Cambdodia 6: Battambang

I arrived in Battambang at 5:30pm, after leaving Siem Reap via Mekong Express at 2pm, and immediately liked the place – it’s hard to explain what it is about somewhere that makes it feel inviting and appealing, and Battambang doesn’t necessarily have loads going on but it somehow had an energy that I fell into step with. Having said that, the 3 nights I spent there provided me with some of the worst sleep I have ever had but that is more due to the dorm room I was in at Here Be Dragons – a really cool and cheap place that I otherwise enjoyed being in, the dorm room was stuffy and right by the bar area, and with the guy on the top bunk next to me using my bunk to get up and down his constantly, I didn’t stand a chance.

Anyway, after checking in I got chatting to a guy who worked there about the things to do around Battambang and he introduced me to DJ Tuk Tuk (not his real name, sadly), whom provides Tuk Tuk services around Battambang and suggested I join in with a tour he already had scheduled for another woman at the hostel for the following afternoon, which would cover the Bamboo Train and Bat Cave. In the space of 10 minutes I had booked in the tour, got a Brazilian couple on board, and met the aforementioned woman, a lovely German called Tara. After chatting to her for a while, I realised I hadn’t eaten for a few hours and it was time to sort that out, so I walked across the river to the night market to devour meat and rice.

The following morning I headed out to explore the city for a few hours before ending up at Nary’s Kitchen – a highly rated cooking school and restaurant – where I had a ridic tasty eggplant (sorry, aubergine for the Brits) and green bean Khmer curry with rice. I am literally in love with the local food in Cambodia – and I thought it wasn’t possible to enjoy eating more than I already did. FOOL.

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After filling my gob I walked back to the hostel ready for setting off at 2pm. I should mention right away how amazing DJ Tuk Tuk was – kind, hilarious and considerate (he helped me not skip over numerous times that day) and a total rock star in his motorbike helmet! The 4 of us had a great day together and all loved DJ. Anyway, we were first taken to the Bamboo Train, which is literally as it sounds – a cart made out of bamboo that you sit on as, with the use of a motor, it whizzes down the metal track that crosses 7km of countryside.

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We paid $5 each and hopped on before setting off on our bumpy journey, however 5 minutes in we saw a train approaching us from the opposite direction so we slowed to a stop and were told to get off. Then, in front of us, they dismantled our cart and carried it off the track so that the other one could continue. We then had to wait for about 10 minutes while more and more carts going in the other direction whizzed by – although I couldn’t quite work it out myself, there was clearly some system to the whole thing! Eventually, as one of the carts went past us, the driver got off to help our driver put our cart back together and would continue on our journey.

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We were on the train for about 20/25 minutes in total, passing by stunning countryside with the wind in our hair and sun on our faces. It was very bumpy and I had to hold on to Tara at times (especially when I rather ambitiously tried to turn around to take pictures of the couple with us), wondering how often they service or maintain the track but loving the feeling of freedom at the same time. It was a truly unique experience and I would highly recommend doing it.

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We then arrived at a village and were told to get off for 20 minutes, where we were immediately approached by shop owners wanting our custom and little girls practically begging us to buy their bracelets. I find this kind of thing heartbreaking and really conflicting – I know that I need to say no to them as buying the bracelets from them perpetuates this culture when the community are trying to put in place organisations and processes so they can receive an education instead, but it is so so horrible saying no to this beautiful, young, warm girls. They are the loveliest – one of the girls gave me a ring she had made out of a leaf – and it is so difficult witnessing poverty in this way and feeling helpless. It reminds you of how lucky you are to have been brought up where you were, and reminds you of your privilege.

We continued to walk through the village for a while a different was startled out of my reverie by some twinkly, strange music, which, as I looked up, realised came from a local ice cream van. It’s so bizarre when you see things that are similar to things you have at home but so so different. I almost couldn’t grasp the concept! Amazing.

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We then hopped back on the bamboo train to go back to the starting point, where we were met by DJ Tuk Tuk. We were then driven to the Killing Caves in Phnom Sampeau – a site used during the Khmer Rouge to bludgeon innocent victims to death and throw them into holes in the caves. We were dropped off at the bottom of the mountain and walked the 20 minutes uphill – it was a juxtaposition to experience the horrifying side of what went on there at the same time as the incredible views across Battambang below. In addition, there were loads of monkeys running around and being affectionate with each other – it was almost impossible to comprehend (and perhaps far too easy to quickly forget) the terror and cruelty that went on there.

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As our final stop for the day, DJ took us to a “secret location” for the bat caves, as the usual spot would be filled with tourists. We clambered up the side of the caves, negotiating branches and bushes as we went, and on our way up heard the sound of the bats vacating the cave; from about 5:30/6 until 7, you can witness a steady stream of bats exiting the caves and filling the skyline as they go out to find food before dusk, and it is ridiculous how many there are. It’s really cool to just sit and watch and listen to the sound they create, and we were lucky enough to be able to discretely creep to the a spot were we could see the hole in the cave they were coming out of (and smell the bat wee).

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We returned to our hostel at around 7pm so I grabbed dinner there as the hostel was hosting a pub quiz at 8pm. 5 of us teamed together and were absolutely appalling but somehow managed to not come last (second-to-last, in fact) so we didn’t have to drink the booby prize. Either way, it was a fun way to end the day!

The next morning Tara and I went for breakfast at Cafe Hoc, an NGO restaurant that supports young Cambodians and offers a buffet breakfast for only $3. This includes egg cooked as per your choice (I went for scrambled) and then helping yourself to the homemade bread rolls (the white ones were delicious), the homemade jam (the mango one which out of is world), yogurt, muesli, fruit, congee, salted eggs and salt fish. There was a really good variety on offer, it was really tasty, and it was a lovely little place. It made me think about ways I could help support the locals – despite the poverty, I have come across many organisations and restaurants that support the children or the disadvantaged and it is really warming. It’s nice to know there is some way in which we can contribute as tourists.

The rest of the day was spent with the two of us desperately trying to book our bus to Bangkok for the next morning, which we had to take as we already had a sleeper bus booked from Bangkok to the Thai islands for the following evening, and ending up paying more money for a trip with a less reputable company. Winner. To de-stress, I then treated myself to a neck and back massage – there are a few blind massage parlours in Battambang and I went for the slightly more expensive one ($7 instead of $6, so still a bargain for an hour!) and slipped into my sexy blue overalls ready for my massage. I love a good massage and having all my knots worked out of my ridiculously dodgy shoulder blades, but I also found it quite emotional – I could sense the way the masseuse was using her hands to guide her way along the table, move my hair out of the way and take my various body parts in her hands. She knocked me a couple of times and apologised, which made me feel terrible – she was so aware of not hurting me and of doing everything properly, and I was just so in awe of her and how she dealt with not having sight. It brought tears to my eyes and, once again, reminded me of my privilege.

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That evening we had paid $14 dollars to see the circus performed by Phare Ponleu Selpak; a multi-arts centre for disadvantaged children. With things like this I never want to spoil it by going into much detail, but it was a wonderful hour of incredible music, dance, strength, acrobatics and comedy where I laughed a lot and was entranced by what I saw; a perfect way to end both my Battambang experience and my whole Cambodia experience. Absolutely gutted to be leaving (YOU MUST GO TO CAMBODIA), Tara and I took the bus the next morning to cross the border into Bangkok…

LS.

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