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Never, ever say die

GUY WILKINSON
Last updated 05:10 14/01/2014
Monk
Guy Wilkinson

AND RELEASE: The smell of incense wafts from a local Buddhist temple, and a low mist hangs above the prevailing countryside.

Battambang Circus
Getty Images
REMARKABLE FEAT: Most of the entertainers are teenagers taught by the local visual arts school.

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The kid on stage looks nervous. Understandably. He's about to be catapulted backwards through the air and there's no safety net. One misjudgment and this could get messy.

Behind him, fellow performers form a human pyramid. His aim: to land on top of them. The crowd falls silent as the lights dim and, with the crack of a snare drum, the boy is tossed high into the air. With a wobble, he lands on his target and the crowd goes berserk.

This is not a performance by Cirque du Soliel. Far from it. I'm in rural Cambodia, Battambang, inside a humid circus tent of sorts.

Most of the entertainers are teenagers or younger. They weren't trained at expensive schools in Paris or New York. They have been taught to ride unicycles, juggle fire sticks and perform acrobatic stunts by a local visual arts school.

Phare Ponleu Selpak (literally translated as the brightness of art) offers disadvantaged youths a lifeline from poverty and a handful of performers have been offered placements overseas.

Their feats are all the more remarkable given the city's history. Battambang was once the arts capital of Cambodia, but during the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge wiped out anyone perceived as creative or intellectual, viewing them as a threat to the regime. Today, thanks to programs such as this, creativity and the arts are steadily making a comeback.

Near the border of Thailand on the banks of the Sangker River, Battambang is the second most populated city in Cambodia. Founded in the 18th century as a trading port, it was ceded to the French in 1907, a legacy that remains in the form of some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in the country.

The town is surrounded by attractions both historical and unique. One of the most significant is the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau, in a mountainous limestone outcrop 12 kilometres south-west of the city.

It's dawn when we arrive. Outside a nearby Buddhist temple, the smell of incense wafts from a shrine and a low mist hangs above the prevailing countryside. Perched on the steps, a monk wrapped in a brilliant orange robe puffs quietly on a cigarette. It's an unexpected sight that forces me to smile, a gesture he reciprocates as we fleetingly make eye contact.

We follow a winding jungle path down to a stone staircase flanked by banisters carved like serpents.

Inside, the cave has an eerie feel. A giant reclining Buddha dominates the far wall, its gold body and serene face at odds with the dingy surrounds.

From the ceiling, bats hang in dark caverns beside dangling vines. A skylight high above marks the spot where Khmer Rouge cadres would throw people to their death, an atrocity commemorated by a nearby glass cabinet filled with skulls.

Further up the hill, the summit of Phnom Sampeau offers panoramic views across a patchwork of plains stretching towards the Thai border. At the peak, the intricate golden-roofed Phnom Sampeau Temple is among the most spectacular in the region. In Cambodia, the horrors of the past are never far from the beauty of the present.

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We pause for lunch, when a cartload of macaque (monkeys) cause mischief around the temple. A woman preparing lunch shoos them away with resigned familiarity. Her efforts prove futile when a brazen macaque snatches a banana from her toddler's hands, prompting an explosion of tears.

I'm being escorted around the region by Path Lem and Sopha Prum, a local guide and driver with Travel Indochina, a tour company specialising in small group adventures that put a special spin on mainstream excursions.

We continue to Prasat Phnom Banan Vineyard, famed for being the only winery in Cambodia. About 16 kilometres south of the city, it's a charming set-up, with white picket fences circling rows of snaking vines. A simple gazebo next door acts as the cellar door, where we order a tasting palette of red wine, brandy, grape juice and ginger ale.

"Everyone told us we were crazy," says Leng Chan Thol, who runs the business with her winemaker husband, Chan Thay Chhoueng. "They said grapes couldn't be grown in Cambodia, but people just don't realise it's possible."

After planting vines in 1999, they began producing wine in 2004, and now sell about 10,000 bottles a year, employing 10 staff.

The red wine, a shiraz, has me thumping my chest with a closed fist. It tastes like burnt rubber. While they may not be bagging international awards any time soon, judging by the number of smiling faces around us, the novelty factor with Thol's considerable charm will ensure this enterprise flourishes.

