Arty Xmas in Battambang

Getting out of the floating village took us some time. It was also quite an experience. When the boat took us back to the shore motobike drivers were waiting there for us almost killing each other over who was to take us. As soon as we touched land they jumped on our boat and snatched our bags. We didn’t like it at all but our protests didn’t help much. We had to go with them. It was only a short drive to Krakor, the closest village, so we didn’t mind it that much. In Krakor we waited for a bus to Battambang. The ticket seller on the road told us it was supposed to come in half an hour. It came an hour and a half later and in the meantime we had ice coffee and observed traffic on the road – cars packed with members of close and distant family, pyramid trucks carrying a load of various supplies from furniture to glass Coca Cola bottles, villagers on motorbikes, students on bicycles. We watched the people in the village and they watched us. I especially felt eyes on me. I suppose they don’t see foreigners often there. The funniest was when we were leaving the bar after we had coffee. As we were passing men sitting a table an elderly man pointed me out to his friend telling him to turn around look at me. “Look, at least we get to see a blonde before we die,” he seemed to say. Ahahaah… In the bus, when it finally arrived, we were the only foreigners and all the people observed our every move. Every seat in the bus was taken and we had to sit in the aisle so they had a good view of us.

When we arrived to Battambang, it welcomed us with a wonderful discovery. It had a rich art scene! As soon as we arrived and left bags in our guesthouse we went to familiarise ourselves with the city and stumbled upon Lotus Bar & Gallery. We had a chat with it’s owner who happened to be involved in Battambang’s art. He told us about galleries to visit and artists to talk to and it turned to be our main activity throughout the days there.

Cambodia’s modern art scene is very young and still lacks confidence. That’s no surprise considering that most artists were exterminated by Khmer Rouge. Art outside religious paintings and sculptures is almost non existent in Cambodia, but Battambang wants to be the centre of its revival. It has good grounds to do so, as it’s home to Phare Ponleu Selpak arts school, which translates into The Brightness of Art.

The idea for the school was born in 1986 in a refuge camp on Thai border. Nine kids whose fates were torn apart by the civil war were taught art as a way of coping with bad memories and harsh reality. They felt it helped them and came up with an idea of art classes that would help other children too. The classes were first set up in the camp and moved to Battambang later, where with the help of French NGO they opened a school of arts for disadvantaged children from the community. Up until now the school has been for free and offered art, theater, circus, music and animation classes with circus being the most successful of all. However there are plans to transform the school into a recognised education institution. It won’t be openly available to kids any more, but it will have a curriculum and students will have to pass an entry test in order to get in. The changes are happening right now. We went to the school and had a chat with its previous director and teachers from abroad who were brought there to work on the new curriculum. They lay big hopes in the school and want to invest their time and energy to boost its potential.

The school itself was a wonderful place. Right now it’s still open to anyone and kids come there after school to play and learn. The whole place has a great vibe. It’s happy, energetic and creative. It’s an oasis to kids that at home face poverty and sometimes abuse. The school distracts them from everyday problems and nourishes the talents that hide deep inside of them.

One evening we also went to see the performance of circus class students and we were left gobsmacked. They were funny, witty and had amazing technical and acting skills. They were such a pleasure to watch. We didn’t expect such a high standard. It just shows that talent is everywhere, you only have to give it a chance.

Yet as much as we were fascinated with the school and art galleries it was not all we did in Battambang. There were some pretty temples to see in the area and one day we rented a motorbike to go and see one. The temple itself was just another temple, but its location was stunning. It was built on a rocky cliff growing out of rice fields and had stunning canyon corridors and caves to explore. What’s more the temple area was invaded by monkeys. It was funny to watch them sneaking at fruit stalls to steal food.

We liked Battambang so much that we extended our stay until Christmas. In the guesthouse we were staying in we made friends with Philip and June – an Australian and a South African / Japanese – who invited us to have Christmas lunch with them and people they met in Battambang. There were some 15 of us and we ended up at Abbie’s house. Abbie was a singer from New York who was performing the same night at Lotus bar, so after Christmas laziness at her place we all went to Lotus to see her perform and sing along a few carols. In the bar we met more interesting people from all corners of the world. Some of them were in Cambodia to avoid Christmas, some like us just happened to skip it this year, but every person we met had a collection of interesting stories to tell.

On our last day in Battambang Ale went with Phillip to a the school in a small village where he volunteered as an English teacher. It was quite inspiring to see how motivated the kids were. They absorbed Phillip’s every word like sponges. The classes were after their regular school, but they were all well behaved and attentive. Kids in Africa were quite the opposite, Ale told me. I’m glad they are so keen to learn. Cambodia needs smart kids to bring the country out of poverty.

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Temple south of Battambang

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Temple south of Battambang

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Temple south of Battambang

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Temple south of Battambang

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Temple south of Battambang

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Temple south of Battambang

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Circus performance by Phare Ponleu Selpak art school students, Battambang

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Circus performance by Phare Ponleu Selpak art school students, Battambang

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Circus performance by Phare Ponleu Selpak art school students, Battambang

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Circus class, Phare Ponleu Selpak art school, Battambang

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Circus class, Phare Ponleu Selpak art school, Battambang

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Primary school, Phare Ponleu Selpak art school, Battambang

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Street art, Battambang

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Christmas house party, Battambang

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Christmas house party, Battambang

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Community English school, Battambang province

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Community English school, Battambang province

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Community English school, Battambang province

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Community English school, Battambang province

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