My traditional krama scarf kept only some of the dust out of my nose and mouth as my motorcycle driver raced along the packed dirt road and I was soon covered from head to foot in the fine, grey powder. Jim and his driver had taken an alternate route out of town and were nowhere to be seen. I was on the back of a moto with a driver who spoke no English somewhere in the countryside of rural Cambodia. And I was having the time of my life!
Few travelers make it as far as Battambang, Cambodia. It is definitely not a hot spot on the backpackers “banana pancake” route of SE Asia. A small, dusty, backwater town, Battambang can be reached by a karaoke bus from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap or, as we did, by a very slow boat from Siem Reap.
My driver and I finally caught up to Jim and his driver – and their flat tire, thus creating one of those magical travel, unexpected moments. As we waited at the mechanic, we watched children play with puppies in the dirt, spoke to our drivers, and experienced many a local stopping to watch us, wondering as much about us as we did about them.
Back on the road, we rode towards Phnom Sampeau, the killing caves of the Khmer Rouge and Wat Banan, an Angkor style temple at the top of an impressive flight of stairs. Phnom Sampeau, like all Khmer Rouge sites, is chilling. To stand on the site of mass murder and genocide is eerie and I am always uncomfortable as I feel the souls of those who lost their lives swirling around me. The exact number of people who died here is unknown, but judging by the number of bones and skulls displayed here, I am sure the number is staggering and it seems like a foreign influence in the peaceful countryside.
We did not spend a lot of time at the site. Unlike touring the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, it felt forced and uncomfortable, less about learning from our mistakes of the past and more tourist site. Or, perhaps, my mind and heart were simply overwhelmed by the continuing images of atrocities we had been witnessing throughout the country.
My soul felt lighter as we started up the 300+ steps to Wat Banan, while my legs and moto-sore ass wondered why on earth temples are regularly built on the top of mountains! A dragging, breathless 20 minutes later we arrived at the top to find remarkable vistas over the surrounding jungle. Wat Banan was built around 1050AD and the temple buildings are now in varying states of disrepair but, being a little-visited site, the benefit was the lack of company outside of our young “helpers”.
Back at ground level, we straddled our motos once again and headed off to our final adventure of the day; the Bamboo Railway! The railway is a perfect example of local ingenuity. “Train” is a term I use loosely because it is really simply a bamboo platform mounted on train axles and powered by a go-kart engine. The real humor of taking the train is that whenever you meet trains coming from the opposite direction the drivers meet in the middle to discuss the situation. During the course of our journey we had to dismantle our train once, and once we got to watch as the opposing train removed their platform from the rails in order to let us pass. Rumor has it that the railway was to be closed down in July of this year, but then, the rumor of closure is not a new so it remains to be seen if this classic will continue for future travelers to experience.
On our way back into town the wind streamed through my hair, sunlight flickered off the fields at an ever increasing angle, and I had to pinch myself. We travelers can flit from one moment to the next, from country to country in the blink of a jet stream. And yet, in that place, at that time I realized I was in CAMBODIA. It is so easy to become jaded in our travels. So easy to develop a been there, done that, attitude. Sometimes we need something as simple as dismantling your “train” in the middle of rural Asia to appreciate just how blessed we are to be able to experience so much of the world.
Some places dig deep into your soul. The whole of Cambodia was often a challenge, and our hearts broke daily, but the resilience of the people of Cambodia is alive and well.