Songs on the Sangkae
Cambodia’s long-overlooked northern city is rediscovering its native tune, writes ROBERT TURNBULL. PHOTOGRAPHED BY AARON JOEL SANTOS
"Flower of BattamBang, when I held your hand below the moonlit night, I begged you not to betray me.”—Sinn Sisamouth, 1968
Mention the city of Battambang to Cambodians and the chances are they will break into one of Sinn Sisamouth’s plaintive ballads. The Elvis of his day, murdered by the Khmer Rouge sometime around 1975, Sisamouth showered the city with lyrical tributes to its delicious food, efflorescent gardens and beautiful women.
Those were halcyon years. Independent since 1953, Cambodia conjured up a sense of pride and invincibility, much of it linked to the vaulting ambitions of monarch Prince Norodom Sihanouk. During his reign, Battambang’s agricultural productivity soared. The city became a “rice bowl” large enough to feed the entire country. It was Cambodia’s Shangri-La.
But it was also here that Sihanouk’s dreams turned most tragic. In scenes resembling the infernal depictions covering the walls of Buddhist monasteries, many thousands of Cambodians met the same fate as Sisamouth in the 1970’s, losing their lives in killing fields around Battambang.
Despite living in Cambodia since 1997, I had largely avoided the city. Far from Cambodia’s Garden of Eden, the image Battambang conjured in Phnom Penh then was of a gun-toting Wild West, forgotten by all but intrepid missionaries or war reporters in pursuit of Khmer Rouge leaders in the nearby town of Pailin.
Yet the Battambang I wake up to is bathed in a kind of timeless serenity. Call it the glow of a sun-baked backwater or Asia’s capacity to regenerate after tragedy; the overpowering impression is of a place untouched by time, let alone war. I am besotted.
At La Villa, the 1930’s French mansion turned hotel, barman Sethy explains. “My parents ran a traveling theater troupe and were told to leave the city by the Khmer Rouge with everyone else,” he says. “But when they returned nothing had really changed. It wasn’t like in Phnom Penh where they blew up some important buildings.” One of the first colonial structures to be renovated, La Villa’s vintage lamps and framed maritime insurance documents are welcome touches of authenticity. I wonder what letters were penned on the imposing art deco desk by my bed.
At breakfast I down my coffee on hearing a tuk-tuk is waiting for me. It’s my first opportunity to test my Sinn Sisamouth theory, so I cheekily challenge the driver to sing a ballad. We pass a 19th-century pagoda, saffron-colored robes drying in gardens with purple bourgenvilia. My driver, Kim, waits until we cross the Sangkae River before intoning: “Oh Sangkae, don’t flood my memory, don’t drown my love. River Sangkae, the moon goes down when the lady comes.”
Now in his forties, Kim speaks charmingly idiosyncratic English. As Siem Reap expanded with the deluge of tourists to Angkor Wat, Battambang, he tells me, has largely retained its pre-war boundaries. Tourists began to arrive in the 1990’s, surprised to discover a well-preserved colonial city with Angkorian temples set in lush countryside. Battambang “is the most beautiful city in all Cambodia,” he insists.
At 8 a.m., Muslim Cham fishermen stand poised with their bamboo rods at the bend of the river. Shuttered Chinese shop houses with arched windows and auburn-tiled roofs line the river banks, so we make our way over, stopping at Psar Nath, a 1930’s concrete market with a clock tower, built in the angular Art Deco style.
Behind the market is the commercial hub of the city. Amid the usual mélange of stores, much of the town’s nascent consumerism seems to mix modern images lifted from the internet with more innocent forms of advertising. A barbershop pronounces itself to be “The Art of Love Scissors.” Under a bakery’s green awning is a poster of a muscleman holding a baguette.
A few blocks down at Madison Corner restaurant, images of Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, his Battambangborn singing partner, decorate a wall. French owner Patrice Berlin came to the city “for the slow pace of life and the genuineness of the people.” There was little of the impatience of bustling Phnom Penh, he says; an easy-going informality distinguished Battambang from wealthier, status-conscious Phnom Penh.
We talk of the fate of the colonial core, approximately 800 buildings. I’d heard Battambang-born First Minister Sa Kheng had approved a master plan to exploit the city’s architectural legacy; but with no effective legal protection locals are skeptical that it will come to pass. Rumors are already circulating that the city’s mayor was buying up these buildings for more ominous ends. Rich Cambodians like their palaces brand new, garish and gleaming.
