Monday, October 1, 2012

A Morning in Battambang

Giant Buddha at Wat ek Phnom

We only had one full day in Battambang, so it was a busy one! We spent the day on a tuk tuk tour of the sights around Battambang. Our schedule involved two tour sessions—one in the morning, the other in the late afternoon/early evening, with a break at the hotel for lunch in between. Here’s a whirlwind account of our whirlwind morning.

Sifting rice*

Our first stop was a traditional Cambodian house. The current owner, the granddaughter of the original owner, showed us around and explained some of the features of the house and the items inside it. First she showed us the area under the house, where a simple rice sifting machine was set up. The machine consisted of a large basket, through which the rice could fall as it was separated from the husk. The basket was agitated using a two-person handle attached to a long stick. Sifting the rice is a long and tedious project, as the handle is quite heavy to manipulate.

Demonstrating a traditional instrument

After we’d seen and tried the sifter, we went upstairs to see the inside of the house. It was surprisingly large and airy, with beautifully polished hardwood floors and exposed rafters. The owner showed us a traditional instrument, similar to a guitar, then demonstrated a traditional pastime of Cambodian women—chewing   betel nuts (actually areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves). Older Cambodians often have a basket filled with the specific tools needed to prepare and chew the betel nuts, which are thought to protect the chewer from tooth decay. Unfortunately, modern medicine has revealed a link between betel nut chewing and cancers of the mouth, esophagus, and stomach, so I tend to agree with the younger Cambodians, who mostly have abandoned this practice.

The Bamboo Train

Upon leaving the house, we took a trip on the Bamboo Train, which was created as an inexpensive, relatively fast way for rural Cambodians to travel between villages. The “train” is a simple platform, made of bamboo, that rests on two axles. It’s powered by a moto (or motorcycle) engine and travels along the regular train tracks. The whole contraption can be disassembled quickly and moved off the track to make way for real trains or for bamboo trains that are going the other direction. It reaches speeds of up to around 10 miles per hour, which made for a comfortable breeze on a hot day. 

The view ahead
The journey that we took is geared toward tourists—the operation is overseen by the tourist police, and the destination is a small village that seemed to consist exclusively of a brick factory and a couple of huts selling cold drinks and t-shirts. We enjoyed some cold drinks, took a short tour of the brick factory, and then reboarded the train for the trip back to where our tuks tuks awaited us.

Machine for shaping bricks at the factory

The ride itself was nice. Alexa had been tired and fussy all morning due to the late night before, but she fell asleep almost immediately, despite the noise of the engine, and got a pretty good nap in. Jeff and I were able to enjoy the breeze, ignore the jolts and bumps, and see a little of the countryside—not too much of it, because of the overgrown trees and grasses along the tracks, but some. It was a unique way to travel, one that I’m glad I experienced, and I found myself impressed with the ingenuity of those who first thought to create this system.

Making rice paper

After our ride on the Bamboo Train, we stopped by another house whose occupants earn a living by making and sglling rice paper. We didn’t spend much time there, but we watched as one woman created the sheets from a boiling rice mixture and another set them out to cool and dry. They worked in the shade under the house, but it still was a hot and tedious process. The first woman used a small bowl to dip the rice liquid out of the pot, pour it onto a plate, and then spread it into a consistent circle. She let it cool for just a moment while she prepared the next circle, then used a spatula to transfer the thin, wet “paper” onto a wooden rod mounted on a turnstile. The second woman then removed the rod and used it to roll the rice paper onto a wooden screen before replacing the now-empty rod for reuse. When the screen was full, it was propped up against a tree or post so that the rice paper could cool.

The giant Buddha at Wat Ek Phnom

 Finally, we visited our last site of the morning—Wat Ek Phnom. This wat was constructed in the 11th century and is in a state of ruin. After seeing Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, it wasn’t particularly impressive, but it was worth a visit since we were in the area. The ruins are at the back of the complex, and a newer pagoda is in front of them. The most impressive part of the site, however, is the giant Buddha statue located next to the new pagoda. The statue towered over the trees and dwarfed the bigger-than-life-size statues of monks that flank it.

The modern pagoda at Wat Ek Phnom

After a morning of sightseeing, we were ready to get back to the resort for lunch. Our afternoon tours needed to wait until close to sunset, so we had a couple of hours in which to eat, relax by the pool, or take a nap. Then we were off again—but I’ll save that for the next installment.

An inviting path in the ruins of Wat Ek Phnom

* We do not show pictures of ourselves or of anyone who is affiliated with us or with the embassy on this blog due to security concerns. Because the child in this image is the daughter of an embassy employee, I obscured her face.

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