Number 18–National Highway #5
My plan after leaving PP was to make it up to Battambang, Cambodia's second largest city (pop. 70,000) which sits south of the lake in the northwest of the country near the Thai border, for a couple of days and then spend a few days in Siem Reap, gateway town to Angkor, before leaving Cambodia.
I never made it to Siem Reap but getting to Battambang is a story in itself. There are three ways to get there – air, pickup truck or shared taxi. I never fly absent extreme circumstances, like having to cross the ocean, or when I winged it up to 9000 ft in Nepal to save six days of walking uphill. Not only am I cheap or poor, take your pick, but I really want to see where I'm going – I'm the type of person who compulsively looks out the window when traveling even when I've passed by the same sights a hundred times – and lastly, I positively shun elitist digs. Not that it isn’t enjoyable looking down upon the earth from a little closer to the heavens, but on the ground you see what the world is really like and you travel with the common folk, or much closer at least, than in the air.
The pickup mode offers a very cramped seat in the cab – four abreast in a small Japanese rig – or crowded in the bed amongst baggage and freight. The pickups, as well as the taxis, are all used, heavily used or just beaters imported from Thailand which means the steering wheel is on the right side, or wrong side if you're in Cambodia. Imagine trying to pass a big truck on the left with a steering wheel on the right and you get the picture. Passengers riding on the left are sometimes asked for help in navigation; “ok, now you are clear to pass”. In fact, somewhere between 10 and 20% of all cars and trucks in Cambodia have right hand drive. The goverrnment doesn't exactly like it but hasn't quite figured out how to stop their import or what to do with those already here.
When the pickups plied Thailand's roads in their previous incarnation – you can still see the Thai language markings – they were minibuses with canopies. The canopies were discarded somewhere in the process so passengers just jostle around in the hot sun or rain as the case may be and sit on the pickup bed ledge or on the heaps of cargo. Back in Thailand they actually had seats. But seats take space – I'm presuming here – so they were also lost in transition.
In fact I might have taken that route if I wasn't traveling under duress, that is, with my bass, a delicate musical instrument – what a hassle. Just didn't seem safe for it on a ride that could take 7 hours or so, so I opted for the taxi (still cost only $7.50). These are Toyota Camrys so you'd think it would be an easy ride, however they don't leave until they're full and full means two people in the front passenger bucket seat and four in the back. I once saw a taxi driver put a small person between him and his door, making four people in the front’s two bucket seats.
I watched carefully as the trunk was loaded and was a nervous wreck even before we started. We waited for more than an hour to get the requisite passenger quota in the back seat and then went off to make a special pickup for the front passengers. We drove halfway across town and spent nearly an hour getting lost trying to find them. Turned out to be only one guy in front. I was a little wondrous at how he got a such a sweet deal till I learned that he paid double fare.
The first third of the trip was a good road and he drove too fast for my taste and, as many professional drivers here, spent almost as much time leaning on his horn as not. In fact, I saw real buses on this leg which I wasn't aware of – might have split the trip up had I known. (Now in 2005 there are regular overland buses on that route. They awaited the road being improved). After that the road turned into a disaster zone – potholes big enough for a sherman tank to get lost in – I'm only slightly exaggerating here – where any pavement at all existed.
However they are working on the road and in the process they've laid down a dirt shoulder in many parts. We drove on the shoulder for long stretches even though it was like riding a bucking bronco – he was intent on destroying his car's suspension, or so it seemed. Actually, it was both shoulders, crisscrossing the road whenever the other side seemed better; sometimes, traffic would get turned around and switch to driving on the left. At times you'd see bicycles in the center negotiating what was left of the pavement, with cars on the shoulder. I figure the last repairs were done on the surface back in the sixties.
Of course I was totally freaked about my bass getting tossed around in the trunk and even blew up at the driver at one point but ultimately I figured the bass was in the hands of the gods – sending it home would have been so expensive I had no choice. Meanwhile I had another dream of it getting smashed last night, the second time – made me bawl like a kid, in the dream.
There were many new bridges being built but we crossed many old ones whose roadways were made of old, even very old, wood planks – one was so bad they had a guy stationed there to direct vehicles to the good parts. Meanwhile I kept seeing these big combo trucks on the road and asked the one guy in the car who spoke English about them. Of course, highway #5 is the only road connecting Thailand to Phnom Penh. A second one is under construction and will be done soon and it is possible to go around the north of the lake but it's longer and the road's no better.
Though I left early, it was getting dark and in the middle of a fierce downpour when we hit Battambang. I said the magic words "guest house" and got let off at one of the worst places I've ever stayed. Seems like the Cambodians have hit on the words guest house without any idea what western travelers might be expecting. But there are no western oriented guest houses in Battambang so it's decidedly hit or miss. Besides, it seemed impossible to haul the bass around in the rain and dark and amongst monstrous mud puddles – highway #5 in town is more puddle than pavement, probably the worst street in the city because of all those big trucks rumbling through – so I had to take it. I paid two bucks, probably twice what locals coughed up, for a windowless room with a single bulb barely bright enough to see across the room (slight exaggeration again). There were a couple of porches that would have been nice to sit in but why no seats, I wondered.
I discovered in the morning that the hotel was a pickup minibus stopover and they had covered every inch of floor space with mats and mosquito nets on the second floor where my room was as well as setting up about fifty cots on the dirt first floor. What a trip... I can handle most anything for one night but hightailed it out of there first thing in the morning and found a funky and battered old hotel that in compensation had a spectracular garden with an ideal spot for the hammock where I spent the next five days.
It's such a nice little city I almost wish I didn't already have connections in PP... there is work here. Anyway, being the capital, PP makes it possible for me to have an impact – if I'm going to have any impact at all. Battambang has great green strips and a pleasant little river with public access on both sides. They’re doing a formal garden on one side and leaving it natural on the other.
The second day at the hotel they were running a loud generator not far from my room which propelled me out to find someplace quiet so I went to the natural bank of the river and found a place to hang out. Soon after I got comfortable on the grass a tiny butterfly, size of a dime, settled on to the back of my hand – that was cool. Black and white striped body, white wings with tiny dots on the outside edge, it hung around for a long time. I tried to remain still but even when I spaced out and moved it would alight but then come right back down on me. Happened more than a dozen times and lasted more than an hour till my legs were getting cramped trying not to move.
There aren't many travelers passing through and won't be until the road is much improved but there are droves of NGO's. Still only two western owned businesses – a restaurant and restaurant-bar;The Balcony, which had Thelonius – so cool – on the stereo when I walked in. It's a beautiful and well maintained old wooden building, probably 3000 sq. ft. overlooking the river, with the restaurant on the second floor balcony. Obvously I liked the town enough to skip Angkor again – oh well, I'll be back.
I'm now back in Ayuttaya; will leave for the mountains of northern Thailand tomorrow. Not enough time to actually travel Burma. They had been opening the border for day trippers, that is, until they got into a tiff with Thailand last week. I hope they settle it while I'm up there. I may just stay up north or if I get antsy, hit an island, which would be #7 Thai island.