Having spent an amazing week in Siem Reap it was sad to leave the friendly buzz of the town behind and head off towards Battambang. The 3 hour drive took us past mile after mile of rice fields, making it clear why this part of Cambodia is the main area for rice production in the country.
It was also clear that local ‘delicacies’ were going to be more common; we stopped by the roadside to buy bamboo-sticky rice and also found these dishes. Being a vegetarian provided a great excuse to avoid trying them!
Before we arrived in Battambang we visited Wat Banan temple. To reach the temple you have to climb 300 or so steps up the hillside. Arriving at the height of the midday sunshine it was a slow walk.
Wat Banan is still used as a Buddhist temple but I did feel a bit disappointed as the quiet temple is quite dilapidated.
We then headed to Wat Sampeau, a beautiful golden modern temple on the top of Phnom Sampeau – a limestone mountain which is considered sacred by Buddhists locally. Being the only high point in the vast plains of rice fields there are fantastic views and really cute Macac monkeys. The beauty of the temple, with its mixed history of Cambodian and Chinese Buddhism, hides the horrific past during the Khmer Rouge where the hillside’s caves were used as ‘killing caves’.
When we finally arrived in Battambang it seemed less of a cosmopolitan town than Siem Reap, and the Khamara hotel reminded me of Soviet buildings, in its style and imposing size. It didn’t help that it had eight huge, shiny and expensive Range Rovers parked outside, and this sign on the back of my bathroom door only added to the feeling that I was staying in a border town frequented by Thai drug barons.
My impression changed the following day, when we cycled through the town centre, along the river with its old French colonial buildings and then on the back roads of town passed small markets and homes. (The oranges – or greens! – were amazingly sweet).
We arrived at the oldest home in the town to see traditional Khmer architecture. The house we visited was 90 years old and had been owned by the same family since it was built. However, its history was incredibly sad, and I found it hard not to cry as the old lady told us her tale with tears in her eyes and her niece translated.
During the Khmer Rouge all homes were taken by the regime and this one was used as a communal kitchen. The old lady’s children left for Phnom Penh with her husband and she fled with other family members to the countryside. After the war she was able to get her home back and her husband returned but without the children; she waited for years for them to come home. Eventually her husband left her to start a new family with her friend.
As I cycled on, thinking about the horrors of the past that people have had to live through, we arrived at the fish market where the overwhelming smell brought me to the present.
As a vegetarian I was immensely grateful for not having to worry about hygiene in the market. Though I have to concede there is very little waste in the process; the leftovers are left to ferment in large barrels to make the famous Khmer fish paste that is added to curries. I can’t describe the smell, only to say that even now just thinking about it I can smell the overwhelming stench. A word of caution that despite it being easy to eat in Cambodia as a vegetarian, you need to check curries don’t have the fish paste still added to them.
Thankfully, the final stop on the bicycles was a small home where we saw a lady making rice paper.