After the temple frenzy of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, we booked a room in a hotel in a little town called Battambang, about a third of the way between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
As it was a small town and a relatively short journey we decided to get there on the bus.
We’d used busses a few times in our travels to date, in Mauritius and India (several times) but busses in Cambodia are a different experience. Fortunately Helen went to ask our helpful hotel manager(?) about where to book. As it turned out he sold tickets from the hotel, and get this, the bus comes to pick you up from your hotel. So at the allotted time, the receptionist dragged us away from the swimming pool when a transfer arrived to take us off to the bus station where we got on the bus to Battambang. (On another occasion it was the bus that picked us up…)
Back to Battambang.
Battambang is about the least touristy place we’ve been since we left the UK, an old town with faded colonial architecture.
Having said that, we got off the bus to the usual melee of tuktuk drivers, all vying for a fare. Our hotel was about 200 metres away, but that didn’t stop them trying.
Half way between the bus drop off and the hotel was the night market. Actually it was a day and night market, everything on sale by day but just food, around the periphery, at night. After we settled into our room it was already dark so we wandered down and around the market, down to the river running through the town and off to find a place to eat. As usual we ate local, this time in a little community restaurant, a little more expensive than usual but probably still only about £5 each including beer.
We didn’t really have any plans for what to do in the area. In the town there are no grand palaces or ancient temples, no museums or any real sites of note or great importance. The countryside is supposed to be lovely and there are a couple of things around that we thought we wanted to see. So in the morning we got up, had breakfast in a local café, and wandered back down to the market. We’ve been to many markets. Mysuru was spectacular because of the vibrancy of its colours and its aromas, the weekend market in Bangkok was notable for its sheer size and the row upon row of stalls all selling the same rip off rubbish (and the constant haranguing from the vendors) and others for the diversity of the goods on sale. Battambang market however seems to be a market for Battambang people. The clothes stalls are 95% full of the sort of gear that even your parents would have rejected in the 70s. People sit in he market sewing, repairing clothes, making things. Stall holders sit there doing whatever it is they do while you browse. Yes, you can look without any hassle.and because you can browse the few decent items that are there you can find. I actually bought some rip off brand shorts for a few dollars. In contrast to so many of the big cities, Battambang has a laid back, ‘slow lane’ feel about it.
With that starting to flow though our veins we ambled down to the river, ambled along to see the governor’s residence, ambled over the old bridge and sat in the shade on the other side. A young boy (4 maybe) was out with his grandparents. He kept running toward us, laughing, but was too shy to come close so ran away again. We kept waving and laughing with him until all three of them jumped onto a moped (as you do) and rode off waving. We were opposite a Buddhist temple, and orange clad monks wandered by, smiling to us as they passed. We walked back along the river bank, further along was an exercise area, monkey bars, dip bars, that sort of thing. Even though it was the middle of the day, a few people were exercising and jogging. We sat and watched, too hot for that.
We drifted around, chatted to an elderly Cambodian who had been living in the USA for 20 years and was back in his home town for a holiday. His sister still lived in Siem Reap. The middle of the afternoon arrived and it felt like we earned a beer. Not sure why we’d earned it, but when the feeling hits you.
The next day drifted by in a similar way. We wandered in a different direction, turned the corner to hear the sound of men’s voices and the sound of metallic knocking. Although it was about 2pm on a weekday, a large group of men were gathered playing and watching what looked like a variation of boule (presumably a relic from the French colonial era). They were highly animated, I can only imaging that there were some wagers being laid down.
We then wandered along to another market, a different market, but similar to the first. Full of locals, no tourists.
Actually, I haven’t mentioned this yet, but although there are a few hotels and western style bars, there are very few tourists. The fading french colonial architecture, and friendly laid back vibe still seems to be largely undiscovered by tourism to date. Maybe it’s another example of ‘it’s not easy to get to so I won’t bother going’? Either way, I think that adds to the laid back feel as the culture to compete for every tourist dollar hasn’t really developed yet.
50 cent beers were the norm, so as we walked along Battambang’s own ‘Pub Street’ (a low key street of faded colonial style shops and buildings with the occasional bar or wine bar dotted around) a little bar with some jazz music drifting out into the street attracted our attention. We spent the next hour os so chilling even further and chatting to the french owner. He had met his partner as soon as he first set foot in Cambodia and they had been together ever since. They had decided to run the business together (I think the Frenchman had been a dancer or was at least into the performing arts). He made his partner, a shy little Cambodian lad come out to say hello.
On the subject of performing arts, that is one of the things that Battambang is on the radar for. There is an performing art school there called Phare Ponleu Selpak. It is best known for its modern circus (which also plays in Siem Reap) but it is a multi arts centre, training musicians and painters as well as dancers and performers. As luck would have it we’d be able to go as there was a performance scheduled for the next evening.
The circus was just out of town, so a 10 minute tuktuk ride away. Sometimes when you get in a tuktuk, or a taxi, you’d swear that if you were alone you were being taken somewhere to be robbed. This was one of those. Out of town on the main road, past fires in the gutter (it was dark by now, the performance stared at 7pm) then down a narrow dirt track, poor housing on both sides, chickens, dogs and ragamuffin children in the street.
Then we stop outside a gate. More westerners than I’ve seen since Siem Reap mill around outside. Inside we buy tickets from the desk and enter another world. In the dark the courtyard is pretty, lights suspended from trees, and a small art gallery up a short flight of steps. A little further into the courtyard is a small bar and a shop selling (for once) some quite nice, unique, t-shirts and merchandise. The performance actually takes place, in true circus style, in a tent, wooden bench seats curved around a centre stage.
