Friday, December 14, 2007

A slice of France in Battambang

French Governor's Residence

Battambang means the "Disappearing Sword" and for me, its the welcome disappearing hordes of tourists as compared to chaotic Siem Reap that I truly appreciate. Nothing like being on a bicycle with the fresh early morning breeze in your face, experiencing the awakening of the town. Min and I parked ourselves in the middle of the bridge, watching the local crowd pass by on all sorts of vehicles. We were particularly thrilled when a bunch of hand-driven wheel chairs with disabled children made their way independently to school. Someone had made a difference to their lives and may God bless them !

This charming riverside town is perhaps the most Cambodian town I have visited perhaps due to the relative inaccessability to get there. No airport, poor road from Siem Reap & boat ride from hell. Though from Phnom Penh, its a pretty decent 290km of highway. What stands out are 2 huge statues on each end of town - one a golden man with several hands including a CD and another, a black colored fierce warrior with a sword.

The main attraction of Battambang is the French period architecture sprawning in many parts of town. During the long civil war, Battambang being so far away from the action, was spared from bombing and thus, many of its old French designed buildings remain pretty intact. We cycled along the river and stopped many times for photos to take advantage of the brilliant morning light. The original French Governor's Mansion still stands so elegantly facing the river, almost ready to host the next dignitary dinner. Its black cannons waiting to fire a salute.

Many many other French villas still stand and one particularly has been lovingly restored and turned into a boutique hotel, La Villa. Celia stayed there for a night and was charmed. Wide boulevards with huge trees neatly lined added to the very European atmosphere of this old IndoChinese town. Perhaps the most common contribution of French designed architecture is found in the numerous old shop houses with fascinating French windows and iron wrought grill balconies. We also visited 2 Wats and interestingly, some of the bungalows within the temple compound was obviously built and occupied by the colonial masters. It was odd to see orange-robed monks coming out of such quarters and some had their roofs changed to look more "buddhist".

Unlike the other French towns of Indochina like Vientiane, Saigon and Phnom Penh, Battambang must be the best remaining example of the influence France had in this region. A slice of old France lives here, and I hope it stays that way for a long, long time.

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