Battambang, Cambodia – When we got off the bus in Battambang, we were surrounded by tuk-tuk drivers offering to take us to different hotels. One guy stood out from the rest and seemed to be a straight-talker so we went with him. His name was Mr. Okay, and whether or not we wanted it, he was going to be our guide the next day.
He dropped us off at the hotel and asked if we had a guide for the next day. We said no, but asked for his card and said we’d call him when we made up our minds what we wanted to do – our usual trick to get out of having to make a commitment on the spot. He looked away and said that most people ask him for cards but never called. And that he was tired of handing them out to people who weren’t serious, especially since it was a waste of his money.
After talking a bit, Mr. Okay reluctantly gave us his card and we said we’d call him. He told us he hung out around the Chhaya Hotel and we could find him there if he wasn’t booked. He mentioned the sites he would take us to. We asked about two temples that were farther away. He said he didn’t go there because the roads were in bad shape and really dusty.
The next morning we were walking to a cafe for breakfast and to come up with a plan for the day. On the way there, Mr Okay came speeding down the street, flipped a u-turn, and pulled up next to us. Not wanting to make things awkward, I said we were just going to find him. He said he was on his way to our hotel to see if we had made up our minds. He gave us a good price and even threw in a free ride to the cafe. He was pretty funny and seemed like a good guide, so what the heck.
The first stop after breakfast was the bamboo train – a great bit of blue collar ingenuity and lots of fun. There used to be a train that went to Battambang but hasn’t run for years. So some locals rigged up a platform – made of bamboo – that sits on two axles like a train. A 5hp engine rests on the platform with a belt that wraps around one of the axles like in a car. It only takes people from a couple villages to town and a ride from the beginning station to the last served village only takes about 30 minutes.
It’s so simply built that when someone is coming from the other direction, both “cars” stop and the drivers take the car with the least amount of stuff on it apart, then the other car passes, then they put the other car back together.
Once we had our ride on the train, Mr Okay took us to the Wat Ek Phnom by way of a crocodile farm (where I offered to buy a chicken to see it get eaten, and was denied) and a village where we learned how rice paper was made (see video) and how they prepare bamboo sticky rice (not in the video).
Along the way I asked if there was a Mrs Okay. He got a disappointed look on his face and said no. A few years ago there was a possibility but he couldn’t come up with enough money and she left him for a wealthier man. He said back then he was a moto driver saving up $2,000 for his tuk-tuk. And his plan was to use the tuk-tuk to make the $3,000 he needed for a wife, but she wouldn’t wait.
Now, I’m no Dr. Phil, but maybe he should have put that $2,000 towards getting married, then gotten a tuk-tuk. Fortunately, he has a new girlfriend and he seems pretty optimistic about that. Altho, when we took her some bamboo sticky rice later that afternoon, the interaction was so mechanical, it felt like there would be more warmth shared between two scoops of ice cream.
At the Wat Ek Phmon, we had lunch at a little food stall nearby. I asked Mr Okay about his name. He said that as a child, he had fallen ill and was taken to a hospital on the Thai border. Since his family couldn’t communicate with the doctors, they would just ask him if he was “okay”. So it stuck.
Then he started telling us that people in the area feared him. And that if he had to kill someone, he would. Or that if we ever got in trouble we should say that we know Mr. Okay and then we would be left alone. When we would pass other tuk-tuks he would call out threats and shake his fist in the air. It was all in good fun, but seemed like he was making up for something – he wasn’t the most manly man we’ve met on this trip.
Mr Okay also liked to joke about how westerners always complain about things being too expensive in Cambodia. And started mimicking these people who were on our bus who lamented that $4 for a hotel room was too much money. I had to agree about those people on the bus – $4 is a good deal no matter where you are.
The last stop was at Battambang’s version of the Killing Fields. There was a monument in the middle filled with skulls and bones. Around the base was murals depicting scenes from the Khmer Rough’s attempt to take Cambodia back to Year Zero.
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After eating breakfast at the same cafe as the previous morning, we walked to Gecko Cafe and rented a motorbike for the day. I had heard that the police in Cambodia liked to stop foreigners on motorbikes and make them pay $5 fines for basically whatever the cop felt like. So I asked the guys at Gecko about it and they said as long as the bike had mirrors and we both had helmets, we should be fine.
