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Bewitched by Battambang


Battambang, Western Cambodia: I took the short, early-morning flight from Phnom Pen on the same day as the elections. Everything had been very peaceful and quiet in the capital city, and I had a partially formed idea that ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen was yet the man for the job in Cambodia, and a more completely-developed belief that any time before 9 a.m. is far too early to begin anything, not the least hurling oneself across time and space in a hollow tube with fake bird wings.

It only takes about 40 minutes to make that hop in just such a device; it was the shortest, most-pleasant time I have ever spent on an airplane. There were few other people on the flight, so we sat where we wanted. There was a lot of space between everyone, and not much talk. The coffee was good and I had two twenty-minute cups of it along the way. One can only wonder why they took the trouble to set an airplane in motion without finding at least one small way to make the passengers uncomfortable. But this was Cambodia, the low path, and on election day there must have been much to occupy everyone’s attention.

About eleven of us piled off the plane and were met by the ground personnel and the guy from the best hotel in town, another Hotel Skag, but this one quite nice, what would have been a very civilized single college dorm room with hot water, a TV, a fine writing table built into the wall, and a bed with a hard mattress. For $11 a night, enough to secure the health and well-being of most humble Cambodian families in the area for an extended period, it was mine for 24 hours.

There are many such places to stay in Battambang. After the Vietnamese finally expelled the Khmer Rouge UNTAC figured that this, the second-largest city in the country, would be a center for their efforts, and of course they needed a place for their people to stay. Rather than have their people move in with local families, take a look around, learn some of the language, and chip in where able and needed, thereby creating a corps of people dedicated to teaching the people to peacefully help themselves where necessary, no, they built hotels for the UNTAC people, and the hotels are generally empty these days except for the lucky and rare tourists, such as myself, who pass through along the way. They must also come in handy at times of caucus, when the election observers are in town for a few days. A few of them had been on the plane with me. They were met at the hotel by those who had preceded them in their observations. The leader was a short fellow of indeterminate accent, in the company of a pretty British woman. They all shook hands and exchanged greetings with their fellow observers, and since Battambang is one of those places where it is safer than not to assume against all odds they offered the same to me. Then came that moment that often follows greetings among strangers meeting to complete a task – the pensive silence, where everyone is smiling. This time I was the one who broke it, announcing that I was going to get some sleep. They saw the back of my hand over my shoulder by way of goodbye as I said it, ever graceful in exiting, but they were a plucky lot and I imagine had much to occupy them already even as I was making my way up to the room.

Why had I come to Battambang? The question wasn’t on the hotel registration form, and the English quite good, so I assumed it was more of a familiar nature. The fellow behind the desk had the sedentary quality of the long-term clerk about him and the hint of an American accent. Then again, there are levels of language ability, and those with simply a flair for what they have. I, for example, am able to question health, comment on the weather, and exercise a limited but knowledgeable opinion on the beautiful sport of football in Turkish in a fashion that has fooled many Turks into giving me complicated and rapid-fire answers that might as well have been comments about the nature of Epicurean tomb drawings. Was this fellow much the same? Had years of manning the hotel desk taught him to chirp that phrase in the same way I chirp my appreciation for Italian football? If not, if there were more to the man’s English, I could explain that I’d had loose time in Phnom Pen before flying to a Thai beach to take it easy for seven days and laze off the rougher edges of 20 days of travel through Laos, and had spent that time far off the beaten path, walking the streets of that great ghost of a city, finding all the used book stores, and the markets, and an odd deep back alley where a circle formed around two men who fought each other for bets on the side, and through the places where people lived lives of such incredible, stultifying poverty that nothing seemed more important to them than my replying “hello” to their “hello,” and a goodbye to theirs also (Those were the ones who smiled.). That I had gone to one of the best steak houses in the city for a good steak and the waitress had made a go of channeling her dreams of escape from the one-room apartment she shared with her older uncle, a moto-bike taxi driver, into an attempt to enroll me as her English instructor for a time, with emails to follow; and it had all left me amazed and weary and thinking that somewhere new at a reasonable price would do for the next while, and that just happened to be Battambang. In short, I was over done, and wanted to take a look at some new country.

“I came to see the temple.”

