Asia | South East Asia | Cambodia | Western Cambodia | Battambang – Day 12 – Battambang, Cambodia
Yesterday was an ease-up day after moving hard and fast and sweaty through my stay in Siem Reap and the Angkor Wat extravaganza. I spent the bulk of my day writing and catching up on email.
Towards late afternoon, I paid a self-interested visit to the Seeing Hands Massage in Siem Reap. This very above-board massage establishment is staffed by blind people who are trained in massage techniques. The money raised from clients is used to support the training and other projects to aid blind people in Siem Reap province. Inside I was presented with a little plastic basket containing a white cotton top and calf-length pants (perhaps full-length for the average Cambodian) and was sent to a corner of the cement room where a curtain hung from a bar. I changed behind the curtain and emerged, and was instructed to lie on my stomach on one of the five padded tables.
A small skinny woman with only the whites of her eyes visible in their sockets was positioned table-side. She lightly ran her hands from my shoulders down to my feet to get an idea of what she was dealing with, I suspect, and then she was off. From the peak of my scalp to the snapping of each toe, she pushed, kneaded, patted and squeeze-mushed my entire dorsal surface. Overall it was quite relaxing, especially with the soft far-east single-flute music smoothing over the snorting sounds of rush-hour traffic which invaded through the open door frame.
This morning, one of the hotel boys was knocking on my door by 5:10am but I was already flailing away at my mozzie net and conducting similar half-asleep clumsy departure prep. A mini-bus picked me up and bounced a sardine load of travelers and a couple of locals along an increasingly rugged road to the mouth of the Siem Reap River where it enters Tonle Sap – The Great Lake. Here the boisterous and people-piled port consisted of dozens of long, narrow, wooden motor boats tied up to sticks, one after another in the narrow waterway. All the usual morning delicacies were on display, chicken, raw fish, baguettes and bananas, being hawked from some of the dodgier looking outdoor stalls I’ve seen in Cambodia. People, hordes of people, far too many people for this hour of the morning bumped and bustled about amongst the dozens of vehicles lining the skinny road.
I found my Battambang-bound boat, quite clearly sign-posted in english, and shuffled aboard warily finding my balance, tilted by my back-pack on the tippy craft. A half-dozen travelers were already hunkered down on the wooden benches lining the length of both sides of the boat, knees touching those opposite. No roof on this boat, I sloshed on the sun-block and positioned my hat. Around 7am our driver leaped aboard, tossing a small plastic bag beside me which contained a fore-arm-sized curl of dead fish. The double outboards snorted just behind me and we slowly carved the channel which was lined with houseboats and canoes and many people suspended in hammocks.
When we hit the open water of Tonle Sap our driver gunned it and we slapped the lake’s wavelets for about 45 minutes. We then entered another narrow river through which we were to churn, following its twisty serpent’s course and occasional straight-aways for the next four hours. The scenery on either side alternated between lush, low greenery and floating villages, the latter consisting of a variety of slap-up houseboats and big live- in canoes. At almost every village, naked and half-naked children appeared in doorways, windows, hammocks or on floating rubber tubes to wave at us until we were out of sight. One toddler gave us a different salutation, held out at the waist by her father, bum turned to us, peeing into the deep.
At some of the very narrow and twisty sections, our pilot employed that old favourite Asian driving technique known as Honk & Hope. He would cut the inside corner of blind turns at full speed while honking on the boat’s horn while we all hoped someone wasn’t doing exactly the same thing in the opposite direction.
Other river tableaux: the angry gestures of a couple of slow-boat drivers as we churned up a sizable wake which sent their crafts reeling. (No boating etiquette here.) Also, it was amazing to see how people lived on tiny little vessels tucked into the almost-hidden nooks of the greenery on both shores. In addition, at some of the larger agglomerations of rickety boat- burgs there were what looked to be large cargo-cranes, Flintstone-esque in their bamboo and jute construction. The sun, while hot was kept a bay by the cooling aft-rushing breeze of our momentum.
Battambang was announced by two things: the presence of a cement bridge over the river and the presence of 15 – 20 hotel touts lining the steep stairs which lead down the embankment to the docking point. They were literally falling over each other to get our individual attention. The one who reached me, at the rear of the boat, got there by jumping, fully-clothed, into the chest deep water. How could I refuse his entreaties (especially since he, and strangely, every other tout there, were holding out business cards from the Royal Hotel which was one I had checked off as a good possibility).
After checking in I showered and the single tap pushed hot water over me for the first time since Jerusalem; actually, given the toasty temperature of the air I would have preferred a cold shower. I then headed out for my usual fam. walk of the vicinity and soon realized there’s not much to Battambang (even though it is the second largest city in the country).
I walked around the central market where, later tonight I was to notice that many of the vendors sleep in hammocks suspended over their covered wares. I decided to head for Wat Phiphiaran, one of the Buddhist temples within walking distance. The wat itself was a little faded, the right state of affairs for the city it serves. But I was soon engaged by a couple of young monks who spoke reasonable english. After a while, I was invited to one of their rooms. It wasn’t too far off from a typical college dorm room except that it was a bit larger and both beds were draped in mosquito nets.
I was surprised to see the following in the room: a desk-top computer and monitor, a decent mini-stereo system and a wall calendar with a curvy Asian woman adorning it. We talked about Canada for a while, the number of monks in the room steadily increased. When they found out my religion isn’t based on ‘Jesu’ (their pronunciation) (I’m Jewish), they became very anxious to get into a discussion of our respective religious tenets. One of the monks who first started talking with me gave me about a 20-minute history of Buddhism, describing Siddhartha’s life and evolution to Buddha. He related that basic Buddhist premises include: suffering is caused by desire (therefore eliminate desire and eliminate suffering). I couldn’t help but wonder at the presence of the curvy calendar girl as he was saying this. I guess we all have our spiritual hills to climb. He also said that humans are made from the four physical elements of the world (earth, water, fire, air) and that these physical elements, well, they just ARE. Each time I get to this point of Buddhist philosophy the Buddhist explaining it to me seems to get somewhat confused about where physical stuff comes from since there is no G-d in Buddhist belief.
I also learned that an apprentice monk has over 100 ‘rules’ to follow, while more senior monks have over 200 to follow. Then it was my turn. At first, they kept asking me about ‘Jesu’ walking on water and having a mother who was ‘single’. The young monk who did most of the talking said that these miracles were the reason his Christian American english teacher believes in J. It was their only idea of a Western person’s religion and it took some time for me to separate Judaism from Christianity for them. I spent about an hour explaining basic Jewish philosophy in simple english at 3/4 speed. It was something of a challenge explaining metaphysical concepts in monosyllables. But their questions were fantastic and showed that they had grasped the ideas: Does G-d have a body? Why believe in G-d if you can’t see It? If G-d created everything why did It create suffering? Why doesn’t G-d die? It was an awesome exchange. I liked the fact that the most talkative young man was interested in the discussion because he said he wanted to know ‘the true way’. A fellow seeker.