Sunday, 31 July 2011

Battambang, Killing Caves, 19 April 2011

It's early morning and yet again I'm holding on tight to the frame either side of the tuk-tuk as the driver swings the vehicle around the corners in a mad dash to the bus station. The air is fresh as result of the electrical storm earlier in the morning that woke us up from our sleep. I personally thought it was someone trying to break in and as the room had no windows I couldn't see outside. Then the rain started and got heavier and heavier until the streets were flowing like a shallow stream and the roof was banging like a steel pan. Tom didn't wake, but Nicky and I left our prison cell like room and found a window to watch the storm through. It was big. The lightning strikes lit up the sky all around and an eerie atmosphere descended and hovered above Phnom Penh for well over an hour. Of course, we didn't watch the whole show as I had to get up and get into this tuk-tuk early to catch my bus to Battambang in Western Cambodia.

The horns began blowing as we neared the bus terminal in the heart of the city. It's now just after eight o'clock and the busy morning commute to the markets are in full swing. It's a completely different Phnom Penh to the one I arrived in. A few days ago the city was deserted as the majority of the population had left to spend the new year holiday with their families. The bus station is tiny and resembles more of a small roadside petrol station, buses squeeze in wherever they can and a constant movement of people avoiding arriving and departing buses. My driver called out to a man and asked him to show me where my bus was. I climbed out of the tuk-tuk and before I got a chance to say thank you and goodbye, he was gone, back into the early morning madness and on his way back to hostel.

I checked my watch and it told me that I had twenty minutes until my bus was scheduled to depart, and of scheduled doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to leave at that time in Asia. I walked around the tiny bus station to have entertain myself, it was chaos but strangely organised, people shouting, running and moving boxes of goods from one side of the forecourt to the other. An engine fired up and with that, my gaze located the source and I was shocked to see my intended bus pull out of the space and onto the road. I ran after it and asked a man in a hurried voice, “Battambang? BATTAMBANG!!??”. He looked back at me unconcerned and told me to wait. Wait? What does he mean, wait!? My bus is leaving!!! As soon as these thoughts processed through my brain, the bus slammed into reverse and headed straight for me. I was relieved to see the bus coming back, but concerned that the bus was on a collision course with me and the group of people standing behind me. A man came over and waved his hands signalling for us to move out of the way. People were gathering all their belongings, some taking two or three trips to collect it all.

The bus miraculously reversed through some unthinkable tight squeezes and finally came to rest between a bus and the bus 'terminal'. I hung back for a while and watched on as a flock of locals encroached on the bus and crammed all their belongings in the luggage compartments. Finally, people began to move onto the bus and so I took my cue and approached the bus and a man who looked as though he worked for the bus company. I pointed at my bag and then the luggage compartment, to which the man shook his head and pointed inside the bus. Tentatively, I walked away and onto the bus being careful not to hit anyone with my bag as I negotiated the narrow aisle to my allocated seat towards the back of the bus, by the window, on the left. I tried to push my bag onto the luggage shelf above but my bag was far too wide, so I placed it under my seat. It was either that, or in the aisle where everybody would walk over it.

I was pleased to sit by the window as I was in charge of the curtain. Asians have the habit of closing all the curtains on buses denying you of seeing the outside world. This was a small victory, I was the boss of the view, I wanted to see Cambodia and the land passing by my window, that's why I travel! As I stared out of the window onto the bustling crowd buzzing around the bus, I felt the seat jerk, a youngish Cambodian man sat himself down next to me. Ha Ha! I thought, the window is mine!

The journey was simple and painless, it took six hours and most of that, I slept. Every now and again I would wake up, turn on my eBook reader and continue reading First They Killed My Father until falling asleep again. I was enticed by the book, it had me captivated, unable to believe what horror people were subjected to during 1975-79. Loung Ung was only five years old when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge seized power and forced her family out of Phnom Penh and into the country side where they changed their identities and pretended to be peasants. If their true identities were discovered, they would be killed with no questions. By 1978, two of her siblings and both parents had been killed. Before her mothers death, Loung and her siblings were forced to disappear, separate from each other and create new identities as the Khmer Rouge would kill them too. Despite her parents wishes for them to separate, Loung and her sister stayed together and were forced to become child soldiers. At every step of the tragic story, your heart sinks deeper and deeper. Tears well up in your eyes as her family are subjected to starvation, torture and ultimately death. It is important to remember that Loung Ung's story is only one of seven million tortured Cambodian soles that suffered throughout this devastating period and are still suffering today. She was one of the lucky ones to have escaped to Thailand by boat where she stayed briefly with her brother until they got adopted by a family in Vermont, USA. If you get a chance, read the book as my words cannot do it justice. Loung Ung's website,, provides you with full details of her work and what you can do to help Cambodia.

