Friday, July 21, 2017
July 20 – Day Tripping Around Baddambang
Yesterday we hired Mr. Blue and Mr. Sam to tour us around the Battambang countryside today. They arrived promptly at 9:30, which gave us plenty of time in the morning to lounge around a bit and have a big breakfast at the hotel. It turned out that Mr. Sam couldn’t make it, so he sent his uncle (let’s call him Uncle Sam), who would be the Olson’s guide and driver for the day. Mr. Blue would chauffeur the Henriques.
After zipping through the streets and toward the outskirts of Baddambang in our tuk-tuks, the level of roadside development thinned steadily, and soon we were in the countryside. Our first stop was a large temple complex, but before entering, Mr. Blue introduced us to a roadside vendor who was selling these thick bamboo rods full of…something. He picked one up and showed us that inside was a dessert item of sticky rice, beans and coconut milk. We purchased one to share and peeled back strips of the bamboo to expose the firm rice mixture. It was good – chewy, not too sweet, and a very filling morning snack.
The temple was actually a memorial site for the thousands of Cambodians that were killed here during the four years of Khmer Rouge rule in the late 70’s. Carved into the concrete base of the memorial were depictions of the atrocities that were committed by the Khmer Rouge during this time – throats being slashed with palm leaves, decapitations, women being raped, babies being killed, cannibalism, torture. It was worthy of a horror novel but, sadly, very real. Also, high in the tower of the memorial was a collection of skulls and bones that were reclaimed from a nearby well where they used to throw in the murder victims. Mr. Blue was born just after this era, but he told us a story about his father, who was a monk at the time, and monks, along with educated people and the elite such as doctors, teachers, administrators, artists, musicians, property owners and business people, were systematically executed (if they were lucky) or worked and starved to death. At his most desperate point, Mr. Blue’s father nearly died of starvation, and was only able to survive by eating the arm of one of the dead.
From this sobering start we continued onto a crocodile farm. Upon entering we were shown a small concrete pad that held a dozen freshly hatched crocodiles, and we were invited to pick them up and hold them. Most of us dove in and grabbed a small handful of lizard and fortunately they did not yet have teeth. We also held a larger one, but not before the owner used an elastic to clamp its mouth shut. Within the compound were something in the neighbourhood of 700 crocodiles, all raised commercially to be turned into purses, boots, jackets, or pizza toppings. There were at least a dozen separate concrete enclosures and we were able to walk across the top of them and look down to see the motionless crocs, many with their mouths permanently frozen open, showing off their menacing teeth. At one point a dopey chicken somehow got on top of the enclosure and dropped into the cage and was snapped up by one of the crocs in an instant. A croc fight ensured, but the croc that caught the chicken managed to hold onto it, and escaped into the slimy green water with his prize and later slithered out and into a nice quiet corner of the enclosure to gloat over his good fortune.
The next stop along the way was a fish processing facility. We could smell it well before we got there, and were unsurprised to find hundreds of butterflied fish lying out on drying racks in the hot sun. A chicken stood atop of one of the racks and pecked away at the fish, unmolested. There was a covered fish processing area that had many workers in an assembly line fashion, bringing in buckets of fish, using cleavers to hack off gills and fins, removing the guts, and then butterflying them into the required shape for drying. There was also a large vat of slowly putrefying fish, which we learned would sit for several months before being turned into fish sauce. A Toyota Camry pulled up across the street and several of the workers hustled over and started unloading fish. But not just from the trunk. All the seats had been removed except for the driver seat, and the fish were literally piled up to the windows. The lads pulled the fish out of the car and heaved them into buckets to await processing. Most of them were in leaky bags, but many were loose in the car so it took a while to get them all. Towards the end, we could see a steady stream of fish slime and guts oozing out of the rust holes and the door cracks of the car, and onto the ground, slowly puddling up, but evaporating quickly in the hot sun. I can just imagine the driver’s first day on the job - “Hey, the good news with your new position in the company, is that you get a company car! The bad news? Well, it’s the fish car.” Mr. Blue told us that the fish had to be driven from a fish farm that was about two hours away. Just imagine.
Our next stop was the rice wine maker. A family had set up a small processing facility for making rice wine. It was nothing fancy – some wood burning ovens, evaporators, and small vats with rice wine dripping out into buckets. There were two jars to sample from; one with rice wine soaked in grapefruits and one with rice wine soaked in cobra snakes. I tried both. The fruit wine was boozy, but drinkable. The snake wine was strong, harsh, and gave me an instant erection, just like Mr. Blue said it would. We got the hell out of there.