“It’s a good one,” the desk clerk said.

“Thanks.”

“I’ll have the boy get your bag. We don’t have a lift. He’ll carry it up to where you’re staying.”  

“OK.”

“It’s up on the hill.”

“Excuse me?”

“The temple. He’ll take you to your room now.”

I slept for a few hours before making my way down to lunch in the hotel café. I ordered a hamburger with ketchup and onions. Looking around, I had to hand it to the UNTAC boys. The dining room was really quite the place for the provinces, even if  Battambang was the second largest city in the country: they had a menu in English and some really first rate brand ice cream in a cooler against the wall.  The waiter moved a fan conveniently nearby and I declined their offer of ice and drank my diet coke from the can. It was a big room, sort of like the basement of a church recreation center: a long and perfect square, the vertical section of a big cross lying in patient and penitent loiter for the arrival of its horizontal partner. I was the only one there, short of the waiters, until an older couple came in and sat at the table closest the door. They looked like they had been observing, and had not seen much in it. The husband was making many comments to the wife, some animated by a fork or another handy utensil. He was a big man and she was a big woman and they were speaking German and not even perspiring, even though he was dressed in cacky pants and a long-sleeved shirt and she also was not at her least elegant. Something had happened, and they were either very right or very wrong about it. The man of indeterminate accent walked by their table while the waiter was serving their lunch; there was no acknowledgement. Perhaps the German had noted something amiss. There are the wily ways of third world people, who at such times as elections are expert at showing the civilized man all things as he thinks they should appear to be, when in fact events are proceeding in the normal sort of locally haphazard third world fashion that would bring on cardiac arrest in legions of first world obsessive-compulsives. Perhaps he had mentioned something like that to the man of neutral accent, who either had not noticed the same or had been instructed, or knew better, than to acknowledge such a thing. Or perhaps it was something else. We will never know.

My hamburger came, with the onion bun en face to the burger itself. It was a jigsaw puzzle of meat – more like a Cubist take of a hamburger and a poor take at that, five pieces of suspicious animal matter pounded into a pulp and then reconstructed into circular form. I ate it while I leafed through the guide book, and then went outside, where I found the usual everyday crowd of 3-10 moto-bike drivers waiting for someone who might need ferrying around; waiting out in the sun, because there was absolutely nothing else to do and shade is for paying guests. Word had perhaps not yet filtered down to that local level that I was not an observer. Or perhaps they were just being thoughtful. There was some discussion after I questioned rates for a brief local tour, and then I was asked to wait (man beckons toward the shade) for what turned out to be local young man of ability, who spoke very reasonable English.

What did I want to do in Battambang? Well, I certainly had not gone there to sit at an internet café and play speed chess (I won both games against the kind of fez, unaggressive opposition that so often rewards the Benoni defence). After that, just a look around town, please. There was not that much to see, other than some lovely old French shop houses, and that made it even more interesting. Battambang is cut into squares in the central district, below the river. There are things people have to buy no matter where they are, and the shops were curious and varied. We took the squares and bought four pastries – very simple but delicious, long thing slices of bread with sugared condensed milk hardened on the top – before pulling up alongside the river.

My driver put both feet on the ground and turned around.

“The temple?”

“Let’s go.”

“Which one?”

“Not the one on the hill. The other one.”

“OK,” he said.

The drive out took us through another part of Cambodia. It was a smooth, level dirt road patted down so that no dust flew up; fine for any vehicle and a real pleasure for walking, and if you’ve ever walked or will walk on such you’ll know exactly what I mean: smooth, easy walking. The houses closer to town were constructed with that air of modern affluence (built with Western gear after an Asian fashion) not uncommon to SE Asia. A few were occupied and a few had the look of weekend places: two-story affairs with a small balcony in front on the top floor, with the eaves pointing down at nice little front yards. The road wound around a thin river, called the Sanger, my driver said. It was about four feet deep, not too terribly abuzz with mosquitoes, and very green with the monsoon rains on either side. I had him stop so I could take a brief tour along the river bank; we waited another minute while we split the pastries and were on our way again.

