Intro to Cambodia: Battambang

17 12 2008

Battambang, Cambodia

So after all of the fun at the border, Gage and I were pretty excited to get to our hotel in Battambang. We had chosen to stay in Battambang because our guidebook had said that despite being Cambodia’s second largest city, it was really laid back. They were 100% correct. This place is more like a sleepy town than a second city. Once we were able to see past the ever-present dust clouds, we were greeted with two story buildings with faded pastel paint and quaint French balconies. Quite a change from the ramshackle buildings of Thailand.

Overlooking Battambang from the Gecko Cafe

Overlooking Battambang from the Gecko Cafe

There isn’t a whole lot to do in Battambang besides wander around, eat some food, and maybe visit some wats. That was fine by us, so we immediately set about the business of eating food. Eating all of the Thai food we could handle was glorious, but Cambodian (Khmer) food was pretty exciting because I had never had it before. The US has just about every type of restaurant you can imagine, but I have yet to encounter a Cambodian restaurant. Luckily the Khmer people did not disappoint. Our first stop was a restaurant in the south of town called Phkay Proek, a nice big pavilion-style restaurant where we were told that we could get a good sized meal at a good price. Following our pattern of eating new and interesting things, Gage ordered himself a Cambodian Milk Tea while I ordered Fresh Milk with Syrup. Gage essential ended up with a milkshake that made a Thai Milk Tea seem like a glass of water. I received my drink in three pieces; a mug, a can, and a tiny shot glass of red liquid. Luckily my waiter read my look of helpless confusion and poured the can of ‘fresh milk’ into my glass, then directed me to add the amount of syrup I want. I added half and took a sip. Bubblegum. Not quite the flavor I was expecting, but not too bad either! I added the rest of the syrup. We then dined on a large serving bowl of Khmer style stew. Unlike Thai or Vietnamese, the Khmers favor sour flavors mixed with strong herbs like bay leaf and tarragon. It was different and delicious.

Bubblegum Milk

Bubblegum Milk

Coming back from the restaurant, we stopped by Wat Tahm Rai Saw to see a modern Khmer temple. I thought we would see some differences, but I didn’t realize how extremely different it would be. We visited Thai wats all the time and had become pretty accustomed to their basic structure and look. Apparently Cambodian architecture wasn’t the only thing to be influenced by the French. The Cambodian temples all have columns surrounding the structure, lending it the look of a Roman style Asian temple. The walls and ceilings are all painted with scenes of Buddha’s life, much like a Catholic church covers every square inch with pictures of Jesus. Surrounding the temple were loads of stupas that were the Khmer version of gravestones. Again, just like the Catholic graveyards, the stupas seemed to be in competition with each other for which one was the biggest and most elaborate. The strangest and biggest difference from Thai temples was the addition of giant sculpted figures from scenes of the Ramayana. They looked like cartoon, paper mache figures that you would find at Disney World. At Wat Kampheng they had a large garden, with giant figures on platforms interspersed among the bushes like rides at a carnival. I felt like I would see Dumbo and the teacup ride at any moment. This was nothing like Thailand’s Buddhism.

Disney-esque Buddhism

Disney-esque Buddhism

The next morning, Gage and I wandered over to The Smoking Pot, a local restaurant where we had signed up for a cooking course in Khmer food. We were joined by our friendly hotel neighbors Fabienne and Jean-Paul (though Jean-Paul opted to skip the course, but wisely showed up at the end to eat Fabienne’s cooking), and another nice French couple. Vannek, the restaurant owner and cooking school teacher, led us out to the market to buy the various ingredients, explaining the names and purposes along the way. We watched as he purchased a fish and the lady pulled out a writhing black fish and smashed it on the head a couple of times until it stopped wiggling. He also purchased some pork from a lady seated atop a table scattered with various slabs of meat that had probably never seen an hour of refrigeration. Not quite up to our US health code standards.

The local butcher

The local butcher

We then went back to the restaurant where we chopped, pounded and wok-fried our various dishes. We prepared the Khmer classic dish fish amok, a spicy pork stir fry, and some yummy Khmer sour soup. Later that night, as Fabienne, Jean-Paul, Gage and I at dinner at a very packed Smoking Pot, we teased Vannek that we would give him a very good rate for helping out in the kitchen if he needed it. As per usual, he just gave us a sly smile, barely looking up from his order pad, and said, “I don’t think so.” As one of the millions of people who were affected by the Khmer Rouge and civil war, Vannek had grown up in a Thai refugee camp. When the fighting died down, his family moved to Battambang and he started to work with tourists. After hearing foreigners constantly compare Khmer food with Thai, he decided to open a restaurant and cooking school to show people the difference. Thank goodness for cultural pride.

