Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Bambu Team Outing in Pailin

Last week we treated our staff at Bambu to a well earned day out – two days actually as they couldn’t all go on the same day or there would be no one to look after the hotel. Since Bambu Hotel opened last September we have been pretty busy and we wanted to reward everyone with a day out to a destination of their choosing.

Bambu Hotel Team

The general consensus was that they wanted to go to Pailin up by the Thai border taking in waterfalls and others places of interest along the way. I was dead keen to go, at least on one of the days, until my wife gently suggested that perhaps the staff would enjoy it more if their employer wasn’t with them! I reluctantly concurred. I actually paid a short visit to Pailin back in January having not been there for around 3 years. The road (National Highway 57) is now, after decades of neglect, in top notch condition and Pailin can be reached in a little over an hour from Battambang whereas before it meant an extremely uncomfortable journey sometimes lasting the best part of a day.

Bambu Team Lunch

Pailin has a touch of the Wild West about it – it was one of the last parts of the country under Khmer Rouge control holding out until 1996 when the Iang Sary faction surrendered to the government. Nowadays the town is a peaceful place and makes an excellent base to explore the local area.

Team Outing Pailin

There is some fantastic countryside nearby and with the rehabilitation of the road I think it will become a major destination in the next few years. Sadly much of the area is still heavily mined despite ongoing clearance projects although the immediate environs of the town are considered safe these days. Without wanting to sound too much like a local in the Slaughtered Lamb from the film An American Werewolf in London the phrase “don’t stray from the path” is nowhere more appropriate than here. We can also expect the border crossing to Thailand to get busier. I would recommend anyone coming from or going to Thailand to use this crossing as opposed to Poipet/Aranya Prathet – there are no queues much less hassle than at the often depressing town of Poipet. Recently some guests at Bambu Hotel wanted to go to go straight from here to Koh Chang in Trat province, Thailand.

Staff Outing

Last year such a journey in a day would have been impossible but we were able to organise a taxi from the hotel to the border in Pailin and another one from the Thai side to the port at Trat. The guests emailed to tell us that having had a late and leisurely breakfast at Bambu they were sitting on a beach on Koh Chang watching the sun go down just a few hours later! I was very jealous.

Bambu Team Activities

Monday, 28 March 2011

Khmer Weddings & Cambodian Wedding Traditions

Any visitor to Cambodia around this time of year cannot fail to notice the extraordinary spectacle that is the Khmer wedding. The wedding season for obvious reasons corresponds to the dry season and reaches a crescendo in March. These are enormous occasions which traditionally lasted for 3 days although in recent times 2 days is more normal. The first day and a half is full of ceremonial rituals attended only by family and close friends but all weddings culminate in a large feast usually at lunchtime on the second day. I have attended quite a few where there have been 1500 guests but I suppose 7 – 800 is more the norm. The smallest wedding I have been at was my own two years ago to which “only” 300 were invited! Needless to say this can be quite ruinous for family finances and there is much saving (and inevitably borrowing) to pay for it all. Every family wants to put on a “good show” and will not want to be seen cutting corners. With these kind of numbers attending you can imagine that wedding invitations come thick and fast.

Last year I was invited to 32 although I didn’t attend that many – it is perfectly acceptable to send a deputy in your place and my brother in law Rong is usually happy to oblige. On arrival at the feast you are seated at a table of 10 which when full can start dining. There are usually about 8 courses and copious amounts of beer are provided – you can understand why Rong doesn’t mind helping me out! Other than the sheer numbers two other things stick out to the casual observer. Firstly the women wear the most amazingly beautiful and colourful clothes with the men very drab in comparison. Secondly, and equally obvious, is the extraordinary noise level of the music coming from the massed banks of speakers. The volume is turned up so high that the music is often so distorted it becomes painful to listen to. Locals don’t seem to mind but it does make conversation very difficult. As wedding rituals get underway at 5am anyone living within 500 metres has an early morning alarm call! Strangely one does get used to it after a while although it is something that tourists often find quite bemusing. When we were looking for a site for Bambu Hotel we were very conscious of finding somewhere away from late night karaoke bars and beer gardens and this is something we have achieved although there is little we can do if one of our neighbours has a wedding. Generally our guests have found it very interesting and like to talk to our staff about local traditions – we have also been lucky that none of our immediate neighbours has felt the need to tie the knot yet!