The final stop for the morning was the rice paper maker. Again, a small, family run facility where they husked rice and then turned the grains into a powder which was made into a floury paste and then cooled, crepe-style, on a hot pan. These were extremely thin and put out on bamboo racks to dry. After drying they become hard, so to use them for making spring rolls, you must first dip it into water for a brief moment, which instantly softens it and allows you to roll it up. When we arrived, there had been at least two dozen bicyclists there, so we had to wait a while for our tour, and while we waited we sampled the raw and fried spring rolls, along with their special dipping sauce. Delicious.
By now it was around 1 pm so our drivers took us back into town and dropped us off at a restaurant, with the agreement that they would pick us up at our hotel at 3:30 for the second leg of our trip – to see the killing caves and great nightly bat exodus. The restaurant they dropped us at was one that we hadn’t previously seen, and the food was cheap and decent. It’s still hard to get over how inexpensive things are here – lunch for eight including a few beers was less than thirty bucks.
After lunch, we walked over to one of the busy streets to hire tuk-tuks and Magnus the scavenger found a 10,000 riel note (about $2.50 US) so with his windfall he treated us to the tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel. There, we had an afternoon chill out, and were back on the road at 3:30 sharp with our fine drivers, Mr. Blue and Uncle Sam.
During the morning, all of our stops were north of the city, but in the afternoon we headed south. It took about 30 minutes in the tuk-tuk to reach our destination, and along the way we pulled over at a roadside stall to check out the grilled rats. I won’t even say I was tempted – if I ate a grilled rat Ana wouldn’t touch me for weeks, or perhaps ever.
The Killing Caves are a place where the Kymer Rouge used to execute people and dump their bodies. We hired a guide to drive us up the mountain and show us around the sites and he did a great job explaining everything. There were three caves; one in which they threw the dead babies and children, one in which they tossed the older people, and one for the adults. Years after those dark days had past, the government exhumed thousands of skulls and bones and put some of them into a small pagoda as a memorial to the many people who died there. It was a chilling site - sad and unbelievable. But it is good they have kept these places available to the public as a reminder of the terrible things that happened during the Kymer Rouge era.
After the caves, we moved a little bit further up the mountain to see a grouping of large, golden temples. There were also a lot of tourists, monks, and monkeys, and one of the monkeys was looking for a bit of afternoon delight (a.k.a – Monkey Bang Bang) so got to work on his tree-mate in full view of us lucky visitors. Ana videotaped the whole thing - she is such a pervy.
At last, the time came to see the bats. We finished up our tour of the caves and temple and drove back down the hill and got seated at one of the dozens of tables set up for the evening bat spectacle. There were, of course, many vendors selling cold drinks and likely a couple of hundred people, all seated along the roadside facing towards the opposite side of the road, which was flanked by a sheer cliff and a sizeable cave opening above. We were told the bats usually come out around 6 pm, and at exactly 6 pm we saw a few bats starting to flutter out of the cave, which signaled the start of the tsunami. For the twenty minutes that we stayed, a steady stream of bats exploded out of the cave. Although it is pretty hard to estimate, I would guess there must have been at least hundred bats per second coming out, making a total of 120,000 bats that we saw, and they were still pouring out when we left. As they exited, the bats would split off into groups, creating dancing clouds of bats over the nearby fields and forests. It was extraordinary, and unlike anything I have ever seen. Our tuk-tuk driver told us that the bats leave at this time to go out into the forest to feed, and then they all stream back into the cave at around 4 am.
We drove back into town and were dropped off near Olly’s Pomme restaurant, and our host Olly once again greeted us warmly. We went in, got seated (on the floor) at a table and got the games out and started playing. Right away we noticed the French girl Veronica we had met at Restaurant Madison the day before, as she was waving at us and seated with a guy towards the back of the bar, so we sat near them and struck up a conversation. He was an American named David, on a soul-searching, worldwide mission after quitting his job in California three months previous. We learned that Veronica was a teacher and had worked at many French schools around the world, and was on a short break before starting her new contract in Laos.
We had a few drinks, ordered a bit of food, and played a game or two while chatting with our new friends. By 9 pm Stella was sleeping on the floor, so we decided to call it a night and hired a tuk-tuk to take us home. I believe he may have been the slowest tuk-tuk in Baddambang as his little motorbike could barely pull the two person tuk-tuk that the four of us were packed into, and the rest of the vehicles were whizzing by us as we crawled down the busy road. But I was glad we had chosen this particular underdog tuk-tuk, because who doesn’t like cheering for the underdog?