More specifically in Battambang.
Eight hours north of Phnom Penh (the fascinating waterfront capital that is undergoing a rapid transformation entirely fueled by mounds of foreign investment), three hours west of Siem Reap (exploding boomtown that is the gateway to the temples of Angkor Wat), Battambang is a small city that feels more like a large town. It is fantastically dusty, has a burgeoning art scene, and it is architecturally interesting. When the full sun hits the colonial era buildings, the effect is distinctively Hopper. Soulful, lonesome, melancholy, if it were anywhere elsewhere, Battambang would be the perfect setting for the great American novel.
A chapter could easily be written for every street corner of Battambang and the colorful residents would no doubt be an endless source of inspiration. Tuk-tuk drivers spend much of the day sitting idle, whistling and calling at locals and visitors, in search of a fare. Say no once, they try again. Say no twice, well, you have three more times to go until they truly believe you might just wish to take a stroll on your own two feet. During the heat of the day their motivation vanishes and they line up on the side of the road by the riverbed, napping in hammocks underneath the trees.
On the main road of Battambang, past the traditional Chinese medicine shops and the school that is in a perpetual state of recess, a row of barbers cut hair on the street. I’m not entirely sure if an appointment is necessary, but if you find yourself in pants that are to long while waiting, you can step into a nearby doorway where five little ladies sit, their foot pedal sewing machines ready to make a new hem. Amble on a bit further to reach the by day antiques and curiosity shop that by night, transforms into a bar and boutique hotel. Owned by an eccentric and lovely Australian ex-pat couple with the gift of gab, the scene inside is a comedy unto itself. Oh the stories they do tell about the going on’s in Battambang.
Of the local art scene, Phare Ponleu Selpa, is the anchor. Based in Battambang, the performance complex and associated art school grew out of the post-Khmer Rouge era refugee camps and is a source of pride not only in the city but for the entire nation of Cambodia. Need some inspiration in your life? Watch a cast of fifteen and sixteen year old students perform a full length circus that they have written, choreographed, and scored that fully resonates with an international audience. And this is without the benefit of fancy costumes or elaborate props. This same spirit spills over into other visual art forms filling the streets with galleries and cafe’s.
And did I mention that there is also a bamboo train?
A 45 minute joyride to nowhere and back that is hysterical, ridiculous, and just simply fun. Locally called the norrie, the train consists of a bamboo platform set on two sets of thingy’s that resemble barbels and is powered by a guy and his small motor stuck on the back. With a little bit of an incline, the train can get up to at least 35 mph. It runs on a single track that serves traffic in both directions. When two trains converge on the same spot, one direction must jump off and their train gets fully disassembled. Once one passes, the undone train gets put back together again.
Is it safe? Definitely not. Is it fun? Absolutely!!!!!!