The bus jolted sharply and woke me up again. We were approaching a city and looking down at my watch, I figured that it was about time we got to Battambang. Outside the window, colonial stylised buildings passed by and a feeling of excitement swept through me as it usually does when I arrive in a new place, especially if it's a place less touristy. Damn! As the bus slowed, I spotted one of my hates. I grabbed my bags and grudgingly made my way down the front of the bus, I took a big intake of air into my lungs in preparation for the impending onslaught of touts with clipboards in their hands...“My friend, my friend, where you stay?”...“Tuk-Tuk my friend?”... I put on my blinkers and politely walked past them, until one caught my eye who was holding an advertisement for Chhaya Hotel. “You're my man!”, I proclaimed to the stunned faced Cambodian. You could see he was taken aback by my forwardness and it took him a few seconds to process it. Eventually he came to terms with his luck and beaconed my towards his tuk-tuk. A few seconds later we were storming through the streets of a the second largest Cambodian city that is home to 250,000 people.

Lush, green Battambang
The tuk-tuk journey only took a couple of minutes and we soon pulled into the hotel's tiny parking area outside the rear. I had no idea what I would have done if I didn't find that tuk-tuk driver as I had no map of Battambang and I had no idea what address the hotel was. Usually it wouldn't be an issue as I normally just turn up and see what's available but this time I needed to find the Chhaya as I was heading to meet Kate who travelled up there before me on the night bus.

The tuk-tuk driver initiated his sales pitch as soon as I jumped off. It was inevitable. They always do, it's just a question of when. “You can do this or that and you can do it now.” Trying to remain polite, I refuse his offer and continue on to the reception desk in hope for a vacant room. The man behind reception was a person not to waste any words. Yes, no, OK, money. These four words in his vocabulary seemed to allow him to run a hotel. Having failed to summon a slight whiff of a conversation with the man, I turned around a began the ascent to the second floor where my room was supposed to be. I opened the door to find a triangular shaped room with a queen sized bed squeezed in under the window. At the end of the bed was a TV and a door through to the shower and toilet. I immediately grabbed my wash bag from my rucksack and submerged myself under the ice cool water that spurted erratically out of the shower head.

Lookout over Battambang Province
Feeling refreshed and having reunited with Kate whose room was directly above mine, we were sitting back in the tuk-tuk heading out of Battambang and towards the killing caves about 15km away from the centre. The road was dusty and stung the eyes without sunglasses and I was thankful when we pulled off the main road and onto a smaller dirtier track between an outcrop and a modern temple lined with a few shacks selling drinks and snacks. The driver pulled up next to one of these shacks and a young man greeted us. His clothes were quite scruffy but he spoke very good English and offered to be our guide for a few dollars. My defensive system immediately switched on as has become usual when people approach me and money is involved. But Kate and I conferred and decided that it wasn't that much money and it would be nice to have someone show us around and tell us something about the caves.

Entrance down into the cave, now a Buddhist sanctuary
After paying the police an entrance fee, we began walking up the slope that led up the side of the massive rock outcrop. It was around 4pm already, yet the heat was relentless and slight exertion resulted in me loosing two litres of fluid almost immediately. I had become used to it and had got into the habit of carrying around a two litre bottle of water, finishing it off within an hour and magically not needing to go to the toilet. We climbed the slope whilst chatting to our guide who was a student at university but who came back to Battambang to see his family over new year and earn enough money to pay his next set of fees. He was a nice chap, who was had a very soft and considerate voice. A small temple stood at the end of the ascent where a few monks were sitting around talking and guarding their collection boxes. The view from the temple was amazing. Looking out over the flat land of Battambang province which stretched out for miles only interrupted by a few rock outcrops. After taking in the view, we continued our walk towards the caves.