One who shares this concern for the city’s cultural heritage is Darren Swallow, a 47-year-old Welshman who is currently renovating an old building to open what will be the city’s first multimedia arts center with a cinema, gallery and garden bar. We meet at Kinyei Café, an Australian NGO that trains young Cambodians in café management and offers the city’s best homemade cookies, pastries and coffee. Many artists currently making waves in Phnom Penh and beyond are from Battambang, Swallow says, and there are also opportunities to see art without leaving this city. “Tourists are increasingly exposed to the work of local artists,” says Swallow, “but new galleries also help to introduce Cambodian contemporary art to the consciousness of the local population.”
The other new galleries emblematic of Battambang’s cultural emergence are Sammaki and Make Maek, both converted shop houses blocks from the market. Make Maek was created by Mao Soviet and his wife Phin Sophorn to showcase locally based artists, many of whom originally trained at the Phare Ponleu Sepak cultural center, an organization founded in the late 90’s to help war-scarred children find healing through creative expression.
The riverside Café Eden, where Swallow’s artist wife Khchao Touch has her work on the wall, is owned by Anna Milligan, who originally came to Cambodia from Seattle to teach soccer at a sports and leadership training program. The menu is decidedly funky and includes molasses cookies, her aunt’s pies, Philly cheesecakes and Korean bibimbap. In general, Battambang’s local food reflects the fact that it has been shaped by the influence of foreigners for hundreds of years. The Siamese controlled the area until 1907, when the French took over, and Thai-influenced dishes like gnop— fish, shrimp and prahok, a salted and fermented fish paste, grilled in banana leaf—and spicy coconut curries are as popular today as more traditional Cambodian dishes.
Towering over the local university is the symbol of Battambang, the painted statue of King Dambong and his magic stick. One version of the story holds that a peasant farmer once deposed a despotic king using a magic wand, but then lost the throne to the Crown Prince who appeared on a charging white horse. The usurper fled but dropped the stick in the forest. The city’s name, then, comes from combining the words bat,
or “lost” with dambong, which means “stick.”
“If you find the stick, then Battambang will be called Robert-Found-the-Stick City!” Kim shouts as we leave for the village of Wat Kor. I don’t get my hopes up, but I do find a sign for the “Ancient House,” which leads us to two old stilted wooden houses where a portly French-speaking owner hovers inquisitively. Pushing 70, he has created a small museum. Old coins, money and photos rest on period desks between wooden pillars and walls of woven bamboo. In the surrounding countryside, swaying palms and tiger fruit trees suggest Sisamouth’s Garden of Eden. Standing on a suspended pedestrian bridge, I am transfixed by the immaculately tended rows of morning glory, sweet corn, peanuts and eggplant along the riverbed.
Three kilometers along the road the silhouettes of five ancient towers appear on the horizon. There are few people at Wat Banan, a mid-river Buddhist shrine suspended on a rocky promontory. Proud and aloof, the Angkorian temple with magnificent crumbling 12th-century structures serves as a reminder of Cambodia’s once adamantine power. Yet the temple has a relaxed, unfettered air about it, with eroded lintel carvings and portals guarded by massive spiders’ webs.
In search of more views, we go to Phnom Sampou, a beautiful promontory famous for the legend of a crocodile’s unrequited love for a beautiful woman. The animal eventually took his revenge by drowning her and her lover, a prince. This story, too, was immortalized by Sisamouth:
“I miss your head on my heart in the caves of Phnom Sampou.
Even if I die today the grass won’t grow over my love.”
Pol Pot turned some of the most romantic places in Battambang province into places of horror. Death fills these caves, but unlike other Cambodian memorials there is neither mountain of skulls nor commemorative plaque. For a few thousand riel (less than a dollar) local kids will regale you with grisly details in surprisingly idiomatic English. They do it routinely, with unnerving sangfroid, pointing to
the bones within.
As the sun descends we return to the city in just enough time to visit the Phare Ponleu Sepak cultural center. Since its founding in 1994, it has become one of the largest cultural providers in Cambodia, with facilities for art, design, dance and drama, including European-style circus acts. Foreign choreographers, trampoline champions, guitarists and artists of all descriptions visit the place regularly to teach workshops.
We arrive to find a vernissage with the clink of wine glasses. I hear drumming coming from the campus theater and investigate, avoiding a posse of teenage jugglers in my path. The show is called Rouge. Combining circus, modern dance and drama, it depicts memories of the Khmer Rouge but with panache that shows a strong sense of ensemble and a sheer joy in performing. I leave with the drums still beating in my heart but my body aching for a comfortable bed after an intoxicating but long day.
“Battambang, I dream about you but there are times when I wake and you are gone, so I close my eyes again and wait, and wait.”