Cooking at the Smoking Pot

Cooking at the Smoking Pot

Our last day in town, we ate some breakfast at the wonderful Gecko Cafe, where we chowed down on fresh food and fruit shakes while looking at Battambang over the 2nd story balcony. We only discovered it on our last day in Battambang, which was a bummer, because the owner Eric Beamer has put together a great operation. Not only does he have great food, but part of the restaurant has a massage area where you can get a foot rub while sipping a drink, and downstairs he rents motorbikes at great rates. As if that wasn’t enough, he also provides free wi-fi, which proved to be the fastest connection in town. He and his wife opened Gecko several months ago in order to help out some of the locals. They hire the sweetest, nicest Cambodian girls you’d ever meet, help them to learn English and customer service, and pay them about double of what they would get elsewhere. He said that they only hire those who are in need, such as orphan street kids, or those who are the sole breadwinner for their (often large) family. In a country that has been through hell, it’s nice to meet people like Eric who are doing what they can to help.

Fast internet makes me happy.

Fast internet makes me happy.

After breakfast we hired two moto drivers to take us on a short countryside tour. We visited a rice paper village where a team of three people per house would churn out about 2500 sheets of rice paper per day (and made me crave spring rolls). We then drove out to Ek Phnom, a ruined temple similar to what one would find in Angkor. We crawled over fallen stones and wandered the short halls of the main pagoda. It was a nice introduction to what we would see in Siem Reap, but I’m sure it would underwhelm anyone who had already seen Angkor. On the way back to the city our driver took the scenic route, for which I can’t thank him enough. We drove over rough dirt roads bordered by rice patties and distant palm trees. We saw massive water buffaloes standing in swampy waters and stilted houses with people splayed out in hammocks beneath. The village kids would see us coming and run out to the side of the road yelling “Hello!” and reaching out their hands for high fives. It was like driving through a movie set. For a city with nothing to do, it sure kept us busy.

For more pictures from Battambang, click here.

Suggestions:

  • Visit Wat Kampheng in the southern part of town where you’ll see a crazy Buddhist garden and Khmer style temple.
  • The cooking course at Smoking Pot is $8 per person and you just need to show up a day in advance to sign up. You’ll cook three courses and the course goes from 9:30am – around 2pm. Don’t eat breakfast, arrive hungry.
  • You can find Gecko Cafe on the opposite corner of the street from the Paris Hotel. Motorbikes are for rent downstairs and the cafe is on the second floor. You can find a menu on their website.
  • The moto drivers outside of Hotel Royal speak great English and give countryside tours. Expect to have one person on a bike plus a guide and pay around $8 per person for a full day. Be sure to ask about extra charges like entrance fees to the various sites so that you bring a proper amount of money along. Also bring some change for any roadside snacks (like bamboo sticky rice). There are many more sights than what we chose to see, so ask for full details and choose what you like.
  • The Sunrise Coffeehouse next to Hotel Royal serves up some nice, hearty baked goods as well as iced coffee with a brilliant twist – they make the ice cubes out of coffee. If your looking to buy or sell used books, they have a good selection for $2-$4 depending on whether you bring a book to sell.
  • If you see it, pick up a copy of The Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide. It has a good section on Battambang and a great map. Though none of the streets are labeled in Battambang, with that map you’d be hard pressed to get lost.
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3 responses

19 12 2008
Sophat

Although Cambodian, I’ve been to Battambang only once. Nice description. On the other hand, I’ve visited a Cambodian restaurant in the US recently, this one is in New York (http://sophat.wordpress.com/2008/12/18/a-khmer-restaurant-in-new-york-city/).

19 12 2008
dad

What with multiple bus rides, long riverboat trips, and riding as passengers on motorbikes without helmets, Russian roulette would probably seem absolutely boring to you two.

On the other hand, it all sounds completely enthralling. And again, the way you present your experiences makes reading about them all that much more interesting.

Gage, I always thought your wearing your hair short suited you and still think so, but being partial to long hair (must be a ‘60’s thing), I’d offer my opinion that long hair definitely suites you as well.

Wish I were there too. Enjoy.

3 12 2009
Soph

What is the living standard of Battambang province?

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