Cambodia: Pedal to the mettle

By Kerri Jackson

The main temple at Wat Slaket. Photo / Kerri Jackson
The main temple at Wat Slaket. Photo / Kerri Jackson

Silver has crossed my palm. Or, more specifically, my wrist. And being fatally attracted to shiny things as I am, silver - in a metaphorical, American dollar sense - is soon crossing the palm of the Cambodian girl now eyeing me expectantly.

I'm in a small silversmith village about two hours' drive north of Phnom Penh, on the potholed, bustling NH5 highway to Battambang in Cambodia's north west.

The city is another bone-rattling four hours away by bus, so this is certainly not the fastest way to travel between the country's two largest cities, but it is a fantastic way to see the rural back blocks of this country. From the emerald-green rice paddies to the clusters of slow-moving oxen, this is a very different Cambodia from the hustle and edginess of Phnom Penh. The only similarity is the motor scooters which beep and toot their way along the highway - although here they're laden with livestock rather than school children.

Then there are the small villages, like this one where our bus stops to load up with silver. Each village between Phnom Penh and Battambang seems to specialise in a craft or industry, whether it's this exquisite silversmithing, pottery, stone carving, or silk farming and weaving.

Each is a small hive for tourists, but they are still a better place to buy your treasures than the heaving markets of Phnom Penh if you want "buy-from-the-manufacturer" bargains.

So it is that our bus now resembles a blinged-out Priscilla wagon, at least on the inside, as it wends its way into Battambang.

This city of some 140,000 people is an elegantly wasted place - comprising just five named streets and a beautiful collection of ramshackle French colonial buildings - located along the meandering riverbanks of Stung Sangker.

Today Battambang city works as a hub, servicing the surrounding agricultural region, home to what it claims is the country's best rice, and a fledgling tourist industry. Visitors come here for the French architecture but stay for the easy pace, the friendly locals and the beautiful scenery.

The vast market seems to take up the entire centre of town. It's a sometimes sobering, olfactory-challenging introduction to Third World food storage and preparation but mostly it's a thriving community centre. With vendors selling everything from fish, meat and vegetables to ready-made snacks, clothing and bicycles, this is the beating heart of this small city.

Once you've explored the town centre there's plenty to see in the surrounding areas. And one of the best ways to see it all is by bicycle.

Cambodia is as flat a country as you're every likely to find, making it perfect for pedal-powered sightseeing. However, temperatures can be scorching, so a word of advice: start your trip early in the day to avoid pedalling through the searing heat of the midday sun. We learnt that the hard way.

The effort of battling through chaotic early-morning scooter traffic is soon rewarded with a calm riverside ride through the city's outskirts towards Wat Slaket, where you can wander among the picturesque temple buildings and monks' living quarters. The monks are friendly and happy to chat to visitors.

"Thank you for your smile. I give you my smile too. It is important to give your smile to people," says one, his smile beaming from a window.

Another 12-year-old boy explains in Khmer to our guide that he asked his mother to let him live at the monaster, y already recognising it as offering a better type life in this very poor country.

For us though, it's time to saddle up again for the big push on through villages and past rice paddies for another 11km to the spectacular Wat Ek Phnom.

Along the way, the roads are lined with stalls, drying rice paper and other bicycles laden down with produce and merchandise. Children rush out of houses giggling, waving and keen to practise their language skills with "hellos!" or "bonjours!"

Wat Ek Phnom, a partly ruined 11th-century temple that was once Hindu but now Buddhist, is a calm, contemplative place. On one side is a lotus-filled water reservoir; on the other, a giant Buddha statue stands majestically amongst the cattle.

Refreshed with a fresh coconut drink, it's time to get our slightly saddle-sore hides back on those bikes for the ride back to Battambang.

As the temperature bolts merrily towards 40C, all sensible Cambodians have retired to the shade for a siesta while we desperately plug our pedals homeward dreaming of hotel swimming pools or cold showers.

Instead, there's the quick, cooling violence of a torrential thunderstorm as we're off the bikes and on the bus for the ride to Prasat Banan, an imposing five-towered temple atop a hill, 30km south of Battambang. More pressingly, it's atop some 358 steps. They are, thankfully, largely under the shade, but still a big ask of bicycle-weary legs. But by the time you reach the top, and let the dots clear from your eyes, the panoramic views across the patchworked countryside more than make up for it. The temple is another moody 11th-century, falling-down stone structure locals say was a model for the grander, more famous temples at Angkor.

There's one more surprise on the road back to Battambang - the Chan Thay Chhoeng winery. Yes, a winery.

Here, one Cambodian woman has taught herself winemaking from English-language books, while teaching herself English from a dictionary. The wine, from a sister in France, produces wine, that is, to be fair, a little rough around the edges but the commitment and story behind it, make it seem a little sweeter.

It's a good spot to wrap up a tour of this area as it seems to encapsulate the mix of cultures and history that is Battambang's biggest asset.

Kerri Jackson travelled to Cambodia with Cathay Pacific and Adventure World

- Herald on Sunday

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