BootsnAll Travel Network

Bada Bing, Battambang

The town of Battambang is actually Cambodia’s second largest city, situated on the banks of the Stung Sangker river. Paul and I didn’t know much about Battambang, only that the boat trip to Siem Reap was the main reason people stop here, and that Chanta, our travel companion, was born there before emigrating to the US. But for us, what we thought would be a short day before heading north to Angkor Wat turned out to be two great days, our favorite so far in Cambodia. Our “short” bus ride from Pnomh Penh turned into 6 hours of uncomfortableness, as the words “supposed to” began to take on different meanings in Cambodia. We were supposed to be 4 hours, but as we dropped off and picked up numerous passengers along the way, the trip quickly became tiresome. After arriving at the small bus stop, we were surrounded by moto drivers who wanted to take us to their guesthouse. Finally catching on to the game, we had already decided where we wanted to stay ahead of time, and searched the cards held up by the drivers for that guesthouse. We found two moto drivers, and with our backpacks at their feet, we sped off on little mopeds towards town. We got a free ride to the guesthouse, as they pay the moto drivers commission for bringing in people, so everyone wins in some way. We got another great room, the nice, cheap accomodation being another wonderful surprise in Cambodia, and set out quickly to find some food and the internet cafe. Over lunch we discussed what we wanted to do, and realized there was more to do in Battambang that could be accomplished in one day, so we maneuvered things around a bit, including Paul’s flight to Hong Kong, and decided to stay for an extra day. Our guesthouse is well known for the moto drivers that hang around and offer tours around town. We hired two for the day, and they zoomed us around the countryside, offering us a wonderful glimpse into rural Cambodian life. All the little kids we passed, and there are tons of children in Cambodian, waved and yelled “Hello” to us as we drove by, seemingly bewildered but thrilled that people would actually want to come and visit Cambodia. My moto driver Rassy, the only Cambodian person I’ve seen that could remotely be called plump, turned out to be a wealth of knowledge about not only the main sights they took us to, but also the plants and animals we passed, and openly discussed topics like education, the birth rate, religion and politics with me. He patiently explained how the school system now works, what the different political groups are for, what a quinine tree looks like, and various other things that I didn’t even think to ask him about. It was well worth the $5 we paid for them to take us around. We stopped at Wat Ek Phnom, ruins of an 11th century temple set in the countryside. The ride out to the temple was really the highlight, as we rode along the banks of the river and passed by numerous houses and villages along the way. On the way home we stopped at a small local place where they make fish paste, and were shown the staggering amount of small fish that go into each batch. Fish paste is a staple in Cambodia, a salty addition to many foods, but also the midday meal for farmers, as they can take it out in the fields with them for a source of protein. We headed back towards town and stopped at the Governor’s Residence, a huge colonial house that now seems to attract local kids riding their bicycles around the paths. We also made a stop at Wat Kampheng, a local wat where many local monks wish to practice their English with tourists, so we strolled around the grounds with two of them for a bit, and a few random children who were giggling hysterically at themselves after I took their picture and showed them on the LCD screen. Getting over their shyness, they copied the frangipani flower I had put in my hair and picked a few of them, tucking them behind their ears and grinning like fools. The monks explained these were orphan or street kids, who now lived at the wat and would become monks someday. Unlike in Thailand, girls could become nuns as well and there were a few girls at the wat as well. We were fairly tired, so we said our goodbyes and they thanked us for speaking with them, and we headed back to our guesthouse. We made plans with our driver to take us the next day further out for the whole day, and went back to our room to shower and get ready to go out. We went to the one real bar in town, owned by an Australian, set along the riverfront and had dinner. Since it is slow season in Cambodia, and Battambang isn’t a must see for visitors, so the bar was fairly quiet with just a few people. What we thought would be big drinking session quickly came to an end, as the bar closed at 10. WHich was just as well, as our moto drivers were picking us up at 10am the next day for a big day out.  

After some much needed TV therapy, including the Daily Show global edition which was a much needed glimpse from home, I dozed off only to wake again in the morning to get ready for another day on the motos. A quick breakfast and we set off with our drivers, who were taking us outside of town to visit another Wat and a killing fields located outside of town. Our main stop was to go to Wat Phnom Sampeau, set high on a hill overlooking rice paddies and villages. It took us about an hour to get out there, our moto drivers kindly stopping to let us stretch our legs halfway, and we stopped quickly at a small rice wine “distillery”, which was basically these two women brewing up the strong stuff  in their version of moonshine. They were considered wealthy by Cambodian village standards, as they had alot of rice fields to make the rice wine, but then could use the husks and other by products to feed their pigs, giving them even more income. We didn’t get to taste any, but our driver said it was really strong, about 70% alcohol, and he didn’t like to drink it very much. We set off again and reached the hill and had a cool drink, much needed after the dusty drive out, and then set off up the steep climb to the top of the hill. Paul’s driver accompanied us up to serve as a tour guide, and we kept a nice gentle pace as it was a fairly steep climb and completely unshaded. We stopped at a wat on the way and showed us the construction of a new one due to be completed. We then headed further up the hill to the Killing fields, which were a few caves where the Khmer Rouge executed local people, mainly teachers, monks and other educated people. It was another sobering visit, and our guide told us in great detail but with no emotion what went on in these caves. Maybe because he was young and somewhat unaffected by the history, but he was a good guide in the sense that he provided us the information, and let us emote in our own way. One cave was particularly surreal, as the natural shape inside had once been used as a performance stage for plays. We climbed higher up to the top, where there was yet another wat, and also the location of two large guns left over from the Vietnamese. From the lookout point, you could see miles away, pointing towards Crocodile Mountain in the distance, and Battambang further still.

