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Lost and found in Cambodia

As the minibus pulled into Battambang I began to feel that maybe my little excursion off the beaten track hadn’t been quite such a great idea.  As soon as we began to enter the town, we were mobbed by reckless Cambodians on motos who, on spotting a Western face among the rest of the passengers were trying whole-heartedly to grab my attention and get me to their hotels.  All this was nothing new; we had dealt with manic mobbings by overexcited and sometimes aggressive hotel owners for about nine weeks prior to my arrival in Battambang, but this time I was on my own.  My two friends Gemma and Robyn had decided to head south to Sihanoukville to enjoy the beaches there before our imminent return to the greyness and gloominess of the UK, but I had wanted to explore the back streets of Cambodia a little more and that is how I ended up in the charming but extremely sleepy little town of Battambang.  Cambodia’s second city, Battambang itself offers little in the way of typical tourist attractions and subsequently felt much more real and authentic than the other cities we’d visited. 

Despite the baffling beauty of the temples of Siem Reap and the strange juxtaposition of traditional temples and blatant sex tourism of Phnom Penh I had felt like I was craving something less extravagant, so I arrived in Battambang with few expectations and even fewer plans.  By the time I had checked into a guesthouse it was still only eleven O’clock, so I had the whole day ahead of me to wander around the town and wallow in the indulgent feeling that comes with having nothing to do, nowhere to be and nobody to please other than yourself.  After a very short time however I became bored of my own company and started to desperately miss the senseless chatter with my two friends that had become an inevitable and reliable part of the past two months.    When you spend long periods of time living in such close proximity to two other people; sharing rooms, cramped seats on rickety Thai trains, motorbikes and memories, they become almost a part of your own self.  For two months I had become not one person but three, and despite the arguments and the tensions that become inevitable after living quite literally in each other’s very limited personal space, I felt numb and lonely without them there to share my experiences with. I had only been on my own for about a week, but up until my two days in Battambang I had been constantly on the move.  My mind had been continuously contemplating the next destination on my journey or frantically trying to get around in places where nothing runs quite according to plan, and the truck will only set off when the driver’s cousin has arrived from the next village bearing chickens and a bike far too big to fit in the small space between assembled passengers and afore mentioned poultry.  But here I was in Battambang, all alone with nothing to do but wander around. 

I had planned two days in the town, the first I had dedicated to exploring Battambang itself, and the second I planned to find a moto driver and visit the array of temples and floating villages on the Tonle Sap Lake.  So for today, I was in Battambang, on my own, and with very little to do.   I walked up and down the dusty roads trying to get my bearings, trying to find something to do to take my mind off the loneliness and trying to miraculously speed up the incredibly slow passing of time.  I walked past the market several times, expecting to find wondrous arrays of strange fruit and even stranger animals, but was faced instead with a few rotting tomatoes and the odd stray cat slinking among the heavily laden Cambodian women tending to their wares of dried fish and sticky rice.  After about an hour I began to get even more frustrated with myself at having planned a whole day in this drowsy town – I started to plan the day out hour by hour, wondering just how much more time I could devote to mindless wandering, how many hours I should set aside for eating, how many times would I allow myself to sit at a café and enjoy an iced coffee or lemonade.  I found the museum that the guidebook had suggested to be closed, and on closer inspection it seemed that my hourly plan would have to be somewhat altered due to lack of cafes or even anywhere to sit and watch the world go by.  It was at this stage I think that I started to decline into a state of delirium.  It was probably only 1pm, and I felt I had well and truly drained Battambang of all it had to offer me as a simple traveller.  I had made a mistake – this was not a picturesque window into the reality of true Cambodia, but a gloomy, empty, dusty town that seemed to be mocking my loneliness more with every minute that passed.  As the day went on, it became hotter and hotter, the sun burning into my shoulders and piercing my growing irritation with its unforgiving rays.  I continued to walk round and round in circles for what seemed like an eternity, determined not to give up on my martyred mission to find something that I could take a photo of and treasure forever.  I was faced with the dilemma of traveller’s stubbornness; refusing to admit to myself that I was not going to bump into a former Khmer Rouge soldier who would tell me stories about Cambodian history, but rather I was destined to plough aimlessly through the dust and grime, much to the amusement of the Cambodian builders and schoolchildren who had by this point passed me about ten times on the street.