At the bottom of the cave
The caves were used by the Khmer Rouge to murder and dispose of individuals that were a threat to Pol Pot's regime. Hundreds of people died in these deep caves, some were lucky enough to be killed quickly by the strike of a spade or the impact at the bottom, others were unfortunate enough to survive both and died slowly from starvation or suffocation as the new bodies piled on top. Another cave nearby was to kill children, babies and mothers. If a woman was pregnant, they pinned her against the wall, sliced her open and took the baby foetus out. They would then throw the baby down the cave and behead the mother. They would torture people until they died by removing their organs and behead children. As you descend into the caves, you can feel the air is dead and unpleasant. It has been cleaned up by the Buddhist monks who removed most of the remains and placed them in storage elsewhere. There is still a cage of skulls and bones remaining as a reminder to all those that brutally lost their lives for nothing. There is a series of trials going on in Phnom Penh at the moment with some of the senior Khmer Rouge members but I asked our guide what about those people who carried out the killing, the people who were lower down in the chain of command, where are they? What is being done about brining those to justice? The response was upsetting, he told me that there is no way of knowing who those people were as they all wore the trademark Khmer Rouge black clothing and wore masks to cover their faces. Some have disappeared abroad, yet some remain in Cambodia and live a normal life amongst the innocent victims of their torturous reign. It's horrible to think about it as these people didn't 'just do their job', they enjoyed what they were doing and tortured people for entertainment. It's not just here and Phnom Penh that it happened, it happened across Cambodia and killed 1.7 million people out of a population of only 7 million.

The Bat Cave
Going down a hill is always easier than going up and this hill was of no exception, although instead of taking the long road round, we took a set of stairs that weaved down to the beginning. At the bottom our guide told us about another cave here, the Bat Cave. The cave was in the same outcrop and was just a little further down the track where thousands upon thousands of bats live and at dusk leave and all head out to scavenge for food. It was getting towards dusk and our guide enthusiastically took us to a view point by the temple where we sat on the wall and waited for the first bat to leave for the night. As we waited listening to the bats squeaks we were joined by other tourists that were passing through and watched as truck loads of people in the back passed by on their way home. Suddenly a Cambodian man shouted “SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE!!!”. He was immediately accompanied by another man and they began to hit it with a stick and flicked it away. I'm not sure what kind of snake it was but it must have been of concern to them due to the way they reacted. After this entertainment was finished with, it was time for the main event. Bat time! A few bats flew out tentatively into the setting sun and then followed a massive exodus. Thousands of them turned a line in the sky black as they followed one another out and away from their cave. It was an amazing site to see, we watched on for five to ten minutes and the flow did not cease or wither.

Kate and our guide
Watching the bats leave was a nice relief to the torture of the caves. The sun was now deep into the horizon and our shadows were long on the ground so we walked back to our tuk-tuk driver, paid our guide with the socially obligatory tip and hopped aboard for our journey home. The stream of bats from the cave was still going strong and were heading in the same direction as us. As we were riding along the road back to Battambang quite peacefully, another tuk-tuk came up from behind us, beeped his horn and overtook us. Not wanting to be left behind in his smoke, our tuk-tuk drivers ego took over and his hand twisted the throttle hard and we slowly but surely gained speed. The other tuk-tuk was carrying two German tourists whom we had spoken to as we waited for the bats. We shook our fists in jest and let out a joyous cheer as we overtook them. Our chariot was of no match to theirs however and they overtook us again. The three of us were in stitches of laughter by that point and did not catch up with them again. We dubbed our driver James Bond and his tuk-tuk the 007 Tuk.

Literally, truck load of people...
We arrived back at our hotel safely, paid the driver, shook his hand and disappeared to get some food. The sun had now disappeared and so we found a restaurant next door to our hotel where we ordered some food and drink to end the long day.  As we were eating however, the electricity in the whole town went out. Darkness fell upon Battambang, a feeling I hadn't had since Cat Ba Island in Northern Vietnam. This would cause great commotion in the west, but here it's an everyday occurrence to them, they just turn the mood romantic with candles and everybody continues what they were doing.

Next Time; Siem Reap, Boat Trip and Blue Pumpkins

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