Thursday, July 20, 2017

July 19 – Baddambang

By 8 am we were fed, watered, checked out of Indra Porak, and loaded onto a bus headed for the town of Baddambang. Siem Reap is a great place, buzzing with energy, so we were sad to leave, but excited at the prospect of exploring a new town. I think our only regret was that we didn’t find the Pot and Pan restaurant earlier.

We were braced for a five hour bus ride, but it less than four, and the trip was good. We saw a little of the Cambodian countryside, and a lot of small villages, which I am sure had their own particular charms, but all we could really see from the road were beaten up houses with plenty of garbage strewn about. What is beautiful, though, are all the Cambodian children, always smiling, waving and having fun. Ana saw two little boys, holding hands, wearing no pants, smiling and watching the bus pass by, and Angela noticed a group of schoolchildren, wearing impeccably clean school uniforms, walking along the highway, possibly on their way home for lunch.

We arrived in Baddambang to a throng of tuk-tuk drivers holding up “Tuk-tuk – 50 cents anywhere!” signs and they mobbed the passengers as we departed the bus. After collecting our bags, and thoughts, we settled on two of them (Mr. Blue and Mr. Sam) and were whisked off into this unknown city. It was a short ride to the King Fey Hotel, which was to be our home for two nights, and it looked to be a decades old, classy hotel, but perhaps a bit run down. We checked in and took the elevator up to our rooms, which we were pleased to discover had large balconies overlooking the river and downtown, great beds, and antique mahogany furniture that weighed a ton and would have fetched thousands for a single chair in an antique shop back home.

Our first order of business, as it always is in a new place, is to start wandering around, so we gathered our forces and set out walking. We almost immediately found a temple so went for a wander around the grounds. The various wats and pagodas were a little beaten up and didn’t look well maintained; similarly the grounds were quite messy. There were a number of monks wandering around who paid us no attention, so we assumed they were okay with our loitering.

We continued across the bridge into town and turned left, looking for a place to have lunch. This busy street let us into a gritty, commercial area with a never-ending string of businesses such as tire shops, mechanics, scooter dealers, metal fabricators, hardware stores, phone shops, welders, housewares, and so on. We were feeling like Baddambang was going to be a major disappointment, but after changing direction, things started to improve and we could feel like we were getting closer to the action. Our first hit was a street-side restaurant called “Madison” run by a French chap who coaxed us in with promises of the best crepes in Cambodia. We didn’t need much convincing as we were hot, sweaty, and in dire need of liquid refreshments.

We enjoyed a cold pitcher of beer and a decent lunch and got the lowdown on Baddambang from the charismatic owner, who used to be a local celebrity; he would dress up as a superhero called “Pancake Man” and walk around the streets making crepes for people on the portable grill strapped to his midsection, fueled by a propane cylinder slung across his back. He dug out a small stack of old, wrinkled, faded photographs of himself in costume entertaining children, and showed them to us proudly.

After lunch and fruit crepes for dessert, the kids decided they had seen enough and walked together back to the hotel to go for a swim. The four of us continued exploring and finally found the “cool” area with French style architecture, restaurants, and neat shops, although most of them were closed – probably since nobody with any sense wanders around in the blistering afternoon Cambodian sun. We passed a restaurant called Pomme and the English owner, Olly Smith, came right out, introduced himself and asked our names. He gave us a rundown of the area and said he would be open all night if we wanted to come back later for drinks or food. I had a strong feeling we would.

The ladies found a huge, covered market so we told them they could meet us at the first beer-serving establishment down the street. Now this strategy had worked for Tony and I at least a dozen times already, so imagine our surprised when we walked for a whole block and did not find such a place. Instead, we dipped into the scabby fringe of the market and found a vendor displaying a sign for Leo beer. It was an older lady who was extremely short, had a malfunctioning leg, and some sort of condition that had left her body covered in large warts. And, of course, she wore a huge smile on her face. She told us her name, and the name of her grandson and we returned with ours. She gave us two plastic chairs to sit on and we asked her for two beers. We didn’t see her speak or motion to anybody, and yet a couple of minutes later a young boy came running from across the street carrying a thin plastic bag containing two cans of Leo beer and two straws. He handed them to us as we handed her the requested price of one dollar. We cracked open our cans and sat down on our little plastic chairs to observe the world happening around us. Here is what it looked like.

