Good things about Banteay Meanchey

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Poipet road 3I was determined to find something positive to say about Banteay Meanchey. I’d read that the provincial capital Sisophon was a place only the ‘unfortunate’ stayed overnight, and I was going to be there for two nights. The other major town, Poipet, on the northwest border with Thailand, was described as the ‘armpit’ of Cambodia, a hotspot for gambling, scams and trafficking in women, children and drugs — precisely why the Red Cross wanted me there.

Part of the problem is that Cambodia seems to grow less charming, the further northwest you go. This is not surprising, given that towns like Poipet were still coming under Khmer Rouge fire as recently as 1996.

Poipet casino 3These days Poipet is reinventing itself as the Vegas of Cambodia: at the end of its muddy main road, between the Cambodian Immigration Office and and the actual checkpoint, are several large, glitzy casinos with names like Tropicana, Grand Diamond City, Holiday Palace and Crown Casino. They attract mostly Thais — casinos being illegal in Thailand — and are incongruous in this remote rural area. Walking from Poipet town to the casino strip is like stepping into another country.

As for Sisophon, while it might lack the charming architecture and riverside ambiance of other northwestern towns like Battambang, Pursat and Kampong Chhnang, it has something none of those places has: The Rural Love Garden.

We discovered the Suan Snar Chun Bot on our last evening: a manicured garden of winding stone paths, little wooden bridges, fountains and waterfalls, complete with topiary and a fantastic collection of gaudy animal statues, including peacocks, a kangaroo, tigers, elephants, a Tasmanian Devil, storks, owls and dinosaurs.

Rural love garden 12Enhancing the romance are bench swings, tables and chairs, an eleven tiered wedding cake statue, and thatched huts with low-hanging eaves for private parties.

My Red Cross colleagues Sokhan and Huoy and I joined families, friends and couples in milling around, taking photos and — this being Cambodia — eating. And the food was great: grilled dried beef, beef on skewers and pickled vegetables, served by a waiter wearing a straw hat and farmer’s clothing in keeping with the rural idyll theme.

After the dusty building site that is Sisophon, it was both hilarious and charming to sit in a quiet garden with a view of mountains over the statuary, feeling a cool breeze on my face and watching the clouds change shape as the sun set.

Sisophon crickets 1Another aspect of my stay in Sisophon that I enjoyed was falling asleep to the sound of crickets chirping in my room at the Chheang Hen Guest House — perhaps not to everyone’s appeal, though if not, you can always exact revenge by snacking on fried crickets, which are a local delicacy.

My work in Banteay Meanchey took me from the Red Cross branch and provincial health department, to the police commissariat and a drug rehabilitation centre where there are barely enough resources to feed the residents twice a day, let alone provide medical and therapeutic care, despite the best intentions of the staff. I met outstanding local people working in difficult conditions who displayed exemplary grace and good humour.

The trip left me, as such trips generally do, with a sense of both privilege and bafflement. I will never understand why some people’s lives are so much harder than others. And why I should be so lucky.

To get to the Rural Love Garden, take the bumpy road in the direction of Thmor Puok/Banteay Chhmar and turn left at the blue sign that reads ‘Hun Sen Khla Kun High School’ (the sign for the Suan Snar Chun Bot is in Khmer only, with Angkor Beer logo); the garden is about 1 kilometre down the road.

Also recommended for a decent cup of coffee and noodle soup is the Muslim cafe, Ya Smach, east of the market. Look out for the sign that says ‘Halal Food’ under the awning.

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One Response to “Good things about Banteay Meanchey”

  1. angelasavage Says:

    I forgot to mention that my three days and two nights in Banteay Meanchey was the longest I’ve spent away from Tash since she was born nearly two and a half years ago. I missed her, of course, but she and Roo had a fine time in my absence. Happily, she’s still breastfeeding away as if I never left town.

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