Bamboo trains, bats and more beautiful Cambodia
09.01.2016 - 11.01.2016
On Saturday we waved goodbye to Siem Reap and had a beautiful (but long) bus journey through rural Cambodia. Having already heard snippets of the country's recent devastating history, we took some time to read more on the ride. It was harrowing but helped provide some background to what we saw the next day.
When we arrived in Battambang we experienced the crazy tuk tuk hounding again and opted for an English speaking driver who promised the ride for 50c. When we reached our hotel we had the tour package hard sell again. This time though we tipped him a little extra and he left us to it. After a little siesta we ventured out to discover the town. We were immediately struck by how different it felt to Siem Reap. Much calmer and much more Cambodian and pretty quiet for the country's second largest city. We had a little wander through the arts quarter and to one of the town's temples.
For dinner we headed to Jaan Bai, a restaurant that trains and employs vulnerable young people. We had a feast of delicious tapas and headed back to the hotel.
We'd booked an excursion for the Sunday afternoon and so spent some time in the morning wandering around the town. It was great to catch the market in full swing and chill out for a bit by the river.
In the afternoon we were picked up by our tuk tuk driver and headed to O Dambong village, just outside the city, where we boarded our bamboo train - a 3m long crate, covered in bamboo. It is powered by a gasoline engine and manned by a Cambodian driver. It reaches speeds of 15km/h, which feels a lot faster than you think when you're not strapped in! We got amazing views of the countryside over the 7km journey and maybe swallowed a few flies. At the end of the line we got to explore O Sra Lav village and some of the beautiful fabric they had for sale. The return journey was a little slower, as it's only single track there was a bit of negotiating to do whenever you met another carriage. One time our driver left us to float along the track for a fair few metres while he helped out another. We were completely oblivious and only realised when another tourist pointed out that he was missing!
After the train we headed to Phnom Sampeau, a limestone mountain. For this second part of our tour we were gifted two motorbike drivers who promptly drove us halfway up to the first site - the killing caves and the memorial to those who lost their lives there. In the early 70s this site was used by the Khmer Rouge to bludgeon to death thousands of innocent Cambodians, who didn't fit their vision of society. Today it's an eerily peaceful place, with several buddah statues and a glass walled memorial filled with the bones and skulls of some of those killed.
After visiting the memorial we headed up to the top of the mountain to explore the beautiful temples and take in the stunning views. We opted to stay an extra hour to see the sun set and were rewarded with some close encounters with wild monkeys and their babies, such a treat. Whilst waiting for the sun to go down we bumped into our tuk tuk driver from the previous day and heard how he had escaped the Khmer Rouge by hiding out in the countryside below the mountain where we were sat.
Once the sun had nearly set we headed back down the mountain and grabbed a seat with other eager travellers. At around 6pm, on hearing some gasps, we all looked up to see thousands and thousands of bats funneling out from the mountain above. It was pretty spectacular. It happens at the same time every night and we just couldn't believe how they all managed to fit in the cave to start with!
To finish off a fabulous day we headed out for green tea and chinese dumplings - delicious and a snip at £3 for the two of us!
On Monday we had a day to kill before catching the night bus to Sihanoukville and so we decided to spend it exploring more of Battambang. It was a pretty hot day so the sight seeing was interspersed with food and drink at local community cafes.
In the morning we headed to the park, followed by another spectacular temple. In the afternoon we saw some of the old French architecture at the Governor's house and then decided to escape the heat in the city's small museum. The main exhibition was of ancient stone carvings, very impressive and immaculate considering their age, but it was the smaller exhibit that left an impression on us - personal accounts of survivers from the Khmer Rouge regime. It really hit home how brutal it was and how recently it all occurred but it was amazing to see the projects in motion to educate young Cambodians on this harrowing part of their history.
As it was our last night in the town we treated ourselves to dumplings again before heading back to the hotel with three hours to kill until our night bus.