Battambang provides relief from Phnom Penh bustle

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Wat Sampeou lies approximately 12 kilometers from Battambang at the top of a high hill and well worth the long, hot and steep climb.  (The temple has various spellings.) 

Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia, yet it feels much like a one-horse town.

As Wikipedia puts it (why write when others have done it for me?):

Founded in the 11th century by the Khmer Empire, Battambang is well known for being the leading rice-producing province of the country. For nearly 100 years, it was a major commercial hub and provincial capital of Siamese province of Inner Cambodia (1795-1907), though it was always populated by Khmer with a mix of ethnic Vietnamese, Lao, Thai and Chinese. Still today Battambang is the main hub of the Northwest connecting the entire region with Phnom Penh and Thailand, and as such it’s a vital link to Cambodia.

The city is situated by the Sangkae River, a tranquil, small body of water that winds its way through Battambang Province providing its nice picturesque setting. As with much of Cambodia, the French Colonial architecture is an attractive bonus of the city. It is home to some of the best preserved French colonial architecture in the country.

Walking along the street doesn’t require the daring and danger of traveling by any means in Phnom Penh.  The city’s Pub Street is the most pallid of reminders of the cacophonous and crowded version in Siem Reap, which it tries to imitate as a tourist lure.  Tuk-tuk drivers and motodops don’t continually hail pedestrians in the hope of a fare.

There is little traffic when the sun is down.  The phrase about rolling up the sidewalks at night must have been invented for Battambang.

Welcome to Battambang.

Welcome to Battambang.  (The design of the farm tractors that we saw everywhere intrigues me.)

Its air of relative relaxation — relative, to be sure — makes the city of more than 250,000 well worth the approximately 300-kilometer (180-mile) journey of five to seven hours, depending on the mode, from Phnom Penh, which some estimate as having a population of 2 million.

The prettiest street with evidence of French colonization.

The prettiest street, with barely surviving evidence of French colonization above the shops.

The French colonized Battambang in 1907, and graceful remnants of that nation’s architectural influences add to the ambiance (along with regret at how it has been bastardized).  Another contributor is what looks like a lazy river.  Called a stream in Cambodian and usually transliterated either as Sankae or Sanker, it divides the east and west portions of the city.

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From the east bank of the Sankae waterway and later from a bridge that links both sides of Battambang, I spotted a dozen or so youngsters having what appeared to be a spontaneous swim farther along the same street pictured above.  During rainy season, water swells over the greenery. 

My exceptionally accommodating traveling companion on this trip was my good friend Amanda.  We arrived after a three-hour bus ride from Siem Reap to spend three days in the city, which offers little in the way of diversion for a nation’s second-biggest municipality.  For example, I couldn’t locate an acceptable gym.

We elected to skip the Bamboo train tourist attraction, the virtues of which escape me, though admittedly at a distance.

However, one thing we wanted to experience eluded us because of our timing: a performance of the highly regarded Phare circus, which continues a historic tradition in Cambodia and adheres to a commitment to training.  Still, just exploring at leisure and dining well there — French, Indian and Khmer — was a pleasure.

My room at Seng Hout hotel.

My room at the Seng Hout hotel.

The rooftop terrace afforded pleasant views of city with few relatively tall buildings.

The hotel’s rooftop terrace afforded pleasant views of a city with few relatively tall buildings.

In our decent hotel, Amanda’s room was $12 and mine, $15 alas, because I unknowingly agreed to air conditioning even though I suspected — correctly, it turned out — that even a fan would be too much in the middle of the night during our cool season.

If you squint, you can see Wat Sampeau beyond the end of a long dusty road.

If you squint, you can see Wat Sampeou perched on a cliff beyond the end of a long dusty road.

A highlight was the day we bicycled deep into the country to Wat Banan and Wat Sampeou (shown at the top), covering nearly 40 kilometers through hamlets, sometimes on highways and way too long between the two temples on the dusty and rutted dirt road in the photo just above.

Stairs leading to Wat Banan

Some, only some, of the stairs leading to Wat Banan

Like many Buddhist temples, Wat Banan was constructed high on hills, very high.  It required climbing up and then, of course, down many dizzying flights of stairs.  At the edge of a cliff, Wat Sampeou meant a long winding walk with switchbacks to the top of what I hyperbolically have to call a mountain.

In each case, at minimum the views paid off.  Although Banan is pretty much in ruins, not so Sampeou, as you can see.

Withal, it was hard to keep far from mind the genocide that the Khmer Rouge conducted in the 70s.

Cavern with ossuary down crude steps.  It provides access to even deeper recesses.

Cavern with ossuary down crude steps in the killing caves. The space provides access to even deeper recesses.  The seated man volunteers as a caretaker day after day but receives contributions.

A small number skeletal remains of Khmer Rouge carnage, which claimed more than 1.7 lives.

A small number of skeletal remains of Khmer Rouge carnage, which claimed more than 1.7 million lives through starvation, exhaustion, torture and murder.

Much of Phnom Penh’s population was forced to Battambang Province, among other rural areas such as Kampot, to labor on farms in horrendous conditions.  When it was all over, in the late 70s, many of the survivors had no other way to get back than on foot.

We had lunch at one of the common open-air restaurants on bare ground at the foot of Banan. We learned from the proprietor that she had uncovered an arm bone and, from time to time, other human fragments.

Looking up from the killing caves

Looking up from inside the killing caves

Halfway up the road to Wat Sampeou, there is a detour to a small temple in which, according to a guide I overheard, the Khmer Rouge killed their fellow citizens.  Then, they dumped the bodies in what are called the killing caves deep underground.

I made my way down crude steep steps to bear witness to the incomprehensible horrors of the Pol Pot regime.  With the photos here, you can do so as well.

I am sorry to leave you on a grim note and so have added a number of less depressing photos below.

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Near Wat Sampeou itself

A boy makes the inevitable hard choice of a treat in the Battambang's wholesale food market.

A girl makes the inevitable hard choice of a treat in the Battambang’s wholesale food market, and . . .

. . . the vendor hoists her burden when the transaction is complete.

. . . the vendor hoists her burden when the transaction is complete.

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This game resembling, or perhaps being, bocce drew a boisterous audience (of bettors?).

This game resembling, or perhaps being, bocce drew a boisterous audience (of bettors?).

On the way out of Battambang.

On the way out of Battambang proper, banana trees exemplify the lush vegetation we encountered.

Monks near the peak where Wat Sampeau glistens.

Monks near the peak where Wat Sampeou stands.

Part of the Sampeau complex, also visible at the top.

Part of the Sampeou complex, also visible in the top photo.

E-mail: malcolmncarter@gmail.com

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