BATTAMBANG - The Lost Staff
By : Jon Bugge..Picture by: Jon Bugge ( June, 2002 Volume 2 No.6 )

103o 6 ' East 13 o 6" North - a mere dot on an atlas, however this provincial capital has seen a fair share of international attention. The province itself has been handed between France, Siam and Cambodia in only the last 150 years. Battambang literally means "lost staff": referring to an episode in Khmer history when the King Kron Nhong threw his wooden staff from Angkor and it landed in present day Battambang. A fact commemorated by the huge golden statue in honour of the staff-throwing king, erected in the town. Believed to be the kingdom’s second largest city, Battambang is set in fertile alluvial soil that provides the country's highest quality rice crops. In fact, as a province, Battambang produces enough rice for the entire country. With such agricultural wealth and the existence of both rubies and emeralds within the provincial border, Battambang has grown through trade; a fact that has undoubtedly been abetted by the city's relative proximity to Bangkok. To a lesser extent, trade was also plied to the East even as far as Saigon, through the network of rivers. A strong influence in this growth of trade were immigrants; Chinese traders for centuries have played a notable role in the city's history. Even with these economic advantages Battambang still retains its colonial charm. This is one of the prime reasons to visit the city. It exemplifies Cambodian provincial life, as if mirroring the seemingly tranquil Sang Ke River, which bisects the town. In true Cambodian tradition the river has shared importance with the market, which also dominates the center of the town. Equally the commercial center as it is the social. Surrounding the market are the faded yellows and peeling blues of the colonial houses that give Battambang so much of its character.

Getting there is half the fun! The road leaves a good deal to be desired. The trip is often long and arduous. For those with the means flying is an easy, if somewhat sterile, option. The boat from Siem Reap provides an alternative and a chance to see the synergy between the Cambodian people and their rivers, which play such a crucial role in their existence. It provides an attractive way to enter the city along the arterial waterway which has been the city's link for longer than any wheels have plied the road. Slowly Battambang accumulates along the banks of the river with increasing symptoms of urbanization. The journey is only about three hours and offers endless visual distractions. Train travel is a unique experience. With goods and people making their way to and from the capital, always busy and vibrant, albeit a bit slow--in all it takes about 13 hours! Battambang's relevance within a Cambodian context was something that did not escape the Khmer Rouge, who found the area around the town to be of increased strategic importance: bearing witness to both the richness of the region and the geographical position of power. Phnom Sampeou - The Ship Mountain of 700 steps. The hill is full of caves and grottos and even some cave dwelling monks and nuns. A Wat, which perches atop the hill, was used as a prison and torture facility. Beneath the pagoda is a cave system, which is where so many of the victims of the regime lay as they fell. They were simply pushed from a hole, high in the ceiling of the cave.

A brightly painted, six metre long, reclining Buddha, at the bottom of one of the caves, brings a semblance of calm. The caves are wide open and nestled within the depths of the hill. They serve as a sad testament to those who lost their lives here. A collection of skulls and bones drives the point home and instills in the place a sense morbid terror. Phnom Krapeu - Crocodile Mountain. From Phnom Sampeou you can get the clearest view of this hill, which does, abstractly, look like the outline of a slumbering crocodile. Also visible is Phnom Banan. Phnom Banan: The Banan temple is a beautiful 10th century Angkorian style structure. Within the building there are five prangs, or towers, in varying states of disrepair. The entrance has 150 stairs with the archetypal naga balustrade and the occasional fallen Angkorian lion statue. Inside the central prang there is a collection of modern statues and several older lingas. The prangs sport some ornately detailed lintels and a high level of workmanship. A slightly less aesthetic addition is the large artillery gun which looks out over the plains below, the site had both spiritual and military prowess. Not surprisingly the views from here are breathtaking with the fertile rice lands stretching out to the horizon dotted with the Technicolor of pagodas and temples. When set in contrast with the emerald green of the young paddies below it proves to be a soul-quenching vista. Ek Phnom - This 10th century temple looks as if it is likely to collapse with hardly a right angle left in the structure - an imposing g edifice that looms overhead and seems to bulge out at the sides. With the archetypal proportions and presence, the temple stands a mute testament in the ever-changing world around it. Although in disrepair the charm and serenity of the building are still evident centuries after its construction. Ek Phnom, whilst maybe not in the same league as the Angkor Wat, still holds it own in the pantheon of temples that are found within the kingdom. In essence: a quirky little tumbledown temple, with a few examples of fine carving.
Battambang has seen a relative boom in bars and restaurants recently and now can offer a few choices with regards going out. Alternatively, do as the locals do and simply stroll along the river and enjoy the views of some fantastic houses along the riverbank. Battambang may not be the largest in size but is arguably first in serenity. Almost verging on soporific at times. Nevertheless the city does serve as an important hub and has been for centuries.