My Day with Sokoma

Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia but somehow it doesn’t feel like it. The main part of town was manageable to walk around and the rest is easily accessible as long as you don’t mind a bumpy motorbike ride on uneven dirt roads.

When the boat was pulling up to Battambang I was shocked to see two dozen men on the sloped shore holding up signs for accommodation and tuktuks. “You need tuktuk? Anywhere in the city 50 cents!” “Need accommodation? So-and-so-hotel, best rooms, cheap!” I couldn’t help but laugh at the site and then walk straight past it. I had no accommodation but the map looked like I could walk to the few options in my Lonely Planet, which was right. It was no more than 10 minutes from the boat to the guesthouses. First one, full. Second, full. Shit. Do you have a recommendation? Try 333 around the corner. Dorms are full, but there’s a private available. How much? $4. Good enough.

My private room in 333 was not as luxurious as it sounds, nor as private. I had a roommate: a gecko. The bathroom had a shower head on the wall with just two options – on or off, no hot water here – and the toilet flushed by pouring water into it from the bucket sitting under a tap on the floor. It smelled awful. The hard bed had an old fleece blanket with an unfamiliar cartoon on it for warmth, which was pretty unnecessary given the constant heat in Battambang. I opted to sleep in my sleep-sack with the fan pointed directly at me. I did have a TV! A generous 10-inch TV from the 80’s. I managed to find some English channels so I got all caught up on The Voice and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (they really went downhill after 1).

I had two days in Battambang between the social days of Siem Reap and seeing my sister in Thailand so I wanted to spend these alone. Meeting people traveling is great, but I sometimes miss the alone time that I expected to have so much of when I decided to travel alone for so long. This was one of those times I made sure to get in some me time. Except for the 8 hours I spent with a 60-year-old Cambodian man. That kind of break in alone time though is exactly what I like when I take days in towns by myself like this.

My first morning in Battambang I was on my way to find food when a man on a motorbike pulled up asking if I wanted a driver for the day. $10. I said I was going to rent my own bike, I did actually want to get out and see the temples around the city that day, but he had some good points about gas and potential for the bike to break and he was also a guide. When I said I needed food first he said he would take me somewhere to eat, then we’d go. Alright sir I was convinced.

Great decision. I had a fantastic day with Sokoma. He was more of a guide than I ever would have expected. As we drove around he pointed out typical Cambodian architecture – house on stilts for the floods, many windows around the one floor above, the underneath serving as a living space in the dry season – and showed me things that were not just the main highlights. He took me to Cambodia’s only vineyard for some wine, brandy, grape juice, and ginger juice tasting (it wasn’t even 11 am yet; the wine was like fruit juice but the brandy was pretty strong); we stopped at a rice factory so I could see how rice kernels get separated from the plant; he told me all the crops that were growing from rice to peanuts and showed me how two kinds of plants close their leaves when you touch them; he pointed out chili’s growing on the side of the road; he stopped so I could try a fried cricket from a street-side stand (really really crunchy, not much flavor).

Along the way we talked about Cambodia: religion of the area and his own beliefs; how people lived and farmed outside of the city, with so little water around; the fact that they eat dog and apparently it is quite tasty, although I still couldn’t bring myself to try it; and most interestingly what it was like to live during the Khmer Rouge. He has seen decades of life in Cambodia and asked me if I wanted to know more. I did. It was a fascinating conversation that was unfortunately cut short by the spectacle of the bats, but I feel so lucky to have had it.

And of course he took me to the main sites: the Wat Banan temple, where I climbed up over 300 stairs to see what temples really look like when they’re not preserved like they are at Angkor Wat; the supposedly oldest temple in the area (whose name I completely forget); the Killing Caves, the site where thousands of Cambodians were murdered by being dropped into a cave; and above it the Phnom Sampeau temple complex, where I helped a monk practice his English. This is also where the bats made a mass exodus at dusk in search of food. We watched for 15 minutes then chased them down the road on the bike so I could see the groups of bats weaving their search patterns. Truly majestic, if a bit creepy. We also made a bonus stop because we had some extra time (apparently I move faster than most people he takes around) – a Buddhist shrine deep inside a cave, which I descended into alone. It was silent, dark, eerie, and only by the light of a flashlight could I see the giant reclining Buddha against the wall. I was proud of myself for making it there but the images of the robbery attempt just a day and a half before made me paranoid so I got out pretty quick. Not many people see this place though so again I felt lucky have had Sokoma as my guide.

We got back after dark and I felt like I had seen everything and way more than I set out to see. I thanked Sokoma. He was truly fantastic. Also don’t worry, I filmed pretty much the entire day on my GoPro. Watch out for the video in the next few months (tons of footage to edit).

The rest of my time in Battambang was pretty relaxed. I did a self-guided walking tour of the architectural history of the city based on a map by Khmer Architecture Tours. I sat at a cafe in the air conditioning blogging and backing up pictures. I had a final Cambodian meal at White Rose, the place Sokoma had taken me for breakfast, on a balcony overlooking the night activity on the street below. The next day I would leave at 8 am for a lengthy land trip down to the coast of Thailand.

I reflected on my time in Cambodia. I loved it. I felt sad to leave, there was so much more to see there. I knew I had to get to Thailand to meet up with friends but wished I had more time. It felt very different from leaving Vietnam, a place I knew I had missed things but felt okay with departing. I still haven’t ripped the Cambodia pages out of my guidebook just in case I end up back there. One day Cambodia, I’ll see you again.


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