Battambang is obviously not a prime tourist destination. We were the only barangs – Khmer for foreigners – in the bus, which, for an express bus, did stop an awful lot of times to pick up or drop off passengers in places that were not immediately recognizable as major bus stations.
The verdict on Battambang – the second-largest city in Cambodia - depends on who you talk to. Sofia thinks it is a lovely town, full of character, old French architecture again, and a lot of atmosphere in the streets. I think it is a run-down place, dusty, and with not much to offer. The town has another of these strange market buildings, ochre coloured, not dissimilar to the Central Market in Phnom Penh. The streets around the market area are mostly of interest because of their unique numbering, street 1.5 being in between street 1 and 2, and street 2.5 in between 2 and 3. Really! So much for town planning. And the river front is largely undeveloped, ugly and utterly uninteresting. Why this place has so many hotels, it beats me, but they are all here, the Star Hotel, the International Hotel, the Asia Hotel, the Royal Hotel, and they are not small, on the contrary.
(1) Houses near the river front, in between street 1.5 and street 2.5.
(2, 3, 4) Some of the local produce in the market.
(5) And this is a special food stall, quite well known, selling the more appetizing stuff: two types of snake, on the left fried bats, and in the right hand upper corner something I don’t really know what it is – and I don’t want to know.
And why had we come here again? Well, primarily because there is a local ferry from here to Siem Reap, the town closest to Angkor Wat, which according to various sources is probably the best boat trip you can do in Cambodia. More about that later. And in the process I thought we might as well check out those few tourist attractions that do exist in and around Battambang. In fact, in Battambang itself there wasn’t much of interest, but outside town there is an 11th century temple, even older than Angkor Wat – and according to the local tourist brochure it was the model on which Angkor Wat was based. I would say the same thing if I would want to attract tourists. Whatever the case, the Prasat Banan is a nice temple, some 20 km out of town. We had arranged a tuk-tuk to get there, and within five minutes of leaving we were cruising through utterly rural Cambodia – so much for being in the second-largest city. And rural Cambodia is as if time has not progressed, very picturesque, old wooden houses on stilts, ox carts, young boys walking their family cows, the rest of the family in the hammock under the house doing very little. And an internet café along the road, to be sure.
(6) Traditional Khmer house on stilts.
(7) Water jars, in which rain water is caught during the rainy season; every house has many of those.
(8) An ox cart; would make a nice souvenir, no?
At the temple we paid our entry fee - you pay US$2 now -, to a young woman who initially told us they have no tickets; only when I insisted on a receipt, suddenly, miraculously the ticket book appeared from the drawer in her desk. Ahhh, but she hadn’t understood me! English, you know, difficult language.
The temple is on a small hill, reachable only by climbing well over 300 steps of a steep stairways; in the rapidly increasing heat of the day, no small achievement. Signs all around warning for mines off the tracks, but our tuk-tuk driver, who doubled up as guide, confidently told us that the signs were only to prevent the young Cambodians to disappear in the bushes. We didn’t test this hypothesis. Henri Mouhot, the Frenchman of Angkor Wat fame, also traveled to this temple and describes a building full of Buddha statues. Now there are only few left. Many of the stone carvings, especially those easily reached, have been decapitated. I wonder why, after having been untouched for over 750 years, a temple is suddenly being looted in the next 150, after having been “rediscovered”, in Western eyes. If the price for “rediscovery” is the establishment of an illegal art market – for a Western public, surely not for the Cambodian Buddhist, I can’t believe they will take a sculpture home, and in any case they could have done so long before if they wanted to – perhaps all this 18th and 19th Century discovery business wasn’t such a good idea, after all. Still, Prasat Banan is a lovely place, even without abundance of sculptures.
(9) Steep stairway to the Banan temple, reminiscent of What Phu in Southern Laos.
(10) The temple, and (11, 12) some of the bas reliefs, those within easy reach all decapitated.