Normally I’m not a great one for performing arts or modern dance, but these guys and girls started to change my mind. The theme of the performance was ‘Influence’ and this did come over in the performance but more impressive was the skill and athleticism of the performers. They were (in the main) built like, and as fit as, international gymnasts. The strength of some of the guys was incredible.
The performance wasn’t perfect, but that added to its charm, the artists looked like they were having fun, and that in itself is infectious. Some of the acrobatic feats they attempted looked pretty ambitious and when they missed a catch the crowd ‘Oohed’ and when they pulled it off erupted in applause. The performance didn’t last long, but it was well worth seeing and the Phare Ponleu Selpak have rightly earned their reputation as the best performing arts group in Cambodia.
At the end all the performers were back on stage having selfies with the audience and smiling happily.
On our last day in Battambang we wanted to get out of the town, so we arranged with our driver for him to pick us up lunchtime the next day to get out and see a couple of temples that were reportedly worth a visit, and to see Battambang’s other claim to fame, the bat cave.
When we went down the next day our driver wasn’t there. He’d sent his son to take us out instead, so we headed out with Chico.
Where did we want to go? Well, take us here, and then there, and let’s end up at the bat cave. But we like to see a bit of the countryside.
So we set off with Chico. First we headed out through a couple of villages, we stopped at a ‘suspension bridge’ constructed of steel cables and planks of wood that the locals use to cross the river and save themselves a 20km round trip via Battambang. A new road is being built nearby, but it is a blight on the landscape and is obviously completely lacking in any kind of rustic charm. Our first temple was Prasat Banan, a small temple set on a small hill above a lake and reached by a steep flight of steps. The temple is of the Angkor era, but is poorly preserved. Two things are worthy of mention, set in trees, from the top you get glimpses and hints of the beautiful luxuriant green landscape of Cambodia. Also, climbing the steps in 30 plus degrees and 85% humidity started one of the hottest afternoons of my life.
Returning to the tuktuk, as we leave we stop to feed the large and constantly hungry catfish in the lake. And also to try jack fruit. It’s hard to describe; firm and fleshy, not really juicy but quite sweet, not really like any fruit I’ve tried before. After that we head down another dirt road across some dazzling green paddy fields toward our next temple destination that we can see in the distance.
Half way there I ask if we can stop briefly to take some photos. This turns into more of a conversation stop, where Chico shared with us a bit about his life, and again, opened our eyes to some of the different challenges you face living in a country like Cambodia.
He comes from a large family, he has 7 siblings and his mother was one of 8. His family were badly affected by the Khmer Rouge genocide. His mother was the only one of the 8 to survive. It makes you think about how raw this still feel to Cambodian families today.
Chico now has a girlfriend. In fact, they are planning to marry. But initially his fiancé’s family wouldn’t accept Chico as a son in law as his job as a tuktuk driver is not seen as a good trade in his country and he was not deemed ‘worthy’. He has learned good English through his job, and is now studying for a degree in English literature part time in the evenings and in his spare time. He convinced his girlfriends parents of his worth and now they have accepted him into their family. His ambition is to be a guide, something that he would be good at. His English is good and he has that something that enables him to connect with people. And he’s likeable. But apparently, being a tourist guide is a bit of a closed shop. To get in, you need family or contacts who already work in the ministry of tourism. Again, it’s not what you know but who you know that gets you places (after we’d visited the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, thinking back, I wonder just how much corruption there still is in the Cambodian government considering its background and make up). However he has some ambition, and some ability, and it would be nice to think that he would achieve what he wants in his country as it emerges from its dark recent past.
Just below the summit, along a path to the left of the road up, we have our first taste of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau. Now home to a reclining Buddha, and a memorial containing the skulls and bones of some of the victims of the regime who were killed and then thrown into the cave through a skylight in the ceiling, it’s a place of pilgrimage and remembrance.
It also acts a a brief respite from the heat outside as you stand in the cool and contemplate what’s around you.
After being choked by dust clouds created by passing trucks several time we finish our ride across the lovely Cambodian countryside to the temple of Phnom Sampeau.
The temple complex is, again, at the top of a hill. It’s a newish Buddhist temple, not especially beautiful, but there are spectacular views from the of the surrounding countryside now bathed in the late afternoon light. Which makes the extremely hot climb in the still humid air (for the second time that afternoon) just about worth it.
There’s more to the hill than the temple though….
Heading down from the temple, down a set of steps steps, is our final destination of the day; the bat cave set in the north face of the cliff face, and from which millions of bats pour out every evening at dusk (5:30) in a thick column and head out toward the Tonlé Sap lake to feed (some 50km away). There’s a passing acknowledgment of tourism here, some plastic patio chairs lined up along one side of the road opposite the caves and opposite the chairs a few stalls selling beer, drinks and snacks. We obviously had a beer, but they were selling that at supermarket prices when they could easily have inflated the price by 50% for the captive audience. Just another indicator the mass tourism is yet to hit Battambang.
5:30 on the dot and bats start to emerge from the cave. And it’s true. There are millions of them, streaming out, and for us flying straight in front of the moon shining high overhead. It is, to be fair, a pretty spectacular sight. The kind of thing you see on the TV and say ‘I’d like to see that’.
And a pretty fitting end to an interesting day and a chilled stay in a pretty cool, really friendly, undiscovered little town. As we drove away we stopped on the side of the main road to watch the sun set behind the hill and watch the bats continue to stream out and head across the darkening sky in patterns and waves to their distance feeding grounds.
The next morning we didn’t even have to walk the 200 metres back to the bus stop, our ride to Phnom Penh picked us up from the hotel.