In a country beset with problems past and present, I made it my quest to find some good news to write about while visiting Battambang, Cambodia’s third largest city to the northwest. This was my second visit…the first was in 2015. On my fourth day, I was beginning to despair that I would find anything uplifting to write about. To me it appeared that the city hadn’t changed much except for looking a bit dirtier and dustier. Of course, I couldn’t help noticing far too much garbage everywhere. I would have to look beyond it and dig a little deeper to find what I was looking for.
Searching through my memory, I recalled how open and accommodating I found the service workers in the hotels, restaurants and stores to be on that first visit. They would overcome their initial shyness with an eagerness to speak English and be helpful if I approached them with a smile and some good will. To my relief, I still found most of them to be receptive in spite of the things I have read and heard about this country. Even the far too many moto- bike and tuk tuk drivers are especially obliging if you flash them a smile and say ‘no thanks” nicely for the umpteenth time.
My luck changed when I happened upon a little restaurant named Cafe HOC where I went that night for dinner and found my first good news story. Now on a roll, I had the impetus I needed to follow up on the advice of a friend to pay a visit to Romcheik5 Artspace which provided me with my second story.
But first let’s return to the Cafe HOC – Hope of Children.
This restaurant, situated close to the Royal Hotel where I was staying, is the brainchild of a project begun in 1992 by a Buddhist monk whose focus was to give support and hope to children who had been affected by family violence and AIDS in the aftermath of the Pol Pot years.
As an aside for those not so familiar with Cambodia’s recent history, the country has suffered greatly from the effects of what is commonly called in Cambodia as the Pol Pot years. This period of near genocide and ensuing civil war has left scars which the people are still dealing with today. Once the world became aware of what was happening, many NGO’s (non-government organizations) from around the world moved in to help.
Understandably, the main focus of HOC was to first provide a safe environment for the children and then to educate them in skills which would help them to integrate into the community. They first learned such basic skills as, good hygiene, language skills in English, Khmer, and Japanese, drawing, and music. These basics along with other life skills have helped them learn to be more confident and self-sufficient.
There are basically two components to this organization: the Agriculture Project which is focused on the growing of various fruit, vegetables, corn, and rice for the restaurant (cafe) where I have been eating my meals, and the Cafe Project which serves up delicious, healthy meals from scratch with a mix of Khmer and Japanese dishes. A third building has been added to the project which serves as a Guest House for the volunteers. The students and staff are very proud to add that they built it themselves. The school and guest house are located about nine kilometers outside the city limits.
The food, the service, and the ambience were so pleasing that I ended up having my dinners there every day as well as a breakfast or two. The added bonus for me was knowing that my money was going towards a good cause to help those kids who definitely need it.
Romcheik5 Artspace Country Museum and Art Gallery
Although this Art Gallery and Studio is quite a long trek…about 30 minutes from the centre of the city…. to the other side of the Sangkae River, it was well worth it, in spite of the heat. Thank goodness the rooms are all modern and equipped with lots of fans to control the temperature for the art work as well as the visitors. I spent the whole morning there and was the only visitor until just as I was leaving another couple came in. I realised that here was a place that could use a little more publicity so I hope that anyone who reads this post and ever comes to Battambang, will take the time and make the effort to visit. The gallery can be reached by contacting Vuthy Sath: email@example.com or by telephoning +855 (0) 86-677-704.
Romcheik5 was established in 2012 by four young artists with the help of a generous donor from France. Three years later the space was enlarged with the addition of a gallery and finally another in 2018. At present it exhibits more than 200 original works of Modern Art…the only “Museum of Modern Art” in the country I am told. The works of the four artists are displayed as permanent and temporary collections and also include works from other local artists. The roof top provides a convenient resting place where you can have a drink and take in the surrounding scenery. This area is also used for art workshops and performances. More temporary art is displayed here as well. There is an entrance of 5US $ to help with the maintenance of this complex, and some of the art work is for sale.
The four artists in residents are graduates of the Phare Ponlew Selpak Visual Art School. I found out about the good works of this school on my first visit here when I actually took in a performance put on by the students at the training school for the Phare Selpak’s Circus. The Phare Circus, head quartered in Siem Reap, have earned world recognition for their outstanding performances. If you would like to find out more about this energetic group, you can take a look at a post I wrote in 2015 about them and other sites to see in Battambang: Battambang – the ”Heart and Soul” of Cambodia
As I wandered through the various rooms housing the present and past works of these four talented artists, I realised that a visit to this gallery is a must if you are interested in learning more about the suffering the Cambodians endured under the horror of the Pol Pot years. History books can record the facts, but art work such as what is on display here at this gallery will leave you with thoughts and feelings for a long time.
There are other local artists’ works showing at Romcheik and the following day as I was ducking in and out of shops and galleries on St.2.5, I came across this artist at the Jewel in the Lotus Gallery who was eager to show me her creations and have me take her picture. Kachao Touch is well-known throughout Cambodia. Her art reveals a colour and vibrancy to match her personality encouraging her viewers to move forward with hope after so many years of suffering. If only I had the resources to purchase just one small piece which was selling for $150 US dollars!
I started off this post with just two good news stories in mind until the morning of my last day in Battambang, I had a third one unexpectedly crop up. From the moment I arrived at the Royal Hotel for my three night stay, I was totally impressed with its location, the staff who checked me in, and how everything, right down to wrapping my passport in cellophane and tape so it could be safely kept for me at their desk, was enough for me to see that attention to detail and taking care of their customers was their goal…and they were good at it! However, it wasn’t until the final hours of my stay when I got a clearer picture of how all this was accomplished through a visible group effort driven by what seemed like the whole family…mother, father, son and I believe a daughter. There might have even been an uncle or two! No matter…the end result was an atmosphere of palpable excitement executed with such organization that their proficiency was almost contagious. Son, Lay, was all over the place handling the early morning check outs as I sat outside for my first and final breakfast before getting my bus to Phnom Penh. To my surprise it was all delicious including the coffee which is a major priority for me. The coffee cafe, which is next door to the entrance of the hotel, is capably run by Mother. Then, I found out from Lay that the rooftop restaurant which I had seen when I first arrived was re-opening. They had found a new chef and were excited about its revival. With the potted plants enhancing its decor, a well-equipped bar, and a jacuzzi, I have a feeling it will be very successful. This will be another reason why those of us who have stayed here and met such a kind and hard-working family would want to return without a minute’s hesitation.
Such good news stories need to be shared because it’s all too easy to think the worse of our world today when we see and experience all the problems we as humanity are facing. Perhaps we should be looking at countries like Cambodia who have experienced the depths of hell and still have a long way to go before they achieve some kind of paradise. However, isn’t that true for all countries today? Perhaps we all have to go through the suffering before we can emerge at a more enlightened state. This ideology is very Buddhist and one of the reasons I like to come here. It’s definitely a learning experience. There is kindness all around us. First impressions may not always reveal it so instead of making hasty conclusions, then perhaps we must exercise some patience and be willing to dig a little deeper to find it.