Tourist guides speak pretty well about Battambang, but History books will give a more gloomy image of it. If we refer to modern history books, that is. The city with its yellow colonial buildings and the relaxed atmosphere of a small town turns it into a nice place, but not far from it, I had my first contact with the ghosts of the brutal events that characterized the period of Red Khmer.
The caves I intend to visit are a few kilometres down the road to Pailin, and to get there I need a means of transport. On the square in front of the crowded food market, I find a group of tuk tuk drivers chatting and smoking, seated on the curb. I get nearer and I try to ask how much a tour of Battambang costs; they look at me puzzled. I try my best Khmer, but my pronunciation is uncertain raising the collective hilarity. One of them calls a man attempting to clean the mirrors of his tuk tuk with a tissue. The man, in his mid-forties, approaches me smiling. His skin is golden brown, his eyes are two small slits surmounted by wide eyebrows; he has a friendly appearance, but does not seem to be much more experienced than his friends when speaking English. I slowly rephrase my question and he shows me a figure with his fingers. But when he listens to the places I intend to visit, his mouth opens in a shy smile, embarrassed he glances around to colleagues, looking at us, and as if he wanted to apologise, he says: “no understand”. He knows but a few words and formulas and for anything else, he avails himself of Google translator on his smartphone. Writing keywords on his cellphone, we finally manage to understand each other.
Before leaving the town, I want a quick round of Battambang, so the man whose name is Wan, offers to take me to his favourite temple: Wat Kandal, located on the east bank of the river. The pagoda, white and edged with golden ornaments, stands in the blue sky bordered by the foliage of the palm trees swaying in the morning breeze. The nagas, with open mouths protruding from the roof corners, shine at the light of the high sun, and elegant embroideries decorate the windows of the temple. I take my shoes off and I enter the temple. The large room is full of monks with their saffron robes. They are lying on the floor, some sleeping, others sending messages with their phones, and others are bent over their books. A group of boys near the altar see me, compose themselves and beckon to me to get nearer. They invite me to sit on the ground next to them; they are young and curious to find out something about me and my country. The most talkative, I believe responding to the name of Rangsey, speaks English well, while the others maybe for their being shy or for language problems just listen, speak little, and when they laugh they cover their mouth with their hand. Rangsey is twenty-three years old; he comes from a small village in the north of the country, and is the eldest of four brothers. When he speaks he often touches his head, shaved as a sign of non-attachment to earthly things. I ask him why he decided to become a monk and he tells me he’s not going to take the vows: joining a monastery gives the opportunity to study for kids like him. “My family is poor and cannot afford to pay for my studies. I thus came into this monastery”. Rangsey, alike the young boys sitting next to him, is not a monk by vocation, but by necessity. He tells me that in Cambodia it is a common practice to enter a monastery in order to study. This explains the large number of young monks in the country: temples provide an educational solution for poor people, the have-nots; at the end of this experience, the boys can choose whether to reintegrate society and resume a normal life, or enter the sangha, the community of monks, on a permanent basis. The price to pay to have an education is the separation from the respective family and the harsh and stern discipline monks have to live. They wake up at 4 and consume a frugal breakfast made of rice and fruit donated by people visiting the temples and offering foods and money every morning. Their days are scheduled by study, prayers and work; there is no form of entertainment and the little free time they manage to have is used to do something useful for the monastery. We keep chatting for some time and they are curious: they want to know whether there are monks in Italy and how they live. For these young guys, talking to foreigners is a way to practice their English and take some curiosity off about a world which is very far from their reality. For visitors, it is a valueless opportunity to get in touch with the daily lives of so many young Cambodians and truly understand something more about Buddhism.
I remember the poor Wan who was left outside, in the temple gardens, waiting for me, and I leave the group of monks with the formula that they have just taught me: “Lay hai!”. They smile and greet me with a sompiah, the traditional Cambodian greeting, joining hands as if in prayer.
Wan tells me, with the help of his translator on the phone, about a particular train that entertains lots of tourists. It is called “bamboo train” because it is made of bamboo. I can’t get an idea of what it is, but he says that if I want, he can drive me there at no extra charge. It is an idea of his and he thinks I will like the train. I agree and after a few minutes we arrive in front of an old track behind some wooden houses with the roof covered with sugar palms dried leaves. In the shadow of the huts yellow emaciated dogs lie down. I find that what they call “train” is actually nothing but a slight platform made of bamboo sticks, held together with a metal frame and resting on four steel wheels that runs along the binary. A man in uniform “assigns” the vehicle on which I will travel. The driver, a guy in his early twenties, jumps onto the train after me, starts the engine by pulling a strap and we set off. I ask him about the itinerary and he replies that we’ll just go straight on for a few kilometres as far as the nearby village of O Sra Lav. My driver is called Reach and speaks English with a kind of American accent. “I learnt it in contact with foreign tourists” he says, raising his voice to cover the sound of the engine. We pass in the middle of meadows, where white cows graze, darting on crooked and misaligned tracks. I begin to think that it will be a miracle if we don’t derail. I ask Reach about the bamboo train, as it is known among tourists, and he tells me that it is a means of transport that locals use to get around, especially for transporting materials and goods. “What about a normal train? Why don’t you use a normal train?” I ask watching with some concern about the bumpy bridge we are crossing without slowing down at all. Reach looks at me and laughs. He is very slim and has a wide smile the whiteness of which contrasts with his tanned skin. “We don’t have a passengers train service”, he replies, “our railways are unusable, and they would however be far too slow”. A few meters farther he slows the train down and stops the vehicle. I turn round and see a bamboo train coming towards us with four passengers on board. Reach asking me to get off and then, with the help of the other driver, dismantles the train. They raise the platform and place it on the grass and do the same with the wheel axles. The group continues its trip while Reach and I wait next to the disassembled train. “There is only one binary for both directions: the vehicle with fewer passengers must give way. That’s why the trains are easily removable” he explains to me enjoying my expression.
