Today we are flaneuring through Battambang in Cambodia with Allison Smith. I like saying that name. Battambang. Battambang. I also love how Allison reflects on returning to the city and seeing it again, fresh.
This is Battambang.
It’s a small city in northwestern Cambodia where I lived for a year, though I moved away a few months ago. Like so many people around the world, I was lured to the big city by the promise of better job opportunities and restaurants open later than 8pm.
Now I live in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, but I visit Battambang often, and this is the street I spend much of my time on: Street 1 1/2.
Shopfront homes line the road, narrow buildings where families live upstairs and have shops downstairs, opening out onto the street. There are cars parked along the street, signs of increasing disposable wealth in Cambodia. Young children recite the alphabet — gau, kau, go, ko — at lessons held in a home. Tour groups pass on mountain bikes, wearing helmets and sweating. Mobile food carts selling ice cream or noodles go by. An art gallery opens and closes at seemingly arbitrary times. Power outages strike without warning, bringing the whirring fans to a halt and, even more upsettingly, cutting people off from wi-fi access.
When it’s sunny, women drive by on motorbikes wearing long sleeves to protect their skin from getting darker, no matter how hot it is. Cats sunbathe on the tin roofs and geckos scurry along the walls. When it’s raining, the street floods and cockroaches scuttle inside, searching for higher ground. Miraculously, the torrential showers never seem to dislodge the power lines, which criss-cross the street in a pattern right at home in a modern abstract painting.
On Street 1 1/2, I run into everyone I know. The Australian NGO workers, the Cambodian artists, the French teachers and everyone else. Sometimes the absences are more noticeable than the presences; the foreign community in Battambang is transient, with people leaving all the time.
When I last visited, I ran into a friend who had just returned from five weeks in Australia. He said Cambodia was different than when he left. I looked at the street we were on and felt the same about Battambang.
It’s cliché to personify cities, but it’s also understandable, given the complex and fragile relationships we have with them. Returning to a city after time away is like seeing a friend after a long separation: they’re familiar but different, and even the small changes are disorienting. A friend’s new hair colour means updating your mental image of what they look like; a favourite restaurant closing in a city means finding a new place to gather with friends on a Tuesday night.
When I visited, I could see all the small changes to the city. The coffee shop at the corner didn’t rent bikes anymore, though the staff let me borrow theirs. There were few tourists, and the tables outside the restaurant at the end of the street were empty. Hotels were being constructed and a new arts house was hosting a party that weekend.
This street was drier than the same time the previous year, when the flooding was so severe the highway from Battambang to Phnom Penh was impassable and the river running through Battambang nearly overflowed. In contrast, there’s been too little rain this “rainy” season. The drought will drive many rice farmers to Thailand to make ends meet, leaving their families behind in Cambodia.
But though some things had changed, much was still the same. There was a power outage Sunday morning, geckos still ran past my feet, and motorbikes whizzed past, the women wearing long sleeves.
The changes were cosmetic, like a haircut. Battambang was still the same and still familiar, like an old friend.
Allison Jane Smith is a writer and communications professional. She is a contributor to Beacon and has had her work featured for ONE, Matador and the Ampersand Review, among others. She currently lives in Cambodia, where she drinks a lot of coconut water and even more iced coffee. For more Allison, visit her website and follow her on Twitter.