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 for the day. 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.

After zipping through the streets of Baddambang the level of roadside development started to thin slightly, and soon we were in the countryside. Our first stop was in front of 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, nice morning snack.

The temple turned out to be a memorial site for the thousands of Cambodians that were killed here during the four years of Kymer Rouge rule in the 70’s. Around the memorial were depictions of some of the atrocities that were committed by the Khymer 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 in 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 or worked and starved to death. Mr. Blue’s father nearly died of starvation at his lowest point, 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 large paid that had 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 – it was pretty neat. We also held a larger one, but not before the owner used an elastic to hold its mouth shut. With 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 mostly still crocs, many with their mouths permanently hung open, showing off their sharp 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 nearly ensured, but the successful croc slithered off and found a nice quiet place in the corner of the space 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. There were 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, and then fins, remove guts and then butterfly them into the required shape for drying. There was also a large vat of slowly putrifying fish, which would be used as the base for a fish sauce, though the entire process takes several months. A Toyota Camry  pulled up across the street and they started unloading fish. But not just from the trunk. All the seats had been removed, except for the drivers 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 doors of the car onto the ground and slowly puddling up, but likely evaporating quickly in the hot sun. “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 actually 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 wind 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 that 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 have to dip it into water for a brief moment, which instantly softens it and allows you to roll it up. When we arrived there were 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 fish sauce. Delicious.

By now it was around 1:00 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 part 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 8 including a few beers was less than thirty bucks.

After lunch we walked over to one of the busy streets to get tuk tuks and Magnus the scavenger found a ten thousand dollar riel note (about $2.50 US) so with his windfall he treated us to the tuk tuk ride back to the hotel. We had an afternoon chill out there and were back on the road at 3:30 sharp with our fine drivers.

In 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. 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 all of the people who died there. It was a chilling site, sad, and unbelievable. But it is good they keep these places available to the public as a reminder of the terrible things that happened there. We had hired a guide to take us up the mountain and show us around the sites and he did a great job explaining everything.

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. We were all seated at a roadside across from a sheer cliff with a big cave opening. We were told the bats usually come out around 6pm, and at exactly 6pm we saw a few bats starting to flutter out of the cave, which was 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’m thinking there must have been at least hundred bats per second coming out. So for twenty minutes that makes 120,000 bats, and they were still pouring out when we left. The bats would split off into groups, creating contorting, dancing clouds of batness 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 4am. But we would not be coming back to witness their triumphant return.

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 Madison’s the day before, was in the restaurant with a guy, so we sat near them and struck up a conversation. He was an American named David, on a souls-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 9pm Stella was sleeping on the floor, so we decided to call it a night and hired a tuk-tuk to give us a ride 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?

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