Noise levels generally here are something that visitors often struggle to come to terms with. It has to be remembered that Cambodians get up in the morning much earlier than most westerners do – just before daybreak at around 5am. As a result they go to bed much earlier too – at around 9pm. Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the coast are busy all day and night because of the number of tourists there but Battambang, being less visited, has a much more provincial feel and is virtually deserted after 10pm. I had some friends from Spain visit me a couple of years ago and they couldn’t believe that at a time they were usually getting ready to go out everyone else was going to bed! However you must not think that that Battambang has no night life. Far from it. Traditional Khmer beer gardens with live music and karaoke abound and will often stay open to midnight. As more western visitors come to Battambang a number of new bars and restaurants have opened to cater for them. One in particular and a favourite of mine is Madison Corner run by the irrepressible Patrice Belin. He stays open until 5am catering for the night owls with great food, drink and music not that I ever get a chance to stay out that late.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Battambang in March

As we move towards end of March the temperatures here in Battambang have cranked up a notch or two giving us an early taster of what to expect in April which is traditionally the hottest month. January and February were actually relatively cool and some mornings were positively chilly although not enough to get me out of my shorts. In my village the locals had taken to wearing balaclavas and scarves along with padded jackets most mornings – all because of temperatures as low as 20 degrees Celsius! These have now been packed away and I wouldn’t expect to see them again until December. Last week Battambang saw an unseasonal torrential downpour which took us all by surprise. It lasted over 4 hours and there was much unblocking of drains around town in an attempt to alleviate the flash flooding. The intensity of these rainstorms can be frightening at times and I always worry about leaking roofs but thankfully there were no problems at Bambu Hotel and the guests seemed to enjoy a respite from the sun.

Water levels in the Sangker River had been almost down to a trickle last month forcing the boat service from Siem Reap to drop its passengers off about 10km out of town and then shuttle them in on tuk tuks. The Battambang –Siem Reap boat trip is one of the most scenic in the country and very popular with visitors and locals alike. When the water levels are high in the wet season it is possible to complete the journey in around 5 hours but this figure can be doubled at times in the dry season. The Sangker River rises near Pailin towards the north of the Cardamom mountain range and as the river has a fair bit of water in it right now I can only assume it has been raining up there recently.

A couple of weeks ago I hired a kayak (from Green Orange Kayaks) in Ksach Poy village. Organised by FEDA, a local NGO, for $12 you can paddle downstream for about 4 leisurely hours until you arrive back in Battambang. A number of our guests had done this trip and had really enjoyed it so I was keen to give it a try myself. The kayaks are super buoyant sit on types and there are life jackets to fit all sizes – even me. There is plenty to see on the gently meandering river and you are provided with a, thankfully waterproof, guide to points of interest along the way. Having arrived in Battambang I was met by a driver in a lorry and we loaded the kayak onto the back before being dropped off at Bambu Hotel. A great service and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

The beautification of the Battambang riverside continues at a leisurely pace. The local authority started this project a couple of years ago and it is still ongoing. I have marvelled at some of the inefficiency – paving stones were laid and then pulled up a month later to allow for electric cables to new lampposts. The stones were then re-laid but again pulled up this time for water pipes! Works are nearing completion now and I must say it is a great improvement. I was initially alarmed to see many of the more established trees being felled to make way for the new parks and pavements but these have been replaced with new semi mature trees and I reckon it looks great.

We took delivery of a new beer at Bambu Hotel recently. It is called “Kingdom “and is marketed as a “craft beer “which to my mind sounds like an excuse to charge more. It is certainly more expensive than Angkor and other local beers but it does taste rather good and has become a favourite of mine. It is brewed in Phnom Penh and currently only available in bottles although there are plans to have it on draught later this year. I shall be keeping a close eye out for that. Although it is a pilsner it does appear more complex than most ordinary lagers and it has a slightly bitter aftertaste which suits my palate perfectly. It will be interesting to see how the beer takes off over here. Bambu is one of only a very few outlets selling it in Battambang but it is widely available in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Welcome to Bambu Hotel's Blog

My name is Pat Talbot and I am co-owner of Bambu, a new boutique hotel in Battambang, Cambodia’s second city. I first came to Cambodia in 2006 and fell in love with the country, its people and Battambang in particular. In fact I liked it so much I moved here just over three years ago.

Battambang, Cambodia

Cambodia is an increasingly popular destination for travellers and Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and the coast have become major tourist centres in the last few years. For the discerning visitor though Battambang is now a major draw and improvements in infrastructure have made it accessible like never before. The city retains its colonial era charm and the countryside around is stunning all year round.
With plenty to see and do many visitors have found Battambang the unexpected highlight of their visit to Cambodia and the purpose of this blog is to share a slice of life here.