I suppose the Khmer people saw no irony in King Sihanouk’s birthday falling on Friday the 13th this year, but Yoshi, who was on the lookout for tragedy, mentioned it as our bus came to a sad stop at the side of the highway an hour west of the capital. Our long weekend in Battambang was off to a shaky start. It seemed like forever creeping out of Phnom Penh traffic, and then a slow roll along Highway 5. Now following the direction of our fellow travelers, we were stepping off into the mid-morning blast furnace, not sure what was the problem. ‘This bus no good,’ the driver offered me a feeble smile and gestured at the bus. Ernest, ever-diligent, and Yoshi, begrudgingly, took each a bag as I held the little ones by the hand and followed the others. We headed for the one patch of shade along that road: a bamboo platform over a ditch covered by a tarp. For an hour we squatted together, intermittently looking up for cues from the driver, keeping the little ones in check, and then jabbing, pulling hair, and squealing.
It was a relief to finally arrive at the bus station in Battambang. The city is surrounded by rice paddies, and then mills and warehouses as you get closer to town. It is a town of homegrown business, not a Siem Reap or a Sihanoukville. Here much of the country’s rice is dried and milled and packaged for sale in Thailand about a hundred and fifty kilometers down the road. It’s a city of 3 and 4-storey rowhouses, some in the 19th century French colonial style, some burnt-out shells of former homes, some functional re-makes in tile, stucco, and chintzy mirrored glass. Stacked on the ground floor of each is the homely commerce of the day-to-day: tires and carburetors, bathroom fixtures and mobile phones. None of the well-heeled adventure-travelers of Angkor Wat, nor the vacant-eyed backpackers of Kep. At dusk the riverside pavilion fills with middle-aged Khmer women doing dance aerobics. After dark, young couples make modest advances at each other along the benches.
For tourists, it’s not the heart of Battambang, but the surroundings that are the draw. A thousand years ago, a Hindi dynasty built great temples in those hills. Later, great reclining Buddhas were added. And around the time I was born, some of those temples became interrogation and torture cells, and caverns beneath the hills the dumping ground for more than ten thousand victims.
Early Saturday morning, we headed out in a tuk-tuk to discover. We rode south along the west side of the Sangker River, where villagers plant multi-tiered vegetable gardens along the deeper, dry-season banks. Ernest and Yoshi craned their necks to check for crocodiles. Wat Banan is an 11th century hilltop ruin that offers sweeping 360-degree views of surrounding paddies to those who manage the 358 steps to the top. Puck tripped and skinned his knee on the second step, so he rode in mommy’s arms the rest of the way.
Then a bumpier ride along a pot-holed dirt road across the paddies to Phnom Sampeou, a Buddhist temple set on a steep bluff, and next to it, the infamous killing caves (here are two similar blog posts (1) (2) ). We rode the steep incline to the top and were rewarded with our first wild monkey-spotting. Napping in the trees, walking along the railing and swinging in the hammock of the monk’s residence were four feisty monkeys, which Yoshi playfully identified as mommy’s four kids. I could see the resemblance. Monkeys can get pretty mean, though, when people throw rocks and flip-flops at them, as we quickly learned from our unsavory fellow visitors. Ernest was mortified to see adults behaving this way. Inside the cliff-top temple is the laid-back resident monk, who takes naps when he’s not dispensing blessings. He came out to get a look at us and apparently to count my children. Did the airline offer discounted pricing for kids’ tickets?, he wondered. I explained the policy of Star Alliance carriers.
After a passing look at another massive Buddha, we headed for the killing cave at the side of the temple. We descended a long, narrow staircase, built more recently to give visitors easier access. A small altar and reclining Buddha were also added. During the time of the Khmer Rouge, this cave had been only a pit with one hole further up the hill, where victims’ throats were slit, and through which they were then thrown into the depths below. At one time, their bones made a heap along the floor of the cave. But then skulls and bones started disappearing, maybe to darkly curious tourists, or to the same folks that throw rocks at monkeys. Now the remaining bones are encased in glass boxes near the altar. Tika eyed them warily. She is still worried about land mines, she told me, and having trouble, I think, to distinguish between the killing and the dead. Puck took off his shoes by the altar, and made sure that his brothers and sister did too, lining up the sandals carefully. Yoshi peered into a dark corner and tried to make a loud ‘Echo!’ Ernest paced around the floor, thinking through aloud, again and again, the killing process. Even in this eerie under-world, each kid seemed to be in his own world.
Climbing back up the staircase, I thought about our trips to Tuol Sleng, and Choeung Ek, haphazard efforts at growing my children’s consciousness. These places are a dominant feature in the geography of this weird country, and pretty hard to avoid. But the kids’ impressions are a mystery to me. They seem to see things with eyes sometimes insightful, sometimes naïve, sometimes totally distracted. I guess I’m trying to nurture some sort of awakening in them, but it’s an awakening to an unknown thing.