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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.