Firstly, I must apologise for yet another “I had an awesome holiday in beautiful Cambodian sunshine” blog entry. I promise that my next blog will be less envy-making… probably.
Cambodia had more public holidays this week. Three of them in fact, to celebrate King Norodom Sihamoni’s 62nd birthday. Happy birthday Your Majesty! Thanks for the five day weekend. My darling flatmate Hallie and I headed up north to Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city and a place both of us had yet to visit.
Battambang is situated close to the Tonle Sap lake, and is home to about 250,000 people. The journey up on Wednesday was … very Khmer. We were initially relieved that the bus was not equipped with a television and we would therefore not have to suffer seven hours of incessant Khmer karaoke. We took our seats and the bus steadily filled up. Then it was full. Then small, plastic stools were placed down the entire isle and more people piled on, each perching on a tiny stool. They stayed like this for seven hours! I didn’t take a picture sadly as it seemed too touristy but turning around and seeing all these glum, uncomfortable face at about arm rest level down the length of the bus was hilarious!
Hallie and I were staying in a lovely family-run guest house in the city centre. I say city, it’s tiny! Our room was fine, although rather hot, and the ensuite shower had such poor water pressure that we were provided with a bucket and scoop to help wash shampoo and conditioner out. It was actually a lot of fun! That evening we chatted to some of the other guests, several of whom were working in Phnom Penh too. Battambang is not on the basic tourist route so many of the people we met were expats and it was great to meet other people who love Cambodia. The first night we wandered around the streets to get our bearings and enjoyed some traditional Khmer food whilst watching the laid back evening life of the town unfold below us. We visited their quaint night market and bought some popcorn for dessert – this became an evening tradition!
I arranged to meet Jason, a friend I met on the Kampot trip (click here for the relevant blog), on Thursday morning for breakfast. Jason was born in Battambang but lives in LA and was coincidentally visiting his sister who still lives in Battambang. When we met him for breakfast we quizzed him about the best things to do in his hometown and he offered to drive us around for the day! It was very generous of him and fantastic to have a local guide too! We headed to Phnom Sompov, a hill with caves and a beautiful temple on it. The hike up was pretty steep and the weather now is reaching the climax of the hot season. It was rather sweaty but we laughed and joked the whole way, and the views were breathtaking.
The first cave we visited, “the flower cave” was fun, the second cave was less so. The second cave is known as the “killing cave”, due to its purpose during the Khmer Rouge rule. 10,000 people were thrown through a shaft into the cave during the 3 years, 8 month rule and left to die. There are various piles of bones left in the cave. These and more grizzly facts were relayed to us by a jovial young Khmer boy, no older than 12. The fact that he was reeling off these statements about such brutality with such a practiced, almost nonchalant air made me very uncomfortable. I am all for educating the Khmer population about the country’s history but this kid clearly didn’t fully understand what he was showing tourists on a daily basis. It felt wrong.
The temple at the top offered stunning views over the Battambang countryside. The place is overrun with macaques which are equally cute and scary. And hilarious it turns out. I was leaning on the wall, looking out over the landscape when a monkey jumped up onto a lower wall with a can of fizzy drink. He then proceeded to bite into it and drink the contents. One of the funniest things Hallie and I have ever seen. The temple itself was beautiful too.
We hurried back down as it looked like an early monsoon was threatening to soak us. On the way back to the city, we stopped at Jason’s family’s mango farm where we picked several delicious mangos each and I got bitten by numerous red ants trying to get a shot of me on this ladder – appreciate the picture!!!
Back in Battambang we ate a very late lunch, before showering and enjoyed some beers with our new hostel friends (who live in Phnom Penh) and Jason. The following day Jason was heading to Thailand with his family so we said a sad goodbye to our wonderful guide, with the promise to meet up next weekend in Phnom Penh to say a proper farewell before he heads back to LA. Thank you so much for that day Jason, it was amazing and I loved getting to know you better!
The following day we hired a tuk tuk, complete with a lovely, English-speaking driver called Ya Ya, and headed to the other touristy sites. Banan temple is at the top of 358 steps. That’s a lot of steps. Hallie and I were very, very, very sweaty by the top and basically sat in the shade of the crumbling temple towers trying to cool off before heading back down. The temple itself was cool and I liked the various inscriptions on cactus leaves left by previous visitors.
We next went to the legendary bamboo train, via Cambodia’s answer to the Golden Gate Bridge …
The bamboo train is a small length of track (7km) remaining from the huge network laid by the French colonists. Most of the rest of it was blown up by the Khmer Rouge, Viet Cong, or US Army. Basically you get a bamboo platform, slotted onto two wheel axels, a diesel engine, and a driver. Before the diesel engine, the trains were propelled by a bamboo rod, like a punt, which is where the track got the name. It’s a single track so when you meet another “train” the smaller of the two loads has to dismantle their ride to let the others pass. As it was just Hallie and I, we had to get off a lot! The journey itself is so much fun! It’s very noisy and quite fast, and every now and then you hit a piece of track that is barely connected to the next rail. But we didn’t die. We did however get rather sunburnt as we’d forgotten to put cream on and the entire ride is exposed. We bought Krammars (traditional Khmer scarves) at the far end from one of the small stalls and wrapped ourselves up on the way back! For a short video of our journey, click here!
Once back with Ya Ya, he gave us a brief history of the bamboo train and his family in relation to Battambang and the Khmer Rouge. Here, unlike the boy at the killing cave, I felt like Ya Ya actually knew what he was talking about and understood the historical events he was describing. His family history, like so many here, was full of death, separation and loss, and you could see his pain even though he had not been alive at the time.
We had lunch in a small, super cheap Khmer cafe in town and then headed north to Ek Phnom, another old temple. This one wasn’t up many steps so we were happy. It was a pretty but dilapidated ruin and I was actually more taken with the beautiful pagoda next door, especially as there were perfectly placed bicycles everywhere … I got a little, snap happy, sorry!
That afternoon we explored some of Battambang’s beautiful colonial streets and scoped out dinner places. The one we ended up going to, Lotus, was amazing and we returned for lunch there the following day.
Battambang is a lovely place and I had so much fun exploring the town and beautiful surrounding countryside. I understand that it is a little out of the way and therefore not many tourists visit but I would highly recommend it to anyone. The only problem was the heat in our hotel room. We were on the third floor and it was just so hot! The final night Hallie actually took a shower in the middle of the night and used two buckets of water in an attempt to cool herself down! My only recommendation for fellow travellers would be to get a room with AC in the hot season. Other than that, explore and fall in love with rural Cambodia at its best.