I could've eaten a duck embryo and well, I did! Yes, this time around I didn't chicken out.
So I hopped on a bus to Battambang, a sleepy town closer to the Thai border. I was looking forward to putting war behind me and also meeting up with Alex, a friend I traveled with in Laos. She was coming in from Siem Reap. I arrived first and grabbed a hotel, and when Alex showed up exhausted from her 8-hour bus ride over horrendous roads, I knew I was going to take the boat to Siem Reap instead.
Back in India I ran into a couple that did a homestay outside of Battambang, and they could not say enough about Sambath, their guide, and how much they enjoyed it.
So the first night we asked our hotel to put a call into him. At first they told us it was dangerous to do a homestay, pointing to a poster of a 20-year-old guy missing since 2004. Then they said he was busy and could not host us. I was not deterred and knew this was just their way of getting us to take a tour with them. As it turned out, Sambath was just around the corner, so we made arrangements with him for a two night homestay. First we'd have to kill a day in Battambang. So the next day, we set out to check out the town, but we quickly realized there is really nothing to do in this town. We basically walked around, found a shop with beers and snacks, and enjoyed the a/c and cable in our room after a round of Rummy on the patio.
These boys were hunting for "fighting fish" to play with
The next day Sambath and his cousin picked us up on their motorbikes and off we went.
It was about a half hour ride outside of town. We were to stay with his aunt and uncle. We arrived to find this nice little place on stilts, as most homes are (good during rainy season and helps circulate air around the house in heat). We were given a nice bed up in the house and quickly set off on foot to tour the neighboring village. Everyone was so cheerful and curious. At one point Sambath was yelling across the way to someone apparently requesting him to bring us closer for them to see. We were the only westerners around and only numbers 60 and 61 brought here since he started doing homestays. We had lots of questions and he spoke very good English. I told him I wanted to try the duck embryos, so at one point we hit the local market and he found some for us. I was beginning to have second thoughts, but Alex encouraged me to give it a go, and Sambath opened one up for me.
The dreaded durian
I don't know why I've been so interested - well, ever since seeing a program about weird foods in Asia I guess. He gave me a spoonful of mostly embryo and I hesistantly gave it a chew. It really didn't taste so bad. Mostly it was the realization I was eating a duck embryo, tiny feathers and all. Luckily Sambath finished it for me. We also tried some other fruits, but as he didn't like durian, and I refused to buy a whole one to try, I still haven't sampled that one yet.
Hitching a ride - clothing optional
We walked by homes and shops and mostly just got to see life in a Cambodian village. Very slow and relaxing. In fact, our guide told us swinging in a hammock is the national sport, and he's apparently a champion! So after the tour, we, too, engaged in the national sport until supper time. Dinner was a delicious meal of local foods prepared by Sambath's wife.
The aunt and uncle, by the way, were adorable. They spoke no English, but that didn't stop them from chatting away at us. After dinner, and with the darkness upon us, we decided to hit bed early. After struggling to read while fighting off bugs attracted to my headlamp, I attempt to sleep in the hot, humid Cambodian night. They did provide us with a mosquito net, coils and a fan, but it was a difficult sleep.
Alex enjoying the national sport
Our full day with Sambath was very busy. First we went next door to collect his cousin. He is in the chicken processing business, which means they kill and clean chickens. We told Sambath we didn't need to see this. I'd witnessed it as a child on my family's farm, and well, Alex had no interest. But off he went and we followed, finding them sitting on the ground and doing the deed.
The one guy was holding onto a chicken's neck and draining it of blood. Not the most humane way to do it. Sambath told us they eat the blood, thus the reason for the slow drain into the bowl. Oye. After that nasty business, we set off on the bikes again to tour different parts around the village. Some of the things we saw included homes where they make rice noodles and rice paper, a fish paste factory (disgusting, smelled like the seal colony I visited way back) and a stand where they make steamed rice and beans in bamboo. Twice during the day Sambath experienced flat tires upon hitting nails. Since Alex was riding his bike both times, she started to feel guilty, especially after he said he gets a flat usually only twice a month! Luckily this is a common occurence so there are fix-it shops everywhere.
Breakfast of jackfruits and rice donuty things
The roads in Cambodia are horrible. Apparently the nicest roads are in politicians' pockets. This place is the second most corrupt place on the planet behind Cameroon. Once in a while you'll hit a paved road, only to find out it is because that village supports the government.
