Editor’s Note: Check out the adventures of Mel & Alex in Battambang below! Bats, tracks, and lok lak! All content and photos are from the contributor.
It’s said when you meet someone you only have 7 seconds to make an impression, and we’ve found the same to be true to an extent of the places we’ve visited. Cambodia impressed as soon as we cross the border, thanks to the friendly immigration officer at Phsar Prum who sat with us until a taxi became available, chatted with us about Khmer history and treated us to a beer. So it was with high hopes we arrived in Battambang, 100km East of the border, for our first sample of Cambodian hospitality.
We had booked a couple of nights at Shang Hai Guesthouse at just $5 a night, and as a result we were expecting $5 worth of comfort. Instead we were treated to complimentary water, toiletries and a TV, in a clean, spacious en suite room. We were chuffed and immediately booked a third night, and later on a fourth.
We spent a few days just soaking up our first taste of Cambodian culture and making plans for the rest of our adventure. Whilst Battambang is in fact the country’s second most populous area (after Phnom Penh), you wouldn’t guess it. Not a major stop for most visitors, it’s blissfully untouched by the influence of tourism and high-rise development, subsequently retaining charm by the bucketload.
Heading out to explore, we found the atmosphere was wildly different to that of many other towns we have visited on our travels. Say goodbye to the pushy sales tactics of Tuk Tuk drivers and stall owners. There’s a friendly, community vibe; adults are quick to smile at you, while children give a big wave and English “hello!”.
With a walking tour route in the excellent free Battambang Traveller magazine, we spent an afternoon getting to know our surroundings. From Street 101 we headed South-East, discovering pretty Wat Pipetharam and bustling Psar Nath market, selling all manner of clothes, fresh food and baked goods (look out for the donuts!). Continuing along Sangker River before cutting down sleepy lanes and alleyways, we found 2 1/2 Street with its shop houses and restaurants, many of which still retain their original French Colonial architecture. Journey further still and you’ll uncover disused, but nonetheless interesting art deco cinemas, and the grand old Lord Governor’s Residence, Sala Khaet. All of these sights, and more between, give Battambang a warm, unspoilt character that had us captivated.
Working up an appetite, our first taste of Khmer cuisine was well overdue. On the first night we had played it safe, with a gorgeous Mango and Cashew Nut Salad and Burger and Chips at The Lonely Tree, which along with many of the restaurants in Battambang work with NGOs to get young, vulnerable people off of the street and into a trade. This time we enjoyed a delicious Noodle Soup and Lok Lak, consisting of marinated meat accompanied by rice, served with lime and black Kampot Pepper. A very high standard had been set! There are plenty of expat-owned eateries to cater to Western tastes, along with local success stories, including a student who has set up a very successful Khmer Noodle Stall between the market and the river, selling the most amazing beef stew.
The food is a little more expensive than its street food counterpart in Thailand, but that is more than evened out by the price of accommodation. Beers are dirt cheap (cheaper than coke or even water in some instances!) and any hour is happy hour somewhere in Battambang. We were also intrigued by the 50 cent rice wine at Buffalo Alley, but less so by the variants flavoured with Tarantulas and Snakes!
While it’s easy to get caught up by the delicious restaurants and dangerously affordable bars, there is also plenty to see and do in the surrounding area, so we hired a Tuk Tuk and driver for the day for $20. Olah the driver was very friendly with great English, and was keen to share his knowledge. He suggested we head to one of the temples via some local villages, so we could meet the locals and learn about their trades.
First up we visited a family who mould huge clay pots for local families and businesses. They can hold up to 900 litres of rainwater and typically sell for just $25-35. They had a well rehearsed strategy which enabled them to work on three pots at a time, before moving the pots into the sun for the clay to set. Next Olah stopped at a temple, and called us over to try bamboo sticks containing sticky rice from a vendor outside. They showed us how they cooked the rice with coconut milk and soy beans in a hollow stick of bamboo. The vendor then shaved off the burnt strips of bamboo and used them as kindling for the fire, and showed us how to crack into the tube and to use a square of bamboo as a spoon. The rice was simple; slightly sweet and wholesome and it was fascinating to see the resourceful production, with noting going to waste.
