I wake up ready to take on the world, and its a good thing because today requires some fitness and stamina. Our driver picks us up at the arranged time of 7.30 and we’re off into the magical countryside. A few minutes ride and we find ourselves in rural Cambodia, where chickens roost, pigs cavort in the mud and life takes on a gentle, slow pace. The villagers are starting their daily routines but they take a few seconds out to wave and smile and holler “hello”.
It’s the dry season and it’s obvious that there has been no rain for a few months as the plants alongside the dirt road are covered in a thick layer of dust. That first downpour of rain must be the most amazing and welcome. I can imagine that everyone runs out into the rain and literally washes all the dust and dirt away. It must be a wonderful experience, but for now, the only thing that we are being showered in are clouds of dust.
We pass paddy fields, banana tree plantations, corn fields, paw paw trees, vegetables gardens of all varieties, to mention but a few. The land here is fertile and it is used well. The variety of fruit and vegetables available at the markets is plentiful and the fruit is delicious.
About an hour into our ride, we arrive at Wat Phnom Banan. The construction of this temple was started by King Uttak Yeatittya Varman during his reign of 1050-1066 and was finally completed by King Jaya Varman VII during his rule of 1181-1219. To get to the temple we have to climb up exactly 358 steps, which rise straight from the ground towards the sky. The steps are not little either, so it’s probably more like 500 steps that we have to conquer. My Kilimanjaro mantra of “just one more step” comes in handy, and soon we find ourselves at the top.
I can’t help but wonder around transfixed with my mouth open. It’s a beautiful setting and I finish another memory card with the amount of photos I am taking. I love the fact that the main temple is still in use and there are devotees meditating and lighting joss sticks to the Buddha statues, as we wonder around admiring the surrounding temple buildings.
Getting down is a lot easier than the climb and the reward of a cold drink waiting for us at the bottom hurries us along. Soon we are back in the tuk-tuk and off we go to the next site, Phnom Sampeau.
The mountain of Phnom Sampeau, is of karstic limestone and has a group of temples located on it. It is also the site where people were butchered by the Khmer Rouge Regime and the bodies of those were thrown through a chute, an overhead skylight opening.
The temples and caves are approached through many steps flanked by green vegetation. It’s a 250 metre climb to the top, which in itself is arduous, but add the 90% humidity, and it becomes a greater challenge. However, as with everything in life, the reward is always proportionate to the effort or risk, and given that the effort is big, the reward is even bigger.
The temples at the top are impressive, but it’s the caves below, full of stalactites, which are impressionable. The scene inside the cave is of skulls and bones of people kept in a glass-covered cabin next to the reclining peaceful-looking Buddha. We loop back to the top again and then find a detour halfway down which takes us to another temple, this one has a large golden reclining Buddha in it.
By now, its past midday when the heat and humidity reaches its zenith, so we beat a hasty retreat down the mountain where we are greeted by our tuk-tuk driver and offered a much welcome drink. The drive back to town is uneventful. Or maybe it just seems that way because I am completely zoned out and in a catatonic state.
Back in Battambang, we stop off at the old train station where time is frozen at 8.02. I amuse myself by trying to photograph a water buffalo munching on some grass on the old railway tracks in front of one of the old station buildings, but it keeps turning its butt towards me. I eventually get the message that it wants to be left alone when it lifts its tail and drops a few land-mines close to my feet.
Our last sight-seeing for the day is a stop at the oldest temple in the city. Built in 1905, Wat Damrey Sar which means white Elephant is in the process of being given a much-needed paint job and face lift. Even so, the paintings of Buddha in his various stages of enlightenment are well worth the visit.
As we descend our chariot at the entrance to our hotel, we immediately detour to the coffee shop in front of the hotel for my newest favorite drink – Cambodian iced coffee. It’s a great way to reflect on a great day.