Alex checking out a wide load
So we continued to brave the roads to a few wats, although given the impending Angkor Wat visit I was barely interested. We also climbed a hill to the "killing cave." Yes, I thought I left that in the dust back in Phnom Penh but apparently during the Khmer Rouge era they brought many victims to a cave to do them in - now a tourist attraction. You can't get away from it in this country, but it is a huge part of their history and lives today.
Sambath is from a large family, and apparently his one brother was never found. He was born in 1970, so lived through many things, and remembers stealing corn and getting in serious trouble with his mother as it couldn've meant a serious punishment. His aunt and uncle are fairly old, but he said they are farmers and so were not as much at risk, although the uncle is very political now. He had politicians visit us during our stay, trying to encourage him to support the government. As he supports the opposition, Sambath is concerned he won't be able to bring more foreigners for homestays at his uncle's, but he said this with his winning smile.
Waiting to get flat #1 fixed
The finale of the day was a ride on the bamboo train. I had a blast as I love traveling on the rails anyway. These trains are nothing more than quickly assembled platforms on wheels, powered by a small engine.
They operate along the track between PP and Battambang, obviously when no big trains are around. For a mere five bucks, they assembled one for us and transported the four of us and the two motorbikes for about a half hour down the tracks. Now there are occasionally times when these things come face to face, as happened to us twice. Basically both meet and the one with the least weight must disassemble and reassemble around the other. The first time we had to disassemble as the other carried more people and wood. The second time all we saw were three men, so we sat waiting for them to get up and break down, but the men just carried on to our guide, pointing to a fella just laying there. I guess they tried to say he was drunk and wouldn't move. I was ready to get up and hoist the guy off myself, but he quickly gave up his charade and then we were off.
Sambath patiently waiting
We actually moved rather quickly down the track, past many villages and smiling faces. The kids like to blow kisses here. It was a fun and interesting way to travel. Just be sure to keep your mouth shut and wear sunglasses. The bugs are brutal!
Stacks of smoked fish
We then made our way back to the village and happy hour! The neighbors were already sitting upon a tarp and enjoying some local brew: rice wine mixed with coconut milk. We were welcomed to join and then sat down and had some with the crowd of men forming. A bowl of snacks was sitting out and Sambath encouraged us to just eat and not ask. It looked like chicken liver and as we were near the house where they killed the chicken's, I figured as much. After a bite, thinking hmm, this isn't so bad, he informed us it was the chicken blood they collected that morning (solidified by bowling it).
You wouldn't believe it but I still continued to eat it. Alex gave up quickly, and soon a gal produced "women's food" for us to snack on, which was not so ripe mangos to dip in sugar. Tasty. We did a few rounds of drinks until the bottles were gone and the coconuts dry and then back to our host family's house for more "sport" and then some dinner. After dinner the neighbor boy entertained us with card tricks. He was 16 years old but looked like he was 8! We had also suffered some harassment from the cousin's son who took to running up and hitting us on occasion. Neither Alex or I are kid-people, so we were ready to smack back.
Preparing fish for fish paste
After two nights I admit I was ready for luxury again. I was desperate for a shower. The village had water basins and a toilet, but there was no escaping the heat.
So after another breakfast, including trying some more variations on rice dishes, we went back to Battambang for a day of HBO and A/C before heading onto our next destinations.
A big vat of fish paste. Yum!
Our homestay was a real treat. I really enjoyed it, despite some uncomfortable parts. I learned a lot about the people who live here, tried so many new foods and saw many friendly faces. If you ever make it to these parts, give Sambath a holler as he is working hard to show visitors his home. You can email him at email@example.com.
Sadly I had to stay goodbye to Alex yet again. She headed off to Vietnam while I made my way to Siem Reap, by boat . Wise choice. The water is low, but we only got snagged a few times, making it here in about six hours. I've really enjoyed boat travel in SE Asia so I was glad to have one more opportunity before leaving this part of the world.
We also witnessed upon arrival what appeared to be a segment being filmed for Amazing Race. Before we could take off from the dock, we had to sit and wait while they filmed some couple with backpacks stacking baskets and then jumping in the back of a truck.
Cleaning the fish at top speed
Next up: A Wonder of the World!