CAMBODIA TALES 1999
The temples of Battambang
Leaving Siem Reap is always a wrench but after a week's exploration, I was keen to discover in person what Battambang had to offer, aware that only a trickle of tourists had so far bothered with Cambodia's second city. With a wealth of Angkorean ruins in easy reach, a still-visible colonial past and the slow pace of life along the banks of the Sangke river, Battambang was to be my base for the next three days before returning to Phnom Penh.
The fifty-seater speedboat left the Chrong Kniesh fishing village at the foot of Phnom Krom at a little after 7am and sped across the open expanse of the Tonle Sap lake with twenty passengers on board, the majority of whom sat on top of the boat to enjoy the view. Once across the lake and into a labyrinth of river estuaries, we dropped off and picked up a couple of passengers until our path was clogged with weeds and we were forced to find an alternative route. Stopping to ask directions, the boat pilot eventually got us back on track and we joined the Sangke river, with stilt-houses and waving, half-naked children lining the riverbank, arriving at the northern end of the city just after midday. The usual three hour boat trip, which had cost $15, had taken five hours.
Ob Philay, my motodub for the next three days, drove us to the Teo Hotel, my choice at $10 per night with air-con and en suite facilities. An hour later, we followed the Sangke river north out of the city before veering off alongside a much smaller tributary, passing through small shady hamlets and ten kilometres later, we reached the 11th century temple ruin of Ek Phnom. Under an overcast sky, five cheeky young boys dogged our path as we explored the ruins - two raised sandstone sanctuaries with a few carved lintels of good quality still in situ and surrounded by a laterite wall and a moat. As we rested, Philay took the opportunity to tell me about himself - he was 44 years old, married with two children and was a former military policeman in Phnom Penh, who'd vacated his job quickly in the bloody aftermath of the 1997 coup - before we moved onto look at the wall murals in the modern wat next to the ruins. To round off the afternoon, a leisurely ride back to the city was punctuated by short stops at pagodas along the route including the modern wats of Peamek, Kdol, Slaket (where I had a long conversation with a nun, translated by Philay of course), Ruol Daun and Piphit. A walk around the central covered market, a quick stop at Wat Damrei Sar and then a stroll along the riverfront at dusk preceded an evening meal back at the hotel.
Day two in Battambang began with an 8am start as Philay and I headed out along Route 10, the road which ends at the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin. Large trucks and pick-ups kicked up blinding dust as we drove past the Phnom Sampeou and Kamping Puoy (a large man-made reservoir popular with locals) turn-offs, after which the road deteriorated into a series of bone-shaking potholes and craters. Nearly thirty kilometres from Battambang, we reached the village of Snoeung, where a solitary sandstone temple (Wat Snoeung West) stands to the side of the main highway. The sanctuary, built in the late 12th century, has three elaborately carved lintels of exceptional quality. In the shadow of the adjoining modern wat, three large crumbling brick towers form Wat Snoeung East, open to the elements, with one carved lintel and decorated pillars at the entrance to the middle tower.
Retracing our steps back to Sampeou village, a right fork along a sealed road took us to the foot of Phnom Sampeou ('ship mountain') and a flight of 700 steps, winding their way to the top of this rocky outcrop. A strategic battleground between Khmer Rouge and government forces for much of the past decade, the hill has a series of cave grottoes to explore, lined with Buddhist shrines and statues - a 200 riel note bought me a candle from an obliging nun in the absence of a torchlight - before more stairs took us to the main temple complex at the peak. The view over the surrounding countryside was quite breathtaking and Philay pointed out two nearby hills, Phnom Krapeu ('crocodile mountain') and Phnon Banan, our next destination. The modern wat housed colourful wall paintings depicting the life of Buddha, a host of statues and half a dozen friendly monks. Nearby, a large stupa was guarded by a disused artillery field-gun, allegedly surrounded by landmines.
Philay confided that he'd worked in the fields at the foot of Phnom Sampeou during the 'Pol Pot time' after his father (an army colonel) and mother (a teacher) had been taken away and never seen again. Poignantly, he suggested we follow a rocky trail through bushy undergrowth to see a permanent reminder of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge on another part of the hill. Ten minutes later, we reached a small wat, which he explained had been used as a prison and torture centre in the late 1970s. Nearby, a staircase led down to an underground cave where a small wooden platform contained a pile of human remains, victims of the Khmer Rouge who'd been pushed to their deaths from the cave's skylight high above us. Next to the platform was a brightly painted six metre reclining Buddha. Another path took us to a smaller cave which housed a substantial collection of skulls, bones and clothes in a makeshift memorial. This led onto more subterranean caves which Philay assured me contained poisonous snakes at the very least. Our route off the hill was via a gently sloping rocky track, at the bottom of which we stopped for refreshing coconut milk, met some playful children and had a chat with some workmen preparing to carry wooden telegraph poles, by hand, up the 700 steps - a daunting prospect.