At nearby Phnom Banan, we climb 358 steps to the 11th-century temple some historians claim was the inspiration behind Angkor Wat. I pause for breath as a lean old man sweeps leaves, his tanned back plastered with tattoos.

"They bring me luck," he says of his body art, a belief he has held ever since he was a young man, when a Khmer Rouge soldier's weapon jammed as the soldier attempted to shoot him.

Much of Battambang's attraction lies in its proximity to rural village life and the number of intriguing attractions nearby, but the city itself warrants at least a few days' exploration.

With Lem as my guide, we wander along the expansive paved streets and waterfront promenade. The city was designed on a grid spanning three parallel streets back from the river and is easily navigated by foot. Evidence of French rule is everywhere. We pass colonial shop fronts, their facades characterised by tattered wooden shutters and peeling paint.

The town's nucleus is Psar Nath, a central market built in the 1930s by the same architects who fashioned similar structures in Phnom Penh and Saigon. The eastern section is housed in a heritage-listed art deco building that was once the bus depot, before the Khmer Rouge moved in.

Although Battambang is the country's second most populated city, I'm struck by the laid-back mood. Nobody hassles me, the streets have a low-key feeling, and at night you're more likely to find candle-lit bars and chilled-out tunes than the doof-doof mania of Siem Reap's Pub Street.

In truth, though, it's a place greater than the sum of its parts. Midway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, it's the perfect spot to kick back, take in a few unusual sights and regroup over a cold beer.

As a last hurrah, we take a ride on the bamboo train, a wooden cart powered by a motorbike engine on an old single-line track.

As we lurch into the jungle, the scenery becomes a melange of every conceivable shade of green. Rice paddies shimmer in the afternoon heat, the rattle of the track punctuated only by the occasional smoother crossing over a viaduct. A looming thunderstorm on the horizon creates a dramatic contrast between land and sky.

As we pick up speed, I notice another train headed towards us. I wonder if our driver will play chicken, but instead watch, bemused, as he simply removes our train from the track, allowing the other to pass.

Sadly, there is talk of this venture being abolished in favour of a modern line connecting Poipet with Phnom Penh. But it is a thriving tourism enterprise and practical mode of transport, and it would be wrong to suggest local people are not concerned.

But having been to hell and back, people here have learnt not to dwell on what might be. More than most, they strive simply to enjoy the present, while looking forward to better times ahead.

The writer was a guest of Travel Indochina and Vietnam Airlines.

TOURING THERE

Travel Indochina offers tailor-made holidays, Small Group Journeys and Asia river cruises.

The 10-day Highlights of Cambodia with Battambang Small Group Journey takes in Battambang as well as other highlights, including the Temples of Angkor and Phnom Penh, the nation's vibrant capital.

Tour starts at $1978 a person twin.

STAYING THERE

Bambu Hotel is located in the central area of Battambang town.

Travel Indochina offers doubles from about 77 a person a night, including breakfast and all taxes.

TRIP NOTES MORE INFORMATION vietnamairlines.comtravelindochina.com.

FIVE MORE MUST-SEE SITES:

OLD TRAIN STATION Now abandoned, the French-era art deco train station clock always reads 8.02. Surrounding the track you can explore the old warehouses and repair sheds where the rail workers once toiled.

EK PHNOM Ten kilometres north of the city, the 11th century ruins of Wat Ek Phnom stand side by side with a modern Buddhist temple and giant stone Buddha.

RICE PAPER MAKING VILLAGES En route to Ek Phnom, drop into one of the many enterprising village houses manufacturing upwards of 1500 rice papers a day using centuries old techniques.

ABANDONED PEPSI FACTORY The 1960s' Pepsi factory was touted to be the bottling empire of South-east Asia before the Khmer Rouge moved in. Thousands of still intact glass Pepsi bottles offer a strange reminder of what might have been.

GOVERNOR'S RESIDENCE The bright yellow two-storey governor's residence is perhaps the city's finest legacy of early 1900s' colonial architecture. Grounds are open to the public.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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