Country of Contrasts

I’m on the rooftop of the Seng Hout hotel watching the sunset over Battambang. The Muslim call to prayer is echoing across the river and the ornate roofs of Buddhist temples are glinting in the orange light.

I decided to stay another day here and am glad I did. There’s a restaurant I really like: Jaan Bai, a resturant non-profit with bespoke pottery, delicious food, and a design style that fits right in with the Kinfolk magazines they have stacked in the bookshelf.

Pad Thai at Jaan Bai

Pad Thai at Jaan Bai

There’s a terrific coffee shop: Kinyei, home of the Cambodia National Barista Champions. The Seng Hout, my hotel, is a solid deal ($10 a night, friendly staff, clean rooms, a small pool, a rooftop full of wicker chairs and palm plants). At night the riverfront comes alive at night with vendors selling noodles, bbqing chicken, and grilling corn.

Every afternoon it rains. The sky blackens and a strong rain pounds the metal roofs. If I time it right, I’m sitting at Kinyei with a book, looking out through the metal rollup door and avoiding the downpour.

From the Kinyei Facebook page.

From the Kinyei Facebook page.

The first night in Battambang I went to the circus (Phare Ponleu Selpak). It’s a couple minutes from town by Tuk Tuk. The bleachers in the tent were packed. Lots of foreigners, but also locals, especially children, sitting on the floor at the edges.

circus

It was one of the most entertaining shows I’ve ever seen. The music was great, drums and Cambodian instruments I’ve never heard before. The first act was a sort of play, with a Cambodian princess and a cripple and a group of toughs from the town. I have no idea what they were saying, but the fights, flips, fire and acrobatics were fantastic. Then second part was juggling, rope tricks, rubber ball bouncing, balancing acts, dancing, and huge flips off a giant seesaw.

Another highlight of this place was the bicycle tour with Suksobike. It was great to get out of town and see what the countryside looked like. The near constant greetings of tuk tuk drivers in town was replaced by little kids yelling “hello” in English and waving like crazy as we passed weathered wooden houses set on stilts.

The tour winded through muddy red dirt roads along a small river and then out across the rice fields. Along the way we stopped at number of small business- families that make edible rice paper, dried bananas, fish paste and rice wine. Our guide explained what they make, let us try it, and if we wanted, taste it.

tour-guide

We took a break and walked around a little daytime market where we were the spectacle and entertainment of the morning. A black woman from France got the most attention. Someone wanted to know if her hair was real. Another complimented her full curvy figure and patted her butt.

We also stopped at a killing field, one of three outside Battambang. The bones of over 10,000 people were found and some of their bleached skulls are positioned against the glass walls of a monument on that site. It’s striking and grim, and I wonder if that’s the best way to remember the lives of the people who died there? Or does putting their bones on display signal something else?

monument-battambang

The Khmer Rouge operated in this area until as late as 1998. Our guide said the schools are not teaching this history very well and most young people don’t have a good idea of what happened. But it’s below the surface of everything. The woman we met who made the rice wine had moved from Phnom Penh with her brother to start the business in the early 70s. Their entire extended family in the capitol was killed.

The contrasts here are striking. In one moment I’m observing a pile of bones, in the next I’m are drinking a cappuccino (that costs as much as the average person makes in a day), and in the next I’m are watching one of the most cathartic and exciting performances you have ever seen surrounded by laughing children.

It’s a strange and amazing country to travel in.

List of Expenses for 7/23

Hotel Room (private bath, fan, cable, wifi, pool): $10.
Breakfast (banana pancakes, mango shake): $4.
Lunch (pork bahn mi sandwich): $3.50.
Cappuccino: $2.
Angkor Beer: $0.75.
Dinner (dragon fruit caipirinha, glazed chicken and greens, coconut ice cream): $11.

Total: $31.25.

I admit. Dinner was a splurge. It was amazing.

The Killing Fields

This was an overwhelming place to visit.

More than 300 mass graves dot Cambodia where 1.3 million people were killed by shovels, hatchets and machetes by a genocidal regime in the late 1970s.

My Tuk Tuk driver, who is also a friend of my friend’s here, had never been inside Choeung Ek and walked the grounds with me. He didn’t say much, but summed it up as we were leaving, “This place makes me sad.”

It’s hard to believe a country this friendly and full of life had such a dark and terrifying period.

The photos are by my friend Sascha Faun Winter. More photos here.

Backpacking Big Sur

Big Sur is one of my favorite places in the world. It has spectacular views overlooking the Pacific Ocean, gnarled windswept Cypress tress clinging to the cliffs, and deep valleys of Redwood forests. I got to backpacking there for a few days earlier this month.

This Point Lobos, a hiking spot right on the coast, where seals were sunning in weirdly emerald bays.

We hiked in Padres National Forest, right above Kirk Creek. It was a terrific time of year to go as the entire hillside was covered with wildflowers.

Our camp site was nestled in a redwood grove. Perfect spot to spend two nights.

A Billion Bats

billionbatss-small

My friend Jane was on the Congress Bridge at dusk and overheard two sorority girls talking about the bats.

“I read somewhere that there’s a BILLION bats here,” said one. “Wow, that’s a lot,” said the other. (Editors note: There aren’t really a billion bats. That would be insane.)

I’m trying to convince my buddy Mike to name his new band “One Billion Bats”- so I made a poster. Modified from this flickr photo.