Leaving Phnom Sampeou behind us, a straight road built by locals working for a World Food Program 'Food for Work' project took us back in the direction of the Sangke river. Passing a couple of small villages, with stilt-houses on either side of a more-typical bumpy unsealed road, we moto'd through the grounds of an abandoned school to the foot of Phnom Banan, some 25 kms from the city. A steep 150 metre laterite staircase, with decorated naga heads and broken lion statues lying in the grass nearby, led to the 12th century temple on top of the hill. I was accompanied on the climb by Poly and Seun, two local teenagers keen to practice their English, learnt at the pagoda school nearby. At the summit, five laterite and sandstone towers, in varying stages of ruin, make an impressive sight, as does the view from the hill-top. A couple of towers were surrounded by thick vegetation and were difficult to visit, whilst the central shrine housed a batch of modern statues and broken linga pedestals. Sandstone lintels above the doorways to this tower were in good shape, although the beheaded apsaras on the walls had fared less well. A camouflaged artillery gun reminded me that Phnom Banan too, had been on the frontline of the civil war for many years. It was a bumpy ride back to Battambang, running parallel to the Sangke river for much of the way and passing through a host of small rural villages.
Back in the city centre by 2.30pm, Philay dropped me off at the provincial museum on the waterfront. I toured an exhibition of photographs which occupied one building and admired five intricately carved lintels surrounding a second building next door. This allegedly contained a collection of statues and carvings but the Museum Director had gone to Phnom Penh and taken the only key! Well, this is Cambodia afterall. A quick visit to the busy market area and a leisurely stroll around the city's streets allowed me to photograph some of the faded ocre and yellow buildings, with blue wooden window shutters and wrought-iron balconies, a lasting reminder of the city's colonial past as a French Protectorate.
Determined to make the most of my time in Battambang, Philay and I set off at 8am on my third day in the city with Wat Bassaet as our main objective. This 11th century temple is located some twenty kilometres northeast of the city centre, as we crossed the narrow bridge over the Sangke river and out along Route 5, the main road to Phnom Penh. The Govenor's Mansion and the towering ten metre tall golden kneeling figure of King Kron Nhong and his magic staff (legend has it that he threw the wooden staff from Angkor and where it landed is now present day Battambang = 'lost staff') merited photo-stops until after a few kilometres we took a left turn along a shaded road in good condition, running alongside a small creek with wooden houses and no motorized traffic to speak of. After an hour and a brief stop at the main wat in the village of Tapon, we reached the ruined temple of Wat Bassaet, quietly nestled next to a banana grove in the grounds of a nunnery.
As at all the Angkorean sites near Battambang, I was the only tourist in the vicinity. In fact, during my time in the city, I did not see another obvious tourist or traveller, only westerners working for the numerous NGOs that frequent Cambodia's second city, and missionaries. Wat Bassaet has two main sanctuaries, both in a ruined state with one in imminent danger of collapse. Sandstone blocks and lintels lie haphazardly in the bush and the remaining lintels and frontons still in situ, showing carved Rahu monsters, have been painted blue and yellow by the local monks. A laterite pool full of slimy green water was a stone's throw away, as was a series of sandstone pillars, windows and carved blocks, lying scattered throughout the grounds of the nunnery, their living quarters and meditation area. We left after nearly an hour to return to the city by an alternative route, retracing our steps to Tapon village and then onto Norea, where we stopped to inspect a giant seated Buddha just off the main road. The remainder of the journey was along unsealed and bumpy roads, past farmers harvesting rice in the fields and semi-naked men fishing in the roadside ponds.
For the second half of the journey, we moto'd alongside the muddy brown Sangke river and stopped at various modern wats en route. These included Wat Balat, Sophy, Po Khnong and Po Veal, where a small museum was closed for renovation and a group of young monks were fixing an awning and microphone system ready for a party later that day. At the next two stops, Wat Kandal and the colourful Wat Sangker, I was quizzed at length by two friendly young monks eager to practice their remarkably good English on me. The usual questions about my age, nationality, job, marital status, reason for coming to Cambodia, etc were quickly exhausted before we moved onto discussing a myriad of other topics, like Christianity, Buddhism, Angkor, NGOs, girlfriends, music and even football. Thirsty after so much talking, I accepted an offer of tea but politely declined to share their food. Instead, I parted company with Philay and walked back across the river to the market area. The Heng Lim, yesterday's eatery, was closed so I chose an un-named restaurant near the Paradise nightclub for some late lunch and later, an evening stroll amongst the busy stalls, drink-stands and makeshift cafes set up along the riverfront.
I flew back to Phnom Penh in the middle of the following afternoon. I'd been due to leave on the 8.20am RAC flight but was informed on arrival at Veal Baek Chan airport that it had been delayed until later that same afternoon, time of departure unknown. To fill in the time, Philay took me on a ride around the city, I visited the market again where I encountered a handful of amputee beggars for the first time, and returned to my comfortable room at the Teo Hotel, where the Manager, Pheng kindly allowed me access to my old room to rest and snooze. Refreshed and well-fed, the 3.40pm flight, with eleven passengers, two cabin crew and two pilots, lasted forty-five minutes before we touched down at the capital's Pochentong Airport.
Click here to view more photographs of the ancient temples of Battambang.
My travelogue from a return visit to Battambang in 2000 can be read here.
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