When I first think of the main destinations of Cambodia my mind jumps from the chaotic city of Phnom Penh, to the temple town of Siem Reap then back down to the backpacker coast of Sihanoukville. At least, these were the only spots I really knew of on a map when it came to my two-week visits to the country. Now that I have more time up my sleeve, my list of places to visit in Cambo is growing, with Battambang being the first one I’ve managed to tick off.
Battambang (pronounced Bat-am-bong) is a riverside city that holds the position of the second largest city in Cambodia. Though you could easily forget that, as the roads are as sleepy as Cambodian roads get, and a couple of kilometres out of town the scenery quickly goes from 20th century French architecture to rice paddies as far as the eye can see. Nonetheless apparently there are 196,000 people residing and making a living in Battambang, mainly from rice. They do love their rice. White rice, brown rice, sticky bamboo rice, rice paper, rice wine.
Everywhere we looked there were signs for bicycle tours, with images of flocks of Westerners in dorky helmets cruising down dirt roads and stopping for photos with rice paper makers. Well I was determined to find a rice paper maker sans dorky helmet and others in the group were determined to find a dirt road sans flocks of Westerners, so we hired $6 scooters and climbed on two people a-piece. Ultimately I had to compromise and wear a slightly dorky Porsche helmet, but we were free to explore Battambang on our own. I was in possession of a map and proceeded to accidentally choose rather scenic routes, but we were still able to see beautiful green rice paddies, giant Buddha statues and to the delight of the boys, plenty of freshly rained on potholes and puddles.
We saw quite a few houses with racks of rice paper drying in the sun, so we took a guess, pulled up at one and did our best to ask if we could watch and take some photos. The owner was 10 steps ahead of us and we saw she already had a fire burning beneath a plate where she was churning out discs of paper with batter poured from a bowl. Her small son helped to roll out the paper in perfect flat circles onto a fresh rack. The next task was to attempt to purchase some already dried produce. I used my broken Khmer to ask how much for 10 pieces and she told me $1.25. Thinking I’d been given the White Tax I went along with the price, wanting to buy the real deal and also pay her for her time. I soon learned that $1.25 got you 100 pieces. No more, no less. A grandmother appeared and wordlessly started bundling up dozens of the things into a bag for me while I insistently tried to ask her to stop, wondering where the heck I would put 100 of the things in the moto. I finally convinced her to settle for about 50 pieces. I still paid the $1.25.
After shoving the rice paper under the moto seat we proceeded to ride back into town for lunch before setting off for the next adventure. A friend had mentioned Battambang used to have an airport. Well it still does, it’s just completely abandoned bar a couple of portable offices and basketball courts. We rode through the gates and the boys’ pupils dilated to that of a kid on Christmas morning. The tarmac was a beautiful, hot, empty patch of asphalt beckoning for a ride. Us backseat passengers had no choice but to cling on and shut our eyes, only to sheepishly open them when we reached the maximum speed our flimsy hired motos would allow. It was obviously a bit of a hip place for locals to loiter, with everything from Toyota Camrys to piles of school kids on the one moto to a lone old dude walking along the strip. Everyone was going through their paces on the long stretch of smooth road. After attracting the attention of a pack of ogling teens, we lost round after round of races to the end of the tarmac. Embarrassingly sometimes to vehicles with three people stacked on.
We finally peeled the boys away from their makeshift racecourse, and after a night of sampling some of Battambang’s delicious eats and drinks, we woke up to embark on sampling the famous Battambang bamboo train. The bamboo train was described to me as essentially a slab of bamboo slats on a couple of axels that is so small, it can be lifted off the rail whenever it meets oncoming traffic. After hearing this, I pictured a slow meandering roll through some Cambodian countryside, perhaps pushing the train ourselves with a man-powered lever. This was not to be the case. We lined up with other groups and were assigned our ‘carriage’ and driver. He started the engine like you would a lawn mower, and we positively launched down a wild path of bushes, thorns and rogue dragonflies, barely tamed within one or two inches of our carriage. We moved at such a pace that I was too impressed to be scared, and this went on for quite a few kilometres over bridges, creeks and rice paddies. Finally a speck appeared on the horizon and our driver began the process of applying the brakes so we could stop and de-rail. Sure enough we stopped, our opposition stopped, and their driver proceeded to help pull apart our train, move past, reassemble, and carry on. This would happen several more times, alternating who exactly would de-rail. I still don’t understand the system for this. Perhaps it was whoever had less cargo.
After safely returning to the ‘station’ we continued our day with temple exploring. This included Wat Bannan which could very well translate to ‘What Legs Day?’ in homage to the amount of stairs it took to get to the top. Next we were treated to even greater and higher views from Phnom Sampov. The climb up was dotted with shrines and colourful statues, some crawling with monkeys looking for a feed. After taking in the view we lowered ourselves down into the Killing Caves where Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge dumped over 10,000 victims in the genocide. After experiencing rather regulated and tourist driven memorials like Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21), this place hidden up in a mountain with only a couple of local kids to point it out seemed all the more poignant and surreal. Locals had gathered remaining bones into a respectful pile and had strung tufts of clothing as garlands around the cave entrance. A young kid recited facts to us as we walked through and we handed him a few dollars for his trouble.
We ended our day by sitting alongside a road at one of dozens of pop up cafes simply established as a viewing point for ‘the bats’. Yes entire communities of entrepreneurial locals are making a killing off of 6 million bats flying, living and pooping their way around Battambang. This particular phenomenon we were about to witness was the grand departure of 1.5 million bats leaving one particular cave to go and eat their entire body weight in insects living in rice paddies. Yes I read the information sign. It was actually really amazing to witness, and for the entire ride home you could see swirls and clouds of bats descending upon the rice paddies as the sun disappeared.
In the morning we rose early to be received by our complimentary chauffeur for our cooking class at Nary’s Kitchen. Turns out our chauffeur was also to be our guiding chef, a man of many talents…and very little patience! We laughed and cringed as we struggled to cook to a Khmer standard. Ingredients splashed out of our mortar and pestles, spring rolls were rolled in all kinds of odd shapes and sizes, and Asian herbs and spices were incorrectly identified much to the horror of our guide. But he did teach us how to make a mean amok (despite my vegetarian adaption bringing me great shame), and I think we won him over in the end. After eating the fruits of our labour, we piled back into the van that would take us home, complimentary locals who stopped for wees on the side of the road every 30 minutes included.
If I don’t see you on the bamboo train any time soon, I’ll see you on the road.