We headed out of town towards Phnom Sampeau, a Khmer temple complex built on top a limestone outcrop – and just like Mr. Okay had said – the roads were terrible. And our bike wasn’t much better. We might have had the worst bike while riding on the worst roads. The bike squeaked on each bump and wobbled with each bump.
The road was so dusty we had to stop at a little stand and buy face masks. The shop had lots from which to chose. I picked a pin stripped one and Tina got one with Hello Kitty on it. The kid working the stand said it was a dollar each, but his expression told me it was much less then that.
Not wanting to spend time bargaining, and since it was so cheap anyway, I said I’d pay a dollar for two. He laughed and said ok, then ran back to the house behind the shop where people were watching us. As we started to leave, the kid came running towards us with a huge handful of change. I told him to keep it and when he told his family, they all came outside waving and laughing.
At the base of Phnom Sampeau was a few more temples and a village built to get a piece of tourism pie. We wandered around a bit trying to find the path up the hill and was eventually led to the entrance where the police officer at the ticket booth told us to park next to one of the food stalls. Right as we got off the bike Mr. Okay walked out of the food stall!
We said hello and asked him what he was doing here since he told us he didn’t come out here. He didn’t really answer but got back in his hammock and didn’t seem interested in us. And his customers for that day, who were trying to enjoy their drinks acted annoyed that we were joking with Mr. Okay.
The police officer called us back to the ticket booth and informed us he would watch our bike and keep the helmets and that the ticket was also good for Phnom Banon, where we were going next. We paid for our tickets then he asked if we would like the services of a little girl. Huh?
Next thing we knew, there was a six year old girl next to us already set on guiding us. The officer leans towards me and get all serious and says in a low voice, “Pay her a dollar. Nothing more.” We aren’t big fans of exploiting little kids who should be in school, but this all happened so quick and it seemed like the officer wasn’t really asking. It didn’t seem like we had a choice.
So we followed her up the hill where she showed us round the temple and the Killing Caves – caves where the Khmer Rouge would drop people down to kill them. The temple gave us great views of the surrounding land and there was yet another monkey chained to a tree. A monk came over and asked for a donation. I said I’d be glad to give him some money but he’d have to let the monkey go. Not sure that went over so well.
When we got down off the hill we decided to take a break and have a drink at the food stall. Mr. Okay – and his customers who looked bored and annoyed – were still there. He was resting in a hammock making jokes with the shopkeeper. When we showed up he seemed surprised and there was an awkward exchange of glances between him and his customers. As if everyone realized that we had just gone up the hill and back down and they were still there. The look on the customer’s faces made it clear that they were not ok with Mr. Okay.
We had a quick drink then mounted up and took the dirt road heading towards Phnom Banan. I saw a side road that went through some fields that seemed to parallel the main road, so we took that – only having to backtrack after about 15 minutes when the road ended.
We got to Phnom Banan and hiked up the steps to the top which afforded great views – even across the fields back towards Phnom Sampeau. After making it back down the steps, all 358 of them, we got some drinks at one of the stalls at the base and spent the next couple hours resting in hammocks. The police officer was hanging out there as well as a few guys who spoke a little English. One of them was Vietnamese man who had fought in the war for the South Vietnamese. After the war he fled to Thailand then to Cambodia where he had lived ever since. He was still afraid to return home.
They were telling stories then started making fun at how other Asian – particularly Thai – people pronounced English words and would look to us for confirmation on how to say them. I enjoyed this banter because it was another example that everyone in the world makes fun of everyone else in the world. So now I don’t feel so bad now when I do it.
They also liked “joke-stories”. The guard had a few that he loved to tell so he turned to me and said:
“If a durian or a coconut fell on your head, which would hurt worse”, he asked?
Easy, I thought. “Coconut”.
“Think about it. Your head would hurt worse!” He and his buddies broke into a fit of laughter while Tina and I just looked at each other. Then he started another joke and was really animated and was telling it in English and Khmer. But as he kept going, he slowed down and lost all enthusiasm for telling the joke in English.
He stopped and excused himself, then continued the joke in Khmer. When he said the punch line, everyone laughed really hard for a while. After they settled down, he turned to us, apologized, and while wiping the tears from his eyes, said that the joke was really only funny in Khmer.