At the end of the path we reach the village of O Sra Lav shaded by trees, where what I can see is but very few small houses and some souvenirs stands. No sooner have I got off the train than two tiny children come towards me chanting. They are a boy and a girl, not more than eight years old. The little combative girl surpasses the boy and gets closer to me: “If you buy bracelets, you’ll buy from me. Promise!” she orders, handing me her small pinkie to seal the deal. The child behind her disagrees and offers me the same proposal, but the little girl pushes him away and gives me her tiny finger once more, “Promise!” I don’t dare contradicting her. She tells me that her friend has just nicked two customers from her, now it’s her turn. I think she’s right and we make the deal tightening our pinkies. She then starts displaying all her goods: some coloured, basic cotton bracelets. “Three for one dollar!” I am not so convinced: I don’t think it is right nor acceptable for children to spend their time selling souvenirs to tourists. I thus try and understand, at least, whether it is just a marginal employment. The two of them tell me that they go to school every single day, but that day was Sunday and the school was closed. Alike Reach, they have learned English from the tourists. The girl tells me she likes studying, the boy, on the other hand, tells me that he prefers climbing trees, but he wants to become a doctor.
They then walk me behind the curtains of some stalls where cotton shirts are sold in order to show me the village brick factory. The land is covered with piles of rice husks which are used as fuel for furnaces for baking the clay. They explain the process by simulating the operation with a tool that gives the bricks their final shape. They reveal to me that the factory is now abandoned, but they do not know why. Once my curiosity quenched, they start showing me the bracelets once more, begging “Three for one dollar”. I give in and purchase a green bracelet from the girl. She binds it to my wrist and says: “Beautiful!” Reach calls me, it’s time to go back. I greet the children and I get back on the train.
Wan and I leave towards the Phnom Sampeau caves, hidden in a limestone formation that stands solitary in a plain covered with jade rice paddies. Wan parks his tuk tuk and decides to come with me on a visit. From the top, the view is overlooking a beautiful landscape. He indicates a point away and tells me that when he was fifteen, he used to go to that place with his cousin, who was enrolled in governmental forces (the Fank, i.e. Forces Armées Nationales Khmères), during the civil war against the Red Khmers. There were fire fights every day, but Wan didn’t join in the fightings. “Pum pum pum!” he says miming a rifle, “I fear”, ‘I was afraid’, he says and smiles shyly. Then he points the plain of Pailin province out, on the border with Thailand. He explains that it is a very dangerous area and it is not recommended to go there because of land mines: “No walk, danger!”. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. The CMAC (Cambodia Mine Action Centre) plans to complete the operations regarding the country’s mine clearance not before 2020. It was mainly the Red Khmers, Pol Pot’s communists, who held power from 1975 to 1979, and filled the Cambodian soil with mines. The most heavily mined places are the border areas: the goal was to stop all potential invasions and to make sure that the population could not escape. From Cambodia people could not enter and nor exit.
Wan walks me up to the cave, he is keen to be my guide; he is from Battambang countryside and he knows the history of these places, but he meets difficulties in explaining it in English. We slowly step down the long stairs leading into the cave where a statue of Buddha is lying showing him with a serene and peaceful look which contrasts with the altar full of human skulls, at his side. In this cave the Red Khmers got rid of the bodies of their victims. After the end of the Communist ruling in Cambodia, the bones of the victims were collected and studied and a little shrine for preserving them was built. Today, those shattered bones and those toothless skulls are like a macabre monument to remember what men are able to achieve.
We leave the temple and, on Wan’s advice, we sit in a bar in front of the limestone mountain. Wan says that from here we will have a breathtaking view: we are waiting for the show, rather the performance of thousands of bats coming out from the caves at sunset. The sun has dropped below the horizon line and the sky is turning purple. It is shortly after dark and bats do not feel like coming out, when, all at once, a small dark swarm stains the sky. At the very beginning, few of them hesitatingly come out, but all of a sudden, the flow increases, forming a long swarm of tiny beings that flap their wings frantically. A black cloud alike ink covers the sky before our eyes. Bats fly away to the call of the night, leaving us with a sense of unease at the foot of the cave.
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