Some Half-time Free-time

Our final morning in Battambang comes around faster than we know it and it’s hard to believe how much we’ve managed to cram into one week. Most of us are denied our first lie-in that morning by a group of monks singing and playing traditional music, who sounded as if they were camped out beneath my window with a¬†loudspeaker. We find out it is one of the frequent holy days in the area – just another morning in Battambang!

Fiona, Liz, Jon and Gareth go to visit Wat Sampeau where some of us others had been a few days before. They ride/drive motorbikes up the steep hill path to get to the gorgeous views at the top instead of walking, which was certainly the easier (though probably also the more terrifying) way to do it!

The rest of us have a cookery class with Vanak, chef at local restaurant The Smoking Pot (an interesting place to ask directions for). He takes us to the market first to buy ingredients which is an experience on its own. Colours, sounds and smells of all kinds surround us as we squeeze between stalls, passing locals out for their version of Sunday brunch.

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The vegetables all look as if they’ve been harvested only in the last hour and the fish are so fresh they’re still moving. That was probably the hardest stall to watch for most of the group, as they beat the fish you choose with a club then descale and fillet it immediately in front of you. It’s a jolting reminder of how far removed most of us in the western world have become from the food we eat, as well as how wasteful, as the fish heads are set aside to be used in the fermented fish paste that we realise we ate yesterday when we swapped food with the locals. More fun to watch though was the machine that ground up coconut to make fresh coconut milk before our eyes – a far cry from the tins of it we use at home.

Back at the restaurant, Vanak gives us each a chopping board and large cleaver knife and guides us through the steps to make a fish amok curry and a chicken stir fry called chha mrah prow. Giggles abound, particularly when it comes to folding our own banana leaf ‘boats’ in which to cook and serve the curry, with err varying levels of success. The results though are delicious, if I may say so myself, with the fish amok recipe one to rival any of those we’ve eaten in restaurants here so far!

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In the afternoon we hit the road on the public bus to Siem Reap, which takes just over three hours. We’re not too sure what to expect from the bus but having all laughed at Susan in the 33 degree heat of the morning for packing a hoodie, we’re soon jealous of her as the air con turns it into a fridge. Aside from that the roads are relatively smooth, our luggage fits on fine and the legroom is okay. In fact it could’ve been perfect, were it not for the driver’s choice of entertainment on the screen at the front of the bus. The first two hours of the journey plays episodes of a very loud Cambodian soap opera with French then English subtitles which didn’t seem to make much sense. Most of us can hear it even through headphones. We are about to find out who killed the buffalo when the episode abruptly ends, and just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, he puts on karaoke videos for the final hour. Of ballroom dancing songs. In Cambodian. At deafening volume levels.

On arrival at Siem Reap bus station we play an amusing game of ‘how to fit 13 people plus large bags onto 3 tuk-tuks’ but somehow manage it. The hotel makes you leave your shoes at the door which gives it a lovely zen feel from the bustling road outside. We head straight back out for dinner and immediately notice we’re definitely not in chilled out bohemian Battambang anymore. We see tourists in all directions, night markets, bridges lit up in lights and even more mental road traffic behaviour if that’s possible.

The next morning we have free to start exploring. Well, some had planned a lie in but were again thwarted not by monks this time, nor Cambodian karaoke, but a wedding taking place at the hotel next door. It seemed to consist of a few disinterested people making noise and singing for 24hrs straight over a loudspeaker that blared this out onto the street.

As some of us were up early anyway, Isy, Susan, Gareth, Fiona and I headed to a morning ashtanga yoga class which was wonderfully calming and left us sitting in the garden feeling quite spaced out. A definite improvement on a Monday morning behind a desk! Others visited temples, markets or got a massage for the aching muscles after last week’s hard work. In the afternoon we go to the SeeBeyondBorders office to meet their Siem Reap staff, get an intro to the work underway here, and prepare for the pilot arts project we will be running the following morning with parents from the local community in Angkor Thom. We are also warned that the poverty here is worse than in Battambang, and we’re all curious to meet the local people ourselves in the morning.

Our motley crew from different Aberdeen departments and offices has bonded into a proper extended family over the week, whether through the breathless conversations had whilst shovelling gravel, sweating buckets together, comparing our swollen cankles in the heat, or swapping tips for the optimal toilet squat position. It’s a sudden jolt then when we sadly remember Gareth is on a shorter trip and leaving us the next day to head back home to Singapore. We have a few beers for the road with him, and are each reminded of how limited a time we have left here to help…

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