I somehow managed to keep myself occupied, (albeit deteriorating rapidly into a rather worrying state of near-insanity) until much later in the day, when the sun decided it had had enough of terrorising the dusty earth and began to disappear, bathing the streets and valleys in a delirious sheet of red kohl.  This was the moment I had been waiting for, as all my frustration and irritation vanished with the sun and I was washed by a wave of tranquillity that felt almost spiritual in its intensity.  It was at this point that I finally relaxed and started to walk once again around the streets, admiring the French colonial buildings as opposed to cursing the baking heat and flea-ridden dogs.  I walked this time to a Buddhist temple that I had seen a few times but somehow never felt the courage nor inclination to go in.  I walked through the gate and was almost immediately approached by a young Cambodian man, perhaps in his late twenties, who introduced himself as Young, and started making conversation with me, apparently shocked but impressed to see a lost looking Western girl wandering about the grounds of this unimposing little temple.  The wat itself, despite being understated in comparison with the hundreds of other wats I had visited over the past few weeks, was beautiful in its simplicity and lack of Western influence.  This was not a tourist attraction with its own guidebooks and tour guides, but a quiet place where the Theravada Buddhist monks of Battambang came to live and to pray.  As Young gave me a guided tour around the wat, he chatted to me about anything and everything, keen to practice his English and tell me about himself and his life.  He himself was not a monk, but had been taken in by the wat as a baby after losing both his parents in an accident.  In exchange for food and shelter he worked in the wat, preparing breakfast for the monks and calling them for prayer, in addition to painting the gates and feeding the chickens which roamed about in the separate garden area.  He took me to the main chamber of the pagoda, a magnificently decorated round room with the obligatory statue of Buddha at its head, and carpets on the floor from which the monks would spend several hours a day, praying and offering thanks to the gold plated statues before them.  As we looked at the intricate paintings on the wall, he described to me the eating habits of the monks; they are permitted to eat only one meal a day at breakfast time which sustains them for the remainder of the day, for which they must not eat a thing, but can drink water, coffee or tea if they wish.  I found it interesting to learn that in addition to these beverages, cigarettes were also permitted, an ironic reminder of the persistent contradictions in Cambodian life.  Martyrs to religious purity, free from alcohol, sex and such corrupting influences, yet allowed to puff away on fags all day…I found it strange, but then I looked around me at a world which I hardly understood but couldn’t help finding enticing and wonderfully seductive and had to ask myself; who the hell am I to judge? 

After my guided tour of the pagoda we made our way to the main courtyard, where I saw that about ten monks had gathered; presumably they had finished a prayer session while Young and I had been walking around the wat.  They made a stunning sight, dressed in the typical ochre robes which complimented so perfectly with their golden skin and bright toothy grins.  These men were undeniably beautiful, like perfect statues reflected in the amber light of the setting sun which bounced off their perfect cheekbones and fell to the floor around their perfect feet.  I felt an incredible nervousness when approaching the monks, having spent months avoiding them on buses, in the street and in cafes.  In Thailand it is a serious faux pas for a woman to sit down next to a monk, let alone touch him, and I kept remembering the looks of horror on our fellow passengers’ faces when my friend Gemma had taken a seat next to a monk on a crowded bus without thinking.  You would have been forgiven for thinking that she had just hidden a stick of dynamite under her seat from the speed at which the passengers leapt up and frantically but politely found the monk another seat away from the troublesome white girl.  But here I was, approaching a group of Cambodian monks, and there seemed to be no such taboos, as they warmly welcomed me to their gathering and offered me a seat amongst them.  I looked nervously at Young for reassurance, and he nodded his consent so I bowed at the monks and sat down on the part of the bench that I thought was the furthest away from any of them.  All of the monks were equally charming, eager to practice their English and listen to my stories about my travels, my life in England and what exactly had brought me to their pagoda where they were very rarely greeted by Western faces.  I learned that one of the monks has three nicknames, turtle, buffalo and crocodile, as he sleeps like a crocodile, walks like a turtle and is as strong as a buffalo.  I was taught Cambodian songs, and in turn I sang the only song I could think of – Freres Jacques. 

I was sitting there chatting to the monks for over two hours, a totally non-sexual, innocent interaction between two infinitely different cultures, yet to the mesmerising background of Cambodian dusk we covered topics as diverse as religion and marital customs.  As I was talking to these fascinating people I suddenly realised why I was travelling in Cambodia, searching for something more than the usual tourist haunts and Lonely Planet recommendations.  Here in this wonderful pagoda, hearing stories of Cambodian Buddhism and way of life, I found what I had been searching for all day. I realised that you can search all you want for memorable, life changing events and go looking everywhere for the perfect photo or the perfect moment, but at the end of the day the best experiences will always find you, usually when you are least expecting to be found.

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