We decided to leave the tourist driven city of Siem Reap for the more laid back city of Battambang. We purchased our bus tickets from our hotel manager Koy, who informed us that there was only one bus leaving for Battambang leaving at 7:00 am sharp. Having no reason to disbelieve him, other than the fact that the majority of the time he was stoned and/or drunk, we waited for our pick up at 6:30 am sharp.
Our transfer picked us up on time and had us at the makeshift bus terminal with 10 minutes to spare… not that it really matters in Cambodia. Does it feel like this story is about to go in a different direction? We sat in the dilapidated transfer bus about 200 meters from the bus terminal and waited as the clock pushed past seven. The driver confidently knew that we were going to Battambang and which bus we were to be on, that was why we were waiting - and why would we question this because there is only one bus leaving for Battambang, right?
We finally were taken to our bus and were quite surprised at how beat up and rundown it looked. We understood that we were in Cambodia, but we paid extra to be on the VIP Bus - or at least that was what our hotel manager Koy had told us, and the pretty picture on the ticket looked nothing like the junk we were about to board. We boarded the bus and after ten minutes of not moving, and feeling uneasy about the situation, Cameron re-confirmed with the bus driver that we were on the right bus. Surprise! We were on the wrong bus!
After some heated discussions we were directed to the opposite end of the terminal where a similar piece of junk awaited departure to Battambang. The funny thing is that as we passed about twenty buses we noticed there were several buses going to Battambang, many in a far better state then the one we were to board. We weren't impressed, amplified by an old lady smoking on the bus (who does that?). Usually we're pretty good about sniffing out dodgy transport but I guess sometimes one gets past the goalie!
Right before the bus was going to leave (it made several attempts), one of the hotel employees arrived at the terminal. Our intended 'transfer bus' arrived at the hotel and he realized that he put us on the wrong bus. We were thankful that once he realized his error he immediately came to the terminal to ensure that we boarded the correct bus; another moment of genuine Cambodian hospitality (at least their intentions are good). Nevertheless, after an hour and a half of good old fashioned confusion and frustration we were on the bus destined for Battambang.
Battambang was very different from Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. It seemed much smaller, although it is said to be bigger than Siem Reap, and was definitely not a typical tourist location. It was a refreshing change of pace and we were delighted to not have any more children annoying us with their souvenirs for sale. We knew that Battambang was a sleepy town with very little to do so we decided that it was a great opportunity to take a Khmer cooking class at the Smokin' Pot Cookery School. We loved the food in Cambodia and figured we should at least take some culinary secrets home with us!
The class started with a trip to the local market to purchase the vegetables, meats, herbs and spices for the day's recipes. Having the instructor guide us through the market made the experience that much more educational and rewarding, it was a highlight on its own. The market was dirty, loud, unhygienic, hot and stinky… everything you'd expect from a Cambodian outdoor market!
It was interesting seeing the unusual types of food that are available for purchase (with obvious demand for the product). We saw large skinned frogs (an unpleasant job), small live turtles (used for food consumption), large slimy eel, spasming catfish and other random seafood, half dead chickens that twitched, various eggs covered in salts and minerals, strange prickly fruits, odd root vegetables, peculiar smelling herbs and spices, and of course a large variety of chili peppers and dried spices!
When in a third world nation it is quite evident that there is a serious lack of refrigeration, it's just too expensive and hard to come across. We saw several market vendors with stacks of meat sitting out in the open with nothing to keep it cold or to protect it from spoiling. Naturally we were a little concerned, especially when our instructor purchases a big chunk of beef for one of our dishes. When we questioned him on this he explained that the cows are slaughtered every morning so there is no need to refrigerate because it all gets consumed within the day; and what doesn't sell that day is either smoked or put into the mystery sausages. Now that is some fresh steak! It was inspiring seeing how much of the fresh food was organic and put to use, very little was ever wasted (that's what soups are for… right Fritz?!)
The first dish was a coconut fish amok, a traditional Khmer dish that required us to pound fresh ingredients into a paste (Ginza, kaffir lime leaves, dried red chili, fresh turmeric, garlic and shallots, and lemongrass). We even made our own coconut milk from shaved dried coconut. Our second dish was a beef lok lak, which is a sweet chili flavoured beef that is served on a cold salad. And the final dish was an extremely spicy chicken stir fry that was hot, hot, hot. It was a lot of food! The cooking class was a great change of pace from the typical sightseeing. It was a fun way to spend an afternoon with friends enjoying traditional Cambodian food.
Most of our time in Battambang was spent taking it easy, playing cards, researching future flights and accommodations on the internet, and hanging out in cafes drinking delicious iced coffees and fresh fruit shakes (Battambang is known for its delicious fresh fruits). Our time with Andrew and Nicola had come to an end. They were headed back to Phnom Penh to catch a flight to Manila, and we headed west to Thailand for some peaceful beach time. We were sad to say goodbye but happy to have shared some memorable moments together in one of our favourite countries.
And with that, we said good night and were up at the crack of dawn to travel into Thailand… an adventure on its own!