The Arts Are Alive in Battambang

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Battambang is Cambodias second biggest city. It has all the charm of a large sleepy town, where everyone knows each other. We got off the bus and for a change decided to go with the first fixer we found. Ahhh, who wants to fight over everything? He took us to a new hotel in the middle of town, with a pool on the 4th floor, over looking the city. Chilling in the pool reminded me a lot or being a roofer, being above everything, no one knows your there, but your see so much more. Nothing like a birds eye view. Then at the very top of the hotel was a great roof deck, with 360 degree views. I could not believe they did not have a restaurant up there it was so nice. We would go up there to read and relax. More often then not no one else would be up there. Our room, well, we got that for 12 dollars, no kidding; large bed, clean tile floors, internet, and cable TV. The prices seem nuts to me now. So we were set.
http://www.senghouthotel.com

A comic strip I did from the hotel.
https://michaelbencik.org/2013/03/06/language-barrier/

The first day we wandered around aimlessly, looking for Happy Mashed potato’s and other drug induced food. Just kidding. Though you can get pretty much anything “Happy” here.  There were plenty of restaurants to choose from, one of the great things about this city. Many artist made it their home here, and following them were a lot of quirky cafes and restaurants to cater to them. For Cambodia, this is considered the mecca for artistes. The puppet parade was devised and started here. Our favorite spot was the Gecko café, which hired and trained local kids to do everything from cooking, waiting tables, to managing the restaurant. It was a great program for helping young people get training in the hospitality business. Food was great, and staff so damn nice.

Everyone one knows the heart of any urban center is its market. Dead center in town there is a 1920 market place, Psar Nat, (meeting place market) built by the French in a Art Deco/Modernist way. It’s painted in the mustard yellow so popular from this time period, with a tall tower in the front, with a tiered roof going up to it. Its interesting, but then some idiot decided to put a Pizza place in front of it modeled off Little Caesar’s, taking away a lot of the architectural beauty. You cant always win I guess. Inside the market there were all kinds of local food stalls, jewelry sellers, toys, and really everything. It was not huge, but packed. Outside the market on the sidewalk around it there were butchers, fishmongers, and grills of every type. There were dogs and cats patrolling, and rats scurrying away from everyone. I would spend most my mornings enjoying a phó and sketching. Battambang is really hot, so you get a dusty frontier town fee. Most people seem to hide out from the heat, working early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
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We arrived on a weekend, so a lot of things were closed. We hoped the museum would be open so we set up in search of it. When we got there the sign’s hours said it should be open, but the gates were sealed tight. We wandered around checking out the French architecture, like the governors mansion. The insides were closed, but it was beautiful on the outside, with Elephant motifs blended in.

We wandered through a Buddhist temple that had a series of life sized sculptures of elephants, warriors, and demons, all dieing in grotesque and highly detailed ways. This was the Pagoda Tahm-rai-saw, or White Elephant Pagoda. Named for the large white elephant sculpture in front. Why the statues around it were so detailed and violent I never got a good answer to. Behind them was a beautiful temple with the multi-tiered roof, with the spine of the roof or barge board, angling up like snakes or nagas shooting to the sky.

In a small park was one of the most impressive modern sculptures that I had seen. It was the classical image of a Naga, completely made out of bullets, rifles, and casings. It had a hard edge to it, all rusted together in a scary and distinct form. It was made from all the bullets and weapons found from all the wars fought in Cambodia. Its called the Naga for Peace and Development statue. The weapons were all collected between the years of 2005 and 2007, in an effort to reduce the amount of weapons still laying around. The statue was designed by Toun Thorneakes, Ou Vanndy, Ouk Chim Vichet and Kim Sand.
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http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM9X45_Naga_for_Peace_and_Development_Battambang_Cambodia

In any healthy relationship a date night is necessary to keep things exciting. We dressed as fashionable as people living out of back packs can, and headed out to a fancy restaurant called La Villa. The signage was not great, as we passed it numerous times, even though it was on the river and there were only about 15 building to choose from. Tucked neatly behind a high wall was a gorgeous turn of the century French Mansion with a lovely garden. Once inside we felt transported back to Colonial times. The interior architecture had lots of beautiful wood work, Victorian glass ceiling, and a small but nice bar to enjoy cocktails. We got appetizers in the courtyard, which had an excellent ambiance and nice pool.
http://www.lavilla-battambang.net/hotel-cambodia/hotel-presentation.html

After that lovely stop we headed to the famous Battambang circus. This started out in a refuge camp in 1986 with 11 students and an art teacher. They used art to help the children deal with the horrible trauma caused by the Khmer Rouge. It was so successful that the program expanded and moved to Battambang. Their goals are to help school underprivileged children, give them art skills and training, and work with their families. The school now has 900 kids, and a circus twice weekly to raise funds for the school. We went to a rock and roll circus, and it was packed. Well, it turned out to be just rock and roll, no circus, because a band from Phnom Penh was in town, but it was a great show with old style videos playing behind the musicians, and dancing going on. The set up is great and really worth a stop if you have a few days in Battambang.
http://www.phareps.org

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As we were wandering the dusty streets, we came upon what we assumed was a playhouse or movie theater. There was a huge sign hanging from the front of a four story building with large graphics of a large headless man, four younger people staring at it with fear in their eyes, and lots of writing I could not understand. Hmm, looked like any teen movie I have ever seen. Lets check it out. Everyone knows how much I love seeing a movie, in any country. Plus I love checking out other countries theaters. We went to the ticket booth, and through sign language we learned a movie was starting now. What movie, ahh, doesn’t matter, because its not in English. The friendly ushers led us into a 200-seat theater. Thing was, all the seats were made out of plywood, more uncomfortable then church pews. Oh it was a packed house this 3 pm showing, with a trio of teenagers down the isle, and one other person. There were fans hanging from the ceiling, you know, like floor fans, but tied up, and dangling. The place went dark, as in Pitch Black dark, and then the trailers began, all horror trailers. Boy was it loud, my head felt like it was going to explode. By time the movie came on, I had a raging headache. The fat man who turned out to be a Nurse had a loud squealing voice that was too much to handle, and zombies kept popping up, no one stayed dead, and it just went on and on. We made it through more than half the movie, but the sound was unbearable. I still loved the experience though. Out of the theater and a wave of heat hit us like a ton of bricks. This sort of thing always makes us desperate for something that is essential to life in the tropics, yes, the Mango Shake. I really don’t know what people did before there were blenders and ice. No better thing to do than relax on a balcony sipping your shake watching life go by.

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