BATTAMBANG, CAMBODIA: SIMPLE PLEASURES by RJ Furth (April 2015)
I chose to visit Battambang (bat-tam-bong), Cambodia’s second largest city, because of my quest for the old Southeast Asia. I thought it might be like Chang Mai, Bangkok’s second largest city, in the old days. When I first visited Chang Mai in 1976 it was magical, with lovely old buildings and art galleries and small cottage industries that made silk umbrellas and batik clothing. The food was terrific and the scene very hip with lots of young overland travelers on thei
r way to the Golden Triangle of Thailand, Laos and Burma. Battambang is not Chang Mai. My first impressions as Sandy and I entered the city by tuk tuk (we’re staying at a very cool resort south of the city, a place with 14 bungalows, a nice pool and lush gardens) were of immediate disappointment. The old French buildings are mostly rundown and obscured by electric wires that spiderweb all over the place. Trash is everywhere. (Not unusual in Asia, except for Singapore, which is immaculate.) Although the central market was interesting, we’ve seen far better. Restaurants and bars were pretty unimpressive. As we conclude our four night stay here, though, I can honestly write that we were charmed by Battambang. The five hour white-knuckle drive here and tomorrows eight hour drive to the coast are worth it.
A large part of our enjoyment is staying at the Battambang Resort, owned by Jan from Rotterdam and his wife Phary from Siem Reap, Cambodia. The staff includes Phary’s sister and brother and what appears to be a bunch of her other relatives. Featuring a large pond stocked with fish and gardens packed with tropical fruit trees, the resort has an excellent chef who prepares Cambodian and Western food. They serve the tastiest rice I have ever eaten – rice they grow themselves – and vegetables that are also grown on site. As Jan told me on our first day, the charm of Battambang is not the city itself, but the surrounding area. Indeed, during our three days we visited two local primary schools, an intensely somber monument to the thousands of locals slaughtered by the murderous Khmer Rouge, and half a dozen small, family run businesses. At one a mother and daughter made round discs of rice paper used to make fresh spring rolls. We ate some along with freshly cut mango, a tasty treat. Another business made rice wine that tasted of rice, smoke and herbs such as star anise and cardamom. Yet another made small clay oven/grills that sold locally for a few dollars. Our favorite business made fresh rice noodles from scratch that were purchased by local businesses. Each enterprise employed 2-6 people. One other operation was a crocodile farm that raised crocs for their skin and meat, much desired in Vietnam according to our hostess. All of these businesses were set among local villages, surrounded by houses perched on tall concrete pillars to protect them from seasonal flooding. Sandy and I marveled at the simplicity and ingenuity of these business. Manufacturing methods probably had not changed in decades, possibly centuries. Any business that required heat, as most did except for the crocodile farm, used rice husks, a cheap and abundantly available fuel.
In all of our dealings in Battambang we were struck by the kindness and friendliness of the people. Nearly all suffered dearly under the Khmer Rouge. Our tuk tuk driver lost six family members including his father and grandfather. None have forgotten nor have they forgiven, yet they get on with their lives and appear content. I will write more about the Cambodian people in my next essay, but I will say that Cambodians, like Burmese, are among the nicest people on the planet. Cambodia has it’s problems, including widespread corruption and massive amounts of trash throughout the country. After nearly a week here, though, I can understand why so many Westerners visit and have moved here. Whereas Thailand is incredibly developed and relatively expensive, Cambodia retains and old charm, and Battambang is a magnet for many foreigners who seek an inexpensive and relaxed lifestyle. There is no industrial air pollution in Cambodia, except for the occasional grass and rubbish fire. I don’t think I could ever get used to the trash that is everywhere, but I see the attraction of the city.