Happy New Year

19 Apr

Cambodian style….

Ok, to get you up to speed. Day 2 of the Khmer New Year I was due to travel to Battambang by boat across the Tonle Sap lake. OK, it’s dry season, so there might be a drive to get to a bit of navigable water, but what the hey.

So, 30 minutes after they are supposed to pick me up… we call. No, the boat is not running. Nice of them to let us know, but anyway, onto a bus (what else) to Battambang. The driver thinks he’s in Speed. Rocketing down roads on the wrong side, leaning on the horn… I’m just waiting for the bridge jump or for Keanu Reeves to get on board. We stop, nerves jangling, for elevenses – I turn down the deep fried crickets and go for sticky rice with lotus seeds cooked in a bamboo tube.

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So, with slightly frazzled nerves, I’m in Battambang. I find a hotel, and the tuk tuk driver has arranged for me to do a tour the next day. The town is quiet – after all, it is New Year.

Onto the motorbike with my new friend Ya the next day and we’re off. After screeching down some bumpy country lanes, we’re at the bamboo train. I may well be one of the last people to ride it – it will get demolished soon to make way for a new ‘high speed’ line.

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The bamboo trains are ingenious – simple platforms of (you guessed it) bamboo on two small train wheels with a two stroke engine. It actually sounds more romantic than the reality – but it’s still lots of fun! The engine drives the wheels through a toothed belt – the driver controlling the speed with the tension of the belt. Admirable. Since it’s only one track, when two trains meet the least heavily loaded is dismantled to let the other pass.

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The route is straight as an arrow. The same cannot be said for the tracks, and this ends up being a cross between drag racing and the runaway mine train. That said, it’s a lot of fun and a fabulous way to see the countryside. At the half way point we turn round, but not before I have been cajoled into a Coke, and met a few fellow travellers having fun too – including the effervescent Ruth – of whom more later.

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From there it’s pagoda time. Phnom Sampeau is a collection of temples and buildings on a limestone outcrop outside the town. There are incredible views across the plains, and interestingly different temples – the reclining Buddha has inscriptions of the donations (and the amounts!) to build it. It’s a steep steep climb – but the fun is that all the people are out and about. Cambodians get 3 days holiday a year – at New Year – and they are making the most of it. There are nuns, and beggars, and all manner of ordinary folk enjoying the sunshine and some outdoor fun. I’m fascinated to watch the monk’s response to a fire amongst the incense sticks… he grabs the holy water and throws it on the blaze, much to the consternation of the devout.

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There are caves and an impressive canyon below, and the Killing Caves lie up a staircase up the hill.

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Off again.. the New Year revelry in full force now. Gangs of children, youths, grownups (well, anyone, really) line the streets armed with hoses, water rifles, water balloons, plastic bags of water and pots and pans of the stuff. Prepare to get wet. And covered in talcum powder.  It’s a bit like English Bank Holiday weekend too – the Mods and the Rockers are out (well, the Mods are out – we’re a bit short of big bikes out here).

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Our moto gets intercepted, and I end up covered in talc, drinking a beer and dancing with the family.  Not sure if I am supposed to be dancing with the daughter or the son.

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Fortunately, Ya rescues me and we’re off to Phnom Banam. That’s a climb of 358 steep steps, and it’s gratifying to see Ya give up half way while I pound up the hill. Again, families are out in force – and of course, everyone is on the same tour so I bump in to Ruth again.

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Someone has been doodling on the plants….

Down at the bottom, there’s a wedding in full force with lots of singing and gifts to the married couple. It’s a real party down there!

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And then we’re off to the party. Not sure which party or where on earth we are, but there is more talcum powder involved (although one guy covers me in what feels (and smells) like Toilet Duck).

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Out here, the men dance. And pose. And act like they are the coolest dudes in town. Dancing is kinda circular, kinda line dancey, and kinda fun… Ruth and I end up taking photos and making fools of ourselves…

…and then we’re off to another party. It really is a social event today.

And back to the hotel. It’s been an amazing, wonderful day full of colour and life, water and talc, bumps and surprises, laughter and smiles. Possibly the best one day tour I have ever done in my life. Might not have been so much fun if it hadn’t been New Year.. but so much laughter and gaiety, life and action.

Time for a quick coffee on the roof of the hotel – it’s a great view across the town, and the sky lights up as the sun sets in a ball of orange fire, hiding behind the clouds and peeking out in a tantalising display of hide and seek. The clouds respond with their own coquettish display of pinks and blues, as the sun tinges their fluffy edges with a host of pastel colour in contrast….

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