The well-kept secrets of Angkor Wat

If you look beyond the smiling Buddha faces of Bayon and the towers of Angkor Wat, you might stumble upon a sleepy district lost somewhere in the shadows of its more popular neighbor Siem Reap.

Battambang, surprisingly the second largest city in Cambodia, is where I finally found the bona fide flavor of the country and which doesn't adhere to rules laid down for its tourist-centric trail.

Initially, I wanted to take a boat to Battambang from Siem Reap, despite knowing that the journey time would be doubled. The water levels of the Tonle Sap River were quite low, so that made sure I stuck to the three-hour road journey. To my surprise, this town that came across as a laid-back settlement, was actually the second-largest in Cambodia and has witnessed its fair share of tumultuous events in Cambodia's long, mutinous history.

A walking distance away from the Bayon is the temple-mountain of Baphuon
 which was undergoing extensive renovation.

The bamboo train

Apart from the past that it still retains, Battambang has also held on to its ancient bamboo train system. Extremely impatient for a ride, I left the very same day for Odambang, the village from where you can 'board' the train. The train is nothing more than a large bamboo platform mounted on train axles powered by a small go-kart engine, and as mundane as it looks, the journey atop is nothing short of exhilarating.

I didn't realize it till I sat on it, and waited for the young boy to pull the engine cord that brought the bamboo train to life. Within a few seconds, we were hurtling through greenery with fierce speed. With no roof, doors, or seatbelts and with only a railing to hold on to, it's more thrilling than a rollercoaster ride. The most quirky part is that when another bamboo train approaches from the opposite side, you have to stop to get off, heave the cart off the tracks, change positions and resume! It could actually be tiresome once the novelty wears off, but the teamwork of strangers is quite endearing.

For ages, the rural parts of the surrounding region have had the bamboo train as its most dependable mode of transport. I was sad to learn that it was phasing out and would soon be replaced by the modern railway system, and glad that I had a chance to experience it before that happened.

Art of making rice paper

Around the main Battambang town are a host of elfin villages that introduce you to the rural heart of Cambodia in a way that none of the other places here do. I started this tryst in one such village where I saw and learnt the traditional way of making 'rice paper'. This is not the paper used for artwork but refers to the thin, translucent layer of pounded and steamed rice used to wrap fresh spring rolls.

Until I spent hours there observing how the rice is boiled, drained and milled before even starting the real process, I would have never thought of the humungous effort that goes into making an everyday dish here. My 'tuk tuk' driver was on a mission to show me 'real Cambodian food' and the village of Phsa Prohok welcomed us with a stench that pervaded my senses for days after.

Fish paste, which is a condiment of freshly pounded fish of all kinds that is left to rot, is a major ingredient in authentic homemade Cambodian food. Though I was assured by everyone that once cooked, the smell evaporates, there was no way I could be convinced to buy some and try it out. What I did buy though was the delicious bamboo sticky rice. Though it is found pretty much all over Cambodia, the sticky rice in Battambang, the 'rice bowl of Cambodia' is famous all over. Getting off from the ubiquitous hammock that Cambodians love to lie in, the young girl at the roadside shack heated one of the bamboo pieces over fire and cracked it open to reveal the ready mix of steamed rice, coconut milk and nuts. Despite not being a rice lover, I devoured it in minutes. No visit to the palate trail is complete without a visit to the petite Battambang Winery, the sole winery of Cambodia, so we made a pit stop there to sample the traditional red and white wines apart from the locally brewed brandy and delicious ginger ale.

One of the 216 huge faces of Avalokiteshvara in the Bayon

The mini Angkor Wat

While Angkor Wat is Cambodia's biggest draw, few know that tucked away in Battambang is a primeval temple that is believed to have been the inspiration for the magnum opus. A long flight of steps up the quiet hillock takes you to the Banon temple which was built in the 11th century by Udayadityavarman II. It has five towers pointing towards the sky and looks like a smaller version of Angkor Wat.

Being surrounded by dense foliage, it's hard to get anything more than a glimpse of the expanse below. But if you want a grand view, the best bet is the hill atop which rests the temple Phnom Sampeu. It commands a surreal sight of Battambang in the distance and a vast canopy of green in the foreground of the dark hills that glow like embers in the last rays of the dying sun. Before it turned completely dark, I spiralled down the hill on a 'bike taxi' for my most awaited moment.

Source: Shikha Tripathi
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