Battambang: Slow boats and slow living

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With Tropical Storm Vamco still dogging our steps, taking the Slow Boat to Battambang (that definitely deserves capitals) was always going to be a brave choice.

To be honest, there’s no easy way to get to Cambodia’s second-largest city, particularly in the rain. The roads are bad, and the boats are ponderous, and it doesn’t matter which mode of transport you choose, you know that Cambodians are so keen to tell you what you want to hear that they will have shaved at least an hour or so off the true arrival time.

So you pay your money, and take your choice. And about ten minutes into your journey, you realise that you are just too old to be a backpacker anymore. Your bus picks you up from the guesthouse half an hour later than the insane 6am departure time, meaning that you are already a bit cross. You are then driven to another (very slightly larger) bus, at which point a slightly terrifying older lady attempts to cram many more people than are necessary into the bus. The children (glumly) sit on laps. Dad is ready to kill the older lady with a machete. Just as well he doesn’t have one.

The bus continues over what could only be described as roads by the very charitable. At one point it nearly tips over, the holes are so big. It rains. Do you begin to get the idea that I am not enjoying this very much so far?

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The boat, when we finally arrive at it, looks nothing like it does in the picture. Wooden bench seats (though thankfully not overcrowded) are not exactly the picture of comfort. The rain comes through the windows. Brightly, you point out the floating villages along the river – but the children are too wet to be interested. The noise from the engine continues, and even the real backpackers begin to look glum.

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Eight hours, it takes to get between Siem Reap and Battambang, including a stop at a floating house that is optimistically described as a “Western-style hotel”. “Do you think this rice was cooked in purified water?” asks Mum. I laugh. Hollowly.

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Did I mention it was raining? When we finally arrive in Battambang, the muddy slope up which we had to drag our bags was barely passable. My poor old backpack is still exceptionally muddy weeks after. Never have we been so pleased to arrive at a hotel – and it turns out the Sanctuary Hotel is well named. Nice pool, good food, and a separate room for the children – that’s basically Nirvana in my world at the moment.

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We’d chosen Battambang because there is still basically nothing to do there. Cambodia’s second city (after Phnom Penh) was the last hold out during the Khmers Rouges era, hiding them up in the mountains long after the Vietnamese took the rest of the country, so it’s unsurprising it has taken a little longer to recover from Pol Pot’s regime. The countryside about it is still littered with landmines, but the city itself is beautifully sleepy.

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There’s little more to do than swim, visit the market and ‘indulge’ in the rigours of home education. Mum teaches Clover joined-up writing, and we get the laundry done. I catch up on my backlog of articles too.

Life on the road, we are learning, necessitates pit-stops where everyone can chill, and since your hair keeps growing (and greying) while you travel, the usual personal admin is necessary too. Here’s a valuable lesson for anyone travelling to SE Asia – a dollar is too little to spend on a haircut, so two haircuts for a dollar was never going to be a wild success. Sorry Daisy and Clover, it will grow back. We’ve been keen to keep the girls’ hair short while we travel, with the result that everyone thinks we have twin boys – and acts terrifically surprised when we point out they are girls, with two years between them.

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The hairdressers might be bad, but there are many good things about Battambang. Excellent noodles, at under $2 per person, were a high point. Feeling closer to a less touristy part of Cambodia was another. The people were wonderful.

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Paul and Daisy took a trip to the bat cave– not just amazing for the one million plus bats that come out all at once at sunset – but also moving because it was where the Khmers Rouges killed their victims. It’s also known as the Killing Cave, and they’ve kept a few skulls down there to remember.

Explaining about Cambodia’s past is tricky with the children. They’ve seen the results of landmines on people in Siem Reap, and in Battambang the recent past seems even nearer. Daisy wants to know why, and Clover doesn’t want to talk about it. Both fair responses, I guess.

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It’s always hard to know how much to expose children to, especially in SE Asia, where the past atrocities are very much present. It seems to me unbelievable how recently Cambodia imploded under Pol Pot, and the statistics are almost unbearable to realise. This makes it very hard to explain to the girls. Even if they take a tiny bit of understanding back with them, though, I think it has to be a good thing.

This week’s book recommendation: Pol Pot, The History of a Nightmare. Sad and illuminating. Not one for the kids!

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