The sampling of typical Khmer snacks didn’t end there. Olah took us to visit two ladies cooking and drying rice pancakes in the sun, which made a deliciously crispy spring roll once fried. Similarly, our next stop was to meet a woman who sliced bananas into thin strips, placing them on bamboo stretchers and dried them in the heat of the sun. The end product was fantasticly sweet and sticky, yet crispy snack. They were so good we ended up buying another packet to take on the road!
Our taste of Khmer village life complete, we made our way to Ek Phnom temple, built in the 11th century. There are several ancient temples in the vicinity of Battambang, Wat Ek Phnom and Wat Banan the more frequently visited. Judging from the photos we saw of the latter, if you are looking to check one of them out you may be better off going there, as Ek Phnom is more of a ruin than a pristine example of a Hindu religious building. While once it surely stood tall and imposing, these days there is far more rubble than there actually is temple, and it is difficult to gauge what it was like in its heyday.
Bamboo is used for far more than just cooking in Cambodia, and after lunch we headed to take a ride on the prolific Bamboo Train. The route starts about 3.7km East of Battambang, and the track runs 7km to O Sra Lav, with the train (or ‘norry’) powered along by a 6HP gasoline engine. We weren’t sure what to expect, as some people seemed to love it, while others worried they’d be thrown from the cart! Admittedly it’s a pretty rickety ‘norry’ of bamboo you sit on, but we figured if it can carry huge mounds of goods back and forth it should just about hold us.
With a couple of pillows to sit on we climbed aboard and were on our way. Being so close to the ground you felt every bump, and we were glad for the pillows to spare us bruises, and admittedly some of the track had clearly seen a lot of use. Still, it was hardly the death-defying trip some of the reviews made it out to be and we felt quite safe, if a little uncomfortable. One issue did become apparent on route; two way traffic on one set of rails. While our (over-elaborate, it seems now) trains back home would become completely unstuck by this, the driver simply cut the engine, asked us to get off and lifted the bamboo norry, then wheels straight off the track so his colleagues could chug through. At the end of the track are a couple of stalls and restaurants set up by local villagers where you can stop in for a drink, or purchase all kinds of souvenirs before boarding for the return trip.
The friendliness of the local people, and the light-hearted nature of many tourist activities, sometimes feels at odds with tragic recent events in Cambodia, as much here as elsewhere. We feel it would be remiss of us to visit a place and not seek to gain an understanding about its history, especially during the Khmer Rouge period, not least out of respect for those who had to suffer through it. Indeed, with some sources quoting numbers as high as three million people murdered at the hands of Pol Pot’s regime, its nigh on impossible to avoid evidence of the barbaric atrocities which took place.
During our day trip Olah stopped off at Samroung Knong temple, where 10,000 people from the Battambang area were imprisoned and eventually killed. He also took us to Phnom Sampeau, otherwise known as the Killing Caves. Peering into depths where thousands of people were thrown to their deaths, and seeing the skulls they have managed to recover is a harrowing experience. There is a chilling stillness in the air, as if nothing has dared to live in the cave since, and equally heartbreaking is the matter of fact way people have come to describe the atrocities inflicted on them, their parents and grandparents. This would not be the last example we saw of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Phnom Sampeau was also our destination for sunset. Home to an alleged 6.5 million Wrinkle Lipped Bats, tourists arrive en masse to witness their nightly evacuation of the hill’s innards. We perched beneath one of the caves with a drink and waited. After about half an hour, triggered by a cue unseen by us, the bats made their move as a massive unit. Within seconds, there were thousands heading off into the distance in perfect plume, as far as the eye could see. They just kept coming and coming, and while initially we may have been skeptical about there being so many bats in one place, by the time we left, when there was still a steady stream of exiting bats, we were convinced. They head to the local fields and farms to feed on small insects, and then back to the caves before morning. It was a spectacular sight and a brilliant end to our tour.
We packed a huge amount into our day with Olah, alternating between exhilarating, enlightening and horrifying. But it only goes to show how much there is to discover in Battambang. We departed after staying twice as long as intended, having been struck by how humble, generous and welcoming the Khmer people are. What an excellent first impression of this beautiful country.