The grandson of the owner was sitting on the table where she was also selling these miniature candy apple treats, and he slammed his whole hand into the syrup she dipped the apples in. Fortunately, he could not wipe the sticky hand on his pants, because he was wearing no pants, and he was whisked away by a young girl and taken to the nearest water source. Two other children were standing nearby and started laughing. The ceiling of the market was just over six feet high, creating a closed-in sensation, like being in a cave with our fellow cavemen and caveladies. Across from us and to the right was a jewelry vendor, and to the left was a food vendor but we couldn’t really tell what he was cooking. A steady stream of people poured into the market and were challenged by a current of people heading the opposite direction, creating a dance-like shuffle, but one in which everybody got to where they wanted to go. From deep within the guts of the market emerged a man driving a scooter, swerving around people, carrying a smallish, portable Buddhist temple, wrapped in plastic, strapped onto the back of his bike. A lady a few feet away from us had a charcoal fire burning and was cooking chicken skewers on it, as well as chopping vegetables on a board, while sitting on the dirt floor. An old man, a young lady, a teenager, and a young child, all sat around her on wooden blocks as she served them small plates of food containing the grilled chicken, sticky rice and fresh vegetables, and they all ate silently. The food looked and smelled delicious. A different man on a scooter came rolling in from the street and tucked the bike tight in behind the jewelry vendor and then disappeared into the bowels of the market. We kept hearing cat sounds, but couldn’t figure out where they were coming from. Soon, a little kitten came walking down the row in front of us, like he was patrolling the market. His little buddy wasn’t too far behind him, also patrolling. Both had cropped tails, but one had a slightly longer one than the other, making him feel superior. Looking around we saw concrete, dirt, steel, cloth fabric, wood, tarps and poles. We saw girls, boys, moms, dads, and grandparents - sometimes all on the same motorcycle. In fact, another scooter came ripping through with a mom driving, an older child in front of her, and her three year standing barefoot on the seat behind her, holding onto her mom’s shoulders, laughing wildly. We watched them disappear into the smear of traffic outside, and down a road that had a thousand signs hanging from all levels, written in Kymer, Chinese, Thai and English.

“That’s what I love about Asia,” I said to Tony, as we finished up the last sip of our beers, and noticed the girls approaching us from one of the market pathways. “All you have to do is sit down and watch the action unfold around you.”  We thanked our hostess, joined the girls and continued our wanderings.

As the mayor of any small to medium-sized city in Canada, my first action would be to send my entire staff of urban planners to Baddambang to see how they have designed their town centre (actually, it was the French who designed it - many decades before when Cambodia was a French protectorate). Baddambang is a river town, and the river slices it neatly into two. Adjacent to the river, on both sides, is a strip of a messy, natural growth area, full of plants and trees and river grass, left to grow wildly and no doubt serving as a natural buffer for the river, moderating the river’s droughts and floods. Next to this runs a pedestrian only boulevard that is likely more than ten metres wide. This boulevard contains a tiled pedestrian walkway, a long line of grassy parks and playgrounds, well maintained exercise equipment, and many, many large trees. In two spots we found reflexology walks, which are poured walkways with two or three concentric, circular paths containing small stones sticking up on end, providing a surface meant to be trod upon with bare feet, giving participants the benefits of a rigorous reflexology treatment. The outside ring contained the most painful rocks, but the paths got less painful the closer you got to the middle. We did a bare foot walk around the outside and I actually made it (but needed a few breaks). The exercise and playground equipment was all being used, as were the nice sitting benches installed liberally throughout and there were people everywhere, making use of everything. Beside the boulevard was a narrow, two lane roadway that was fairly congested with vehicle traffic – mostly scooters – and the traffic moved slowly but steadily, yet not fast enough to seriously injure anybody that may have the misfortune of being struck. Having so much activity around a street naturally and automatically reduces traffic speed because drivers instinctually know it is not safe to drive fast, so there is no need for speed limit signs. This lies in stark contrast to our downtown streets in Canada that are built so wide they look and feel like race tracks and unwittingly invite drivers to drive well beyond the posted limits, simply because it feels perfectly safe to do so. But God help the hapless pedestrian who stumbles out into the road and gets hit.

Beside the traffic street were blocks of flats with shops on the bottom and residences on top and in behind. There was a large sidewalk in front, and many spots had some sort of sidewalk feature like seating, tables, food carts or display boards. On the other side of the river – the less busy side – was a similar boulevard, but once we walked over there (passing several boys fishing from the bridge) we found a flurry of citizen activity. In one section there was a full band playing music and street performers putting on a show, for tips, for a huge number of bystanders. In another part there was a large crowd of people doing aerobics and, though we didn’t walk down far enough to see it, we were told that every afternoon dozens upon dozens of people do some sort of pattern dance called the Madison.
In short, the place was electric. And this was a Wednesday afternoon. What do most Canadian cities look like on a Wednesday afternoon at 5 pm? We have a few things to learn.

We worked our way back to the hotel, found the kids, and had a chill-out session for a couple of hours. But then we headed right back into town to see how it fared after dark. Turns out, it was comparatively slow. The downtown area was lit up and there were a lot of people around, and a smallish night market, but many of the shops were closed, and even many of the restaurants, and it was only about 9pm. We learned later that during the high season the level of nighttime activity increases substantially. So we returned to Pomme – the restaurant we passed earlier in the day –  to take advantage of our new friend Olly’s hospitality and hear more of his outstanding, customized, hand-cut playlist of fine music. He was indeed glad to see us, and even remembered all of our names. There we played some awesome board games, which was made better by a table setup whereby the legs were mostly cut off allowing you to sit on the floor. The restaurant and bar were having a rather slow night so Olly hung out with us all evening, giving us the ins and outs of running an international hosteling empire (he has one in Thailand and this one in Cambodia) and his plans for the expansion of Pomme. He also treated us to a poetry reading from his recently published book of poetry called “Pooems”. That is, poems all about poo. I’d only known the guy for a day and I felt like taking him home to join the Olson family. By the end of the night we had eaten some great food, drank a lot of Anchor beer, tried a new French drink called “Pastis”, listened to some kick-ass music, and Olly had promised to get Magnus the name of a shop in Bangkok that sold Magic the Gathering cards.

And that was our first day in Baddambang.

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