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Bats, Tracks and Lok Lak in Battambang

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.

Follow Mel & Alex on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Or read about their adventures at their blog.


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.

Around Cambodia through the eyes of travel bloggers

Thinking of places to visit in 2017? Here’s a list of 10 blogs about traveling in Cambodia. With this list, you’ll get to know 10 travel bloggers who share their journeys and experiences. They go to places (some you may have never been to) and write about their travel experience, tips, and advices. These 10 travel blogs will be your good read and inspiration.

royal-palace_tharum
Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace – photo: Tharum Bun

1.

Ayana Journeys – A blog by a responsible travel company
Last year I met Ayana Journeys team when they took a group of university students from Japan to visit and learn about technology and innovation in Phnom Penh. One of the latest posts on Ayana Journeys’s blog I like is this one: Transformative travel, which Amy McLoughlin described that “Travellers feel that their life has been improved by this experience; lasting memories have been created, and travellers feel more connected to and empathetic towards a global community.”

2.

When In Phnom Penh – Do as Cambodians do!
When you’re in Phnom Penh, you always want to get the most of out of your time to experience and explore some of the most interesting things and places like the locals. With a network of Cambodian bloggers and contributors, When In Phnom Penh blog provides local insights into the trend of cafes, restaurants, and places.

3.

Mad Monkey South East Asia Travel Blog
This blog is not about hostels. While you can find some practical guide for backpackers in Battambang, the blog also covers other cities and best spots in Southeast Asia.

4.

Rusty Compass – Blog Tales from the road
Rusty Compass covers Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. I’ve never been to Sapa in Vietnam. But this blog post, Village walks around Sapa, Vietnam (with video), is just amazing.

5.

Blue Lady Blog – A lifestyle blog by a Cambodian blogger Kounila Keo
A blogger friend of mine started her popular since 2007. She’s been invited to stay at luxury hotels and dine at restaurants. In addtion to this, she’s also a jetsetter, hopping from one flight to another to visit places and share those travel notes with the world.

6.

Hands on Journeys – Share our journey through stories and travel tips
This travel agency’s blog offers some interesting stories and travel tips. This blog post argues “Why we shouldn’t give up on supporting Orphanages.”

7.

Hanuman Travel blog – Travel with a personal touch
I learned about this Huanuman Blog since it was launched in 2009. This blog reviews accommodations and discusses local travel news: Cambodia’s Sam Veasna Center a finalist for 2016 World Responsible Tourism Awards.

8.

Travel Chameleon – A Travel Lifestyle that suits anyone
The blogger describes herself as a Malaysian working in Cambodia. She also has “a big heart on traveling.” She has been to 26 countries and counting. In August, she also wrote a nice review about BookMeBus.

9.

Move to Cambodia
Almost any travelers who set their foot on Cambodian soil, they may have visited Move to Cambodia. The blog/book author is Lina Goldberg, a freelance writer who travels extensively around every corner of Cambodia. So there isn’t much to describe her blog here. But it’s worth to mention BookMeBus is fortunate to have Move to Cambodia as one of the affiliates. So if you’ve got a travel blog, you can also join our affiliate program here.

10.

Cambodia Explorer Blog
This blog is quite new and rare. The blog author is Sanya, who described himself as 100% Khmer, who’s born and raised in Cambodia. If you’re looking for perfect places to eat, I’d suggest you visit Sanya’s blog!


At BookMeBus, we love travel stories. Share yours with us!

My trip from Phnom Penh to Mondolkiri

Editor’s Note: The story below chronicles the adventure of Alice on her trip from Phnom Penh to Mondulkiri. All images and content are from the contributor.


 

Currently living in Phnom Penh, we decided with some friends to leave the capital city during Water Festival and go on discovering North East of Cambodia and especially Mondolkiri.

We booked a bus through BookMeBus to go there. The journey was great, the landscape was really beautiful and very different to all I’ve seen in Cambodia so far, with all those hills and this luxuriant vegetation. Our first impression when we got there, was this really peaceful mood prevailing in this small village surrounded by nature and animals. This is so pleasant after the spirited Phnom Penh!

We were hosted and guided by two native from a Mondolkiri village during the entire week-end, which is a great way to discover this region. We stayed in a traditional house for the first night, talking and eating with locals.

mondolkiri

The second day we left early morning to go for two days trekking in the jungle! That was an amazing experience. We swam in waterfalls, saw crazy animals, slept in hammock (in the middle of the forest), fished and eat from the river, saw elephants … Coming back in the village after this incredible 2 days trek, people invited us to a weeding in the village! That was so great!

Mondolkiri is far from being my best trip since I am in Cambodia, not only for the amazing landscape but also because it was a real interesting exchange and sharing moment with the locals. It is a place not to be missed during your trip in Cambodia!

I would recommend to go there just after the rainy season, when the landscape is entirely green and rain is not anymore an obstacle to go on discovering. You should stay there at least three days, which is I think the minimum if you want have time to appreciate this so special atmosphere. Moreover, if you want to see the elephants, I would recommend you to choose a Cambodian NGO, in order contributing to local initiatives.

I did enjoy this trip a lot because we always were with locals therefore I can only warmly recommend you to avoid guesthouses there!

Enjoy your trip in Mondolkiri!

 

Alice

Cambodia Money Fast Facts

Many travelers often worry about Cambodia money. Questions often arise as to what currency is accepted? What is the exchange rate? Where can I have money exchanged? Will ATMs accept international cards?

Here are some Cambodia money fast facts that might help travelers. It is extremely helpful especially during the preparation phase.

Cambodia Money: Basics

  • Cambodian currency is called Riel
  • US Dollars are accepted throughout Cambodia
  • Rough conversion is $1 = 4,000 Riels (20,000 Dong)
  • At the Thai or Vietnamese border, some restaurants accept Riels, Dong, or US Dollars
  • When paying in Dollars, the change will be in Riels if it is less than $1

Cambodian Money Fast Facts

Where can I exchange money?

  • Cambodian banks in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville have banks that are able to exchange currencies.
  • Local shops offer money exchange. These are easy to spot as there is often a booth in front displaying various types of currencies.

Can I use ATMs or credit cards?

  • There are ATMs available in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and Siem Reap. However, these can be sparse in the more rural areas.
  • Most of the ATMs are ANZ, ABA, and Canadia Banks. Although recently more banks have set up their own ATMs.
  • Whenever using an ATM, it will cost around $5 for every withdrawal.
  • Credit cards are helpful and accepted at restaurants, major hotels, and several establishments.
  • ATMs are available 24 hours.
  • Cambodian banks generally open at 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.

There is much debate about how much amount to take. It is best to carry smaller cash denominations so that it is easier to pay. When booking with BookMeBus, however, we accept all kinds of payments: Credit cards, debit cards, Wing, SmartLuy, among others.