‘Wats’ in Cambodia(?) Day 123: Home to $1.50 Beds and $2.50 Apples

After rounding up the remainder of my stuff, I hopped onto my 6:30 am pickup transit so that I could board the 7:30 am bus to Battambang. At the rest stop, I ate as the locals ate eating a bowl of ramen pack noodles (literally taken from a vacuum packed plastic bag) with beef and a dark broth all topped by fried crispy onions and cilantro leaves. I added some chilies and their sriracha sauce but it is far too much like ketchup compared to the sauce my veins might as well flow with. Khmer cooking is seriously lacking on the spice meter when compared to my Thai friends just over the border. Friendamigo (my Thai Couchsurfing host) explained and pointed out on a map where the sriracha sauce originated from in a small city southeast of Bangkok. As the bus pulled to a stop in Battambang, I could see many men pushing and shoving to jockey for position when they saw a white faced man in the bus. I dismissed all the drivers telling them I would be walking, which was my every intention since the stop was supposedly close to the center of the second largest city in Cambodia. As I reached the street corner attempting to figure out my location, a tuk tuk driver with one of the best English I have heard from an Asian while here (plus an Australian / U.K. English accent to boot) approached me for a ride. He offered to take me to the bat caves, killing cave, and the bamboo train (which I debated seeing) this afternoon for $6 as it was a share with two random girls that he already arranged with. After deciphering and weeding through the potential bullshit, I took him for his word that the hostels and guesthouses were further away than previously surmised plus I wanted to see the caves anyways but more preferably by my own steam on a motorbike. He took me to a guesthouse with beds cheaper than I thought could be possible. At Tomato Guesthouse and Backpacker Hostel, I got a bed in a dorm with a nearby fan (an absolute necessity) for the all too low price of $1.50. No, that is not a typo! Regardless of the potential quality of the room and bathroom, I had to stay at least one night to check that box off. After settling and before the driver would come back to pick me up, I went in search of a quick and easy lunch at the nearby market. The market had so much energy with the constant flow of motorbike traffic and locals interacting with the shopkeepers who were selling their wares, fruits, veggies, meats, and beyond. Beyond the energy, the sheer variety of produce lit up the otherwise dirty street with a full spectrum of colors. While I ate my $1.50 noodles, chicken, and veggie stir fry (same price as the room to remind you), I saw a small child getting placed into a regular sized bucket with his waist just above the open top of his ‘tub’ as his mother poured water over him for a bath. Southeast Asia has not failed to disappoint with the numerous accounts of randomness that I would never see at home. Sometimes I more or less need to blink a few times and take a second look to be sure whether I saw that right. After all the salt and mainly oil from that meal, I needed some fruit to change the pace. Craving an apple of all things, I peered at the display on offer. When I pointed out a four pack of large apples, the guy said 10,000 riel ($2.50 which I thought was too much) until I realized his mistake and said $10. I repeated $10 aloud several times over in disbelief. I don’t care if those apples were shipped in from Thailand and had golden nuggets for seeds, they should never cost that much. A standard fruit such as an apple back is a luxury here while coconuts, pineapples, bananas, and mangos can’t be sold quickly enough as they are practically everywhere. Needless to say, no apples were bought. Soon after I got picked up by my tuk tuk driver by the name of An Samol, who then rode to pick up the girls. These two American girls happened to be Ameircans representing Minnesota and Maine. This pair met in Australia and have been traveling together ever since. Our first stop of the afternoon tour was the bamboo train. I had been told it wasn’t really worth it since it is now a tourist attraction but what the hell I figured why not check it out. The bamboo train is a flat bamboo sheet bed on which we sat (large enough to fit four passengers as well as the driver) powered by a motorcycle engine. For a motorcycle engine on less than sturdy tracks, this puppy flew along for twenty minutes passed dead countryside making me feel like I was on a roller coaster. Down at the end terminal, we approached Hawkerville, a nearby village using their location to sell their tourist items. After checking out a brick factory next door, I was ready to go. Since it is a one way track with more traffic coming in our direction as we tried to return to the starting point, the bamboo ‘train’ needed somewhere to go. The train’s axles were not actually connected to the bamboo bed so the drivers worked together to lift the bed and then the axles off the track for the oncoming flow to pass through before reassembling it to its original state. As our driver and guide An Samol explained, the tracks were built in 1936 by the French during their colonial period in Indochina. Originally the tracks were used by an actual train connecting Battambang to the capital in Phnom Penh. Over time, the tracks had lost their durability so in the 1980s the train line ceased to be used until years later they transported goods and people by the bamboo line up and down the tracks. Further away at the caves, we hiked up a mount to the ‘killing cave’, which had human bones and skulls piled up in a clear boxed container with in the cave that had a shrine nearby as well for some sort of dedication. Here, the Khmer Rouge tortured people and threw them down into the cave through the open skylight high above where they met their death at the cave floor. To know the back story, which I had to explain to the girls, and then see the bones of the people that went through such a horrid experience not that long ago was difficult to swallow and accept. After checking out a viewpoint with more pagodas that were didn’t bother exploring along with more interestingly mother monkeys coddling their still young babies, we hiked back down before sunset to see the bats leave cave for their night hunt. I had seen bats leave a cave before near Khao Yai NP in Thailand but the cave was much further away. The cave entry/exit point was so close to where we stood that I could see the bats whirling around in a tight spiraling deciding whether the moment was now to depart. We waited patiently as the bats taunted us with their potential exit until finally bursting out of their cave. Four to five million bats live in that cave and I could smell every bit of the shit that has been caked upon the floor (oddly enough, each month locals enter the cave to collect the guano for fertilizer, a job I do not envy). Looking up into the sky the line of bats moved in and wriggled in a wave like an untamed snake or dragon. After we had enough (the entirety of the bats in the cave would take a solid fourth minutes to leave the cave and enter the sky), our guide took us near a field where the bats continued to fly over while he told us some legends from the town and upon my request tried to explain the complex story of the Khmer Rouge to hopefully get the girls up to speed since I had been crudely trying to explain it to them. After telling us the story about the great black King statue at the city’s main roundabout, he delved into the Khmer Rouge and the present government. He revealed to us that the present politics is democracy by name alone and that the recent election is believed to be fixed just like the Myanmar government. I will be interested to follow their election in 2018 to see what further protests may be in store for the country as they pursue the ideal of a true democracy. After getting dropped off at the night market, which stood conveniently at the end of the French style roofed day market that I attended earlier, we ate some food and had tasty tropical fruit shakes. After sadly leaving the girls, who would be going to Phnom Penh tomorrow, I went back to the guesthouse to figure out what to do for the next day or so. I wanted to take part in a cooking class with the recommended restaurant of Smokin’ Pot for $10 half day class but I could only generally point it out on a map. I found the Smokin’ Pot restaurant on my second trip out into the dead of night and booked it for two days from now. When I saw dead, the city was quite dead for being as supposedly populated as it has been said but then again the Khmer New Year has taken many people out of the city and into the countryside. Luckily with a fan blasting directly next to me, I accomplished my best sleep in Cambodia for only a matter of $1.50!

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