and Gianni, from the great digital nomad travel website Nomad is Beautful , interviewed us about our travels, our web seriesproject 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”:
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).
In 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.
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).
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. d. 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.
3. 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.
Here 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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What do they say about motorbikes? You’ve gotta get back on them? Or is that horses?
Even after all our failed attempts to reach Wat Banan, Stax and I aren’t willing to let ourselves be deterred by a minor life-threatening crash or two. No way, not us. We hop directly back on the motorbike the very next day, injuries and all, to explore the mountain realm of Phnom Sampeau.
A long and steep climb by motorbike – the same one we crashed the day before – up precarious cement pathways choked with weeds and potholes brings us finally to the top of this large block of limestone that dominates the view of the countryside just west of Battambang.
Wat Phnom Sampeau, meanwhile, is among the most spectacular- and peculiar – sites we will encounter in Cambodia. From the rocky peak, the golden spires of the Wat gleam over sheer limestone cliffs and caves, while to the north, Tiger Mountain rears up out of the flat ricelands and afternoon field smoke like some ghostly green monster rising out of a lake.
I should mention, we never would have found the narrow route to this viewpoint without the impromptu guidance of a monkey-like 9 year old kid with a dirty baseball cap named Than who starts walking alongside us as we approach the Wat. At first we don’t understand where he is trying to guide us. The narrow path he walks toward appears to simply dead-end at a sheer cliff.
He flashes us a look of annoyance, pointing again – these dumb Farang and their petty fears! – and we decide what the hey? Good thing. Along the cliff’s edge is a stony path leading to a steep wooden ladder someone has nailed into a gap in the limestone. Following the scrawny kid, who’s scrambled up and down the ladder three times already to see what’s taking us so long, we squeeze our way through the gap and scramble over the sharp rocks to a stunning overlook.
The kid gets bored waiting for us to marvel at the view and clambers down back to the Wat with his buddies, but not before signaling them of his whereabouts.
Inside Wat Phnom Sampeau, the scenes from the Buddha’s life and ministry are presented in absurdly vivid, almost Marvel comic-book style.
Outside the Wat lies a steaming primary deciduous forest – one of the only primary stands we will see in logging-ravaged Cambodia – filled with mischievous monkeys, barefoot children who run about the temples as if they live there, and colorful flora. We finally head down for the day with the sun sinking below the haze. But before we can turn onto the highway back to Battambang, one more surprise awaits us. Two million bats are poised to fly out of the pitch-black caverns deep below Phnom Sampeau and out into the sky to feed in a nightly ritual. (Sorry, cell phone video so it’s not great quality).
The Battambang tourist clinic is casual to say the least. The woman at the outdoor check-in counter is about to leave for the day as we pull up to the window on our scraped-up motorbike, which held up fine on our 25km journey back from the crash site. The woman kindly sticks around to show us in.
Inside the clinic sits one examination bed and a couple of trays of supplies in a single undecorated room the size of a large apartment, with a small dim bathroom attached.
The doctor, middle-aged, bored-looking and jowly in faded green scrubs, saunters over after a few long minutes (even though there is no one else around to examine) and glances at Stax’ wounds. He immediately assesses the cause of the injuries, having of course seen them a thousand times.
He then decides to act out the motion of falling over on a motorbike. This causes ripples of laughter in the two male assistants beside him. We are in no laughing mood after our long dusty ride, but I try to crack a smile. You don’t want to piss off your doctor.
He instructs Stax to go into the restroom and clean out her gravel and dirt-strewn wounds, then sits back with his feet up. The two assistants, so similar they could be brothers, tap on their Samsung phones.
Since extensive areas of Stax’ knee and arms remain raw and painful with embedded gravel and dirt, I assume the good doctor knows that a thorough self-cleaning will take a while. The good doctor doesn’t see it that way and makes sure I know it. Every few minutes he exaggeratedly checks the clock on the wall -yup, still 4:30 – gives me a look – why don’t you go and get your woman moving so we can wrap this up? – and gestures toward the bathroom.
Maybe his social schedule is jam-packed. Maybe after he’s done being a doctor for the day he transforms into a genteel man about Battambang town, highly sought after playboy and jetsetting man of fashion, a man to see and be seen with. Who knows? But his impatience is highly annoying.
After Stax comes out he plops her down and checks her knee. Nope, no breaks. Then we must sign a statement promising not to blame the tourist clinic if there are any adverse reactions so that the the assistants can spray a bit of antiseptic and antibacterial and wrap her knee and elbow with gauze. That’s the whole checkup.
Amazingly, the office woman who had been about to leave earlier is still there. She has waited at least a half hour past her shift to make sure we can finish up and pay. The visit, all the supplies and medical examination has cost all of $5.00 US – about what a doctor in the United States would charge you just to wait in line.
Then as we are pulling out of the driveway to head back to our guesthouse, the woman even turns her motorbike around and asks if we need directions, offering to let us follow her. Though we know the way back easily, her seemingly genuine concern and care lifts up what has been a pretty dismal day so far.
We’re exhausted and hungry and Stax’ knee is throbbing when we finally pull into the large driveway at Here Be Dragons, our Battambang home. The two smart-aleck expat bartenders – are there any other kind? – are unsurprised at our wreck story.
The guy tells me that during the Khmer New Year week there are usually at least one or two fatal crashes a day in the countryside as Cambodians are rushing from the cities en masse, on unbelievably terrible roads, to be in their home villages for the holiday. Even as Stax is examining her grevious-looking wounds in the mirror we have to count ourselves pretty lucky. It could have been much worse.
NEXT UP: A TRIP UP PHNOM SAMPEAU IN PICTURES AND MOTION!
I have a pretty good memory. I don’t forget many things nor do I lose [many] items. But there is one second in my life that is gone, a fluttering moment in time that my mind could not, until recently, recall. Let me try to capture it.
Beej and I are driving down a rural Cambodian road on a rented motorbike, wind whipping through my hair, sun shining bright above us, trees swaying in the wind, birds singing. Then – A lost, weightless moment like a skipped frame in an old 16mm film – we are sideways on the ground, skidding at 30km per hour across rough gravel and dirt on the edge of the road.
Later I manage to piece together the fragments. A monstrous white Toyota F150 (250? 350? – the one with four wheels in back) passes us extremely close on the left, so close that my…