After a couple of hours at these sights, we made our way down incredibly steep stairs, and found our other guide where we had left him. We had some lunch at a local stall and some more refreshing drinks, and then set off for our next stop, a wat up a huge staircase that Paul and I looked at in slight agony. Not wanting to disappoint our drivers, but realizing that we were going to be at Angkor Wat the next day, we went halfway up the stairs in the high heat of the day. Trying not to get “wat-ed out” as many travelers say, we sat on the stairs and took a view of the surrounding area. We headed back down, and off we went to our last stop, the bamboo train.

The bamboo train in Battambang is really just a wooden platform used by the locals to transport goods back and forth between villages. They are of course illegal, using the national rail lines without paying, but providing a much needed service for the villagers who don’t own cars or vehicles to bring large items, such as bamboo and wood, back home. For $3 a piece, including our drivers, we boarded the platform, motos and all, and set off at a pace of about 15km an hour. One thing that crossed my mind was what happens when another bamboo train comes from the other direction, or even worse, the real train? My question was quickly answered, as we approached another bamboo train. The sight of tourists, and huge motorbikes allowed for the other train to disassemble and let us pass, apparently the bigger load has the right of way. The platforms are fairly light, so it just depends on the cargo as to how heavy the train is, and the two men on the other side lifted their platform off it’s rails, then the rails came off the tracks, and we passed them by, looking back to see them patiently reassembling their train and setting off in the other direction. The train went surprisingly fast, and we passed numerous livestock and farmers along the way. After about a half hour journey, we came to our final stop and deboarded, the guides lifting their motos off, and us getting on for the short ride home. The ride on the bamboo train cut our time on the moto considerably, and though it was a great way to get around and see the sights, my butt was starting to feel the pain.

The trip, being longer than the day before, was $10 a person, and it was again completely worth the money, transport and guide included. We reached our guesthouse and profusely thanked our guides for two wonderful days out and about town. After showering to get rid of the grime that becomes a permanent fixture when traveling in Cambodia, we found some great dinner at a local Khmer cooking school. We had to get up early the following morning for our boat trip to Siem Reap, and called it a night very early. Our bus left for the ferry at 6:30, and we were up and ready to go. Our minivan left and we set off with a few other tourists to the river, only to discover that the water wasn’t high enough and the boat had stopped further up. Our minivan from the guesthouse had already left, so we go in with another group, crammed in with backpacks and bags galore. We finally reached the boat, and I was pleasantly surprised that there was someone actually checking tickets and marking us off. We boarded the ferry, and I chose seats in the back of the boat, trying to get away from the screaming babies, not realizing that the diesel engine was just a few feet away and would eventually cover us in black greasy soot. But 7 other people also made this mistake, and as we set off we all were excited and looking forward to the leisurely trip up the river.

The engine roared to life, and black smoke billowed out at us, the wind taking it one direction, and switching it over the next. We quickly turned our backs towards the engine, our feet hanging over the sides and our arms dangling down over the railing. But that wouldn’t work for long, as Paul was still recovering from sunburn from Thailand and didn’t want to risk getting it again. But we cruised up the river, nice and slow, and even slower when we reached numerous sharp and short turns in the path. I needed a break from the smoke, so I went up from and sat on the front of the boat with the workers, taking my book and reading and then looking up at the scenery. The boat began to have trouble making the turns, and eventually we would crash into nearby reeds or even small trees, the workers using long paddles to push us out and start over. I was, on more than one occasion, left shielding my face from the thorny branches, and after about an hour of thinking I would be left on shore at one point, headed back to the back. Paul was chatting to two other English travelers, Jason and Helen, who we actually had spoken to briefly at a wat the day before. We stopped halfway, or what we thought was halfway, at a small fishing village so we could get out and get drinks and some food. Thinking we were only a few hours away, we got some drinks but no food, wanting to eat at a nice place in Siem Reap. What was marketed as a “5-6 hour” boat ride, taking in beautiful scenery through a bird sanctuary, turned into a 9 hour trip, complete with two engine breakdowns. I can’t imagine what that trip would be like in the dry season, as the river would be even lower. Further along the beautiful scenery began to all look the same, and I concentrated on finishing my book, anything to lighten my load. Our stomachs grumbling, we finished off any snack food we had with us, and all our water was gone. We finally entered Tonle Sap lake, and made our way through the floating village that surrounds the banks and entrance to the main road of Siem Reap. Our initial plan of being able to do a few things in Siem Reap that day was over, as it was past 5 once we reached our guesthouse. In our room, I took one look in the mirror and laughed myself silly. In my apparent lack of any sense, I had worn my white linen shirt on board, which was now literally covered in black grime. My capri pants were equally filthy, and I had smudges all over my face and neck. Paul fared slightly better, but we were both just gross really, and our showers were long. Our guesthouse has a nice restaurant and bar on the roof, so we quickly headed up there after showering, and met Jason and Helen for dinner. It was getting dark, and after dinner we set out to town just a few hundred meters away and enjoyed some drinks. I managed to make a phone call home, though with horrible reception, to congratulate my sister on the birth of her son.  We enjoyed a few beers, again bewildered at the selection of drinking holes in town and the variety of restaurants available to us. But we knew we were definately in Siem Reap, completely different atmosphere to Phomh Penh, as this was where huge tour buses ferried people to and from Angkor Wat, and the town was quickly growing with new guesthouses and restaurants and facilities for tourists. This was the main destination for any traveler to Cambodia, and realized we would need a good night’s sleep to take part in the madness, we headed off to bed for an early start to visit Angkor Wat the next day. The views and sights that would greet us in the morning and continue for days after were something that no guidebook can really prepare you for, and in some ways, we couldn’t get enough of.

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