The houses had taken on, as the road wound around and about, a more humble nature, revealing of a construction that took advantage of local environmental conveniences: they were built with that which is supplied by nature, thatch and wood, mainly. We passed rows of neat little compounds, some with houses on poles, and some not. Some people were looking out for that neighborhood, and doing a very nice job of it. We passed a field of lotus leaves on the right and I thought about them opening for all those people and how it would be just fine if this road could just go on for a while farther, and then there was the temple on the left.

The old temple is from the 10th century and as you walk around it at times it seems more or less than  a bona fide set of ruins. It sits behind a newly built temple, and between the two we found the usual mother with a cooler full of soft drinks and coconuts and a quick wok for whatever fry-ups might be possible that day. Her, and a couple of her kids too young to turn loose for a day, the security guard, and a handsome couple, distinguished by their age and easy ways, he in cacky pants, she with summer dress and umbrella, who looked like they’d taken the rest of the afternoon for themselves.

“A lot of people come here,” said my driver. I am terrible with names and have forgotten his and lost the notebook I had him write it down in. “It’s a good place.”

We were sipping coconuts and I was wondering if I was hungry. The fried bananas didn’t look bad at all; we sat watching her fry them thin.

“I mean not so many foreigners,” he was saying. “Not people. I mean not so many foreigners come here.”

“I see. You want some bananas?”

“No. Don’t eat,” he said. “It’s like the hotel food.”

The security guard was a tall, healthy-looking fellow in an honorable uniform. He squatted Asian-style and watched us while we chatted and drank. The couple were strolling leisurely around the grounds, looking very well beneath the umbrella.

“I had a good hamburger there today.”

“I know,” he said.

We stood up and he said something to the security guard and the guard waved it off, which must have been about the entry fee. It was turning into that kind of day. The old place is called Wat (temple) Ek Phnom and is on higher ground than the newer structure. It is still clear how everything was back then, and interesting because it was not like Angkor Wat or Wat Banan but a singular structure with all the stairs and entry ways eventually leading up to a high room with a square hole in the top looking down into the chamber. We walked around it and passed a few grazing water buffalo and a young couple on the verge of something very much none of our business. Across a little wet season collection of water was where the present monks lived, and that was none of our business either so we walked to the other side. Here there was more of a formal entry way remaining, and more of the elegance of old in that flight of stairs leading up, so we took them. From the view a few steps higher we could see a man in the uppermost room, one step up from what today would be a window, but must have been more of a grand door before some movement of the earth or man changed its character.

He was just sitting there, as there was doubtless not much else to do in the afternoon. I could make a vase of a tin can vase of flowers, pink white and yellow, on a piece of table.

“Can we go up?”

“We can,” he said.

“Those bananas looked good,” I said.

He shook his head. “No.”

“Don’t eat the bananas.”

The old fellow inside was not in the position of formal meditation or anything dramatic like that; he  could have been anywhere from 50 to 80 and looked as though the half-day diet suited him.  He did not seem used or unused to visitors or anything else, and we stopped a little below and my man in Battambang asked entry, and he waved us in over his shoulder without even turning around.

Natural construction allowed light to enter from four sides, and there was a breeze. It might always have been that way. I mentioned flowers in a tin can. I mentioned a sort of table. The flowers were on a couple of long stone blocks, about three feet off the floor, that had been maneuvered into a table and covered with a long piece of cheap silk with some nice embroidery. He sat behind this, and the space allowed us to give him plenty of room. I sat to the right, our translator to the left, and I will spare you – from both sides – all of the ‘he says’, ‘ask hims’, and ‘tell hims’ that passed between us, as well as the at times clipped – yet always clear – English of our earnest translator.

“Thanks for allowing us to come up.”

He gave a nod indicating either that it was a free-enough country for that; or not such a grand place to come up to; welcome, or perhaps even you were already all but here when you asked to come in, so what was I supposed to do.

“It’s a beautiful place,” I said, and we moved through a few of the usuals about old places, while hovering about us was the question: ‘What are you doing here?’ It well applied to us both, but more so in my case, and seemed indelicate to ask. So I offered that I was in Battambang for a short time and my guide had thought this a good place to see and …

“I come up here most every day. Now that I don’t work in the fields anymore. I have been a Buddhist monk for three years.”

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