The Charm of Battambang
Everyone who writes or blogs about Battambang says its the lesser known, or off the beaten track, or the under visited town in Cambodia. Sure its nothing compared to Siam Reap which is basically party central, after templing all day. Battamang doesn’t have a ‘pub street’ filled with bars & clubs, and it certainly doesn’t have guys trying to sell you weed, or boom boom ‘with happy ending’ on every corner. What it does have is an absolute Cambodian charm that is hard to find in the many other towns/cities. The only other place I saw a little bit of this charm was in parts of Phnom Penh. Sure Battambang is smaller & quieter than both Phnom Penh & Siam Reap with far less tourists, which in my book is exactly the reason to visit… I guess its just off the main tourist trails, with most travelers focused on getting to the Temples of Angkor.
I was not going to shy away from Battambang, the simple fact that it has the bamboo railway was enough to put it on my ‘must see’ map. I arrived in Battambang and straight away (even on the drive in) thought to myself, ‘what have you done’! It is a small single dusty road into the city, and hardly a city at that! The streets are small and badly damaged, its dirty and hard to believe that this the 2nd biggest city in Cambodia. I will be honest however it was the best 3 days I spent in Cambodia! I absolutely loved Battambang! Its a stunning little town with loads to explore, and although the tuk tuk drivers are a little pushy at the bus station, that is pretty much the last of them that you will see during your stay. Unless, of course, they convince you to let them be your daily guide. I kindly declined the offer with all intentions of hiring a motorbike and exploring the town myself. Its been just over a week since my Motorbike Adventure through the Mekong Delta and I am eager to get back in the saddle. I had just arrived at the awesome Genisha Guesthouse (GPS; 13.10079: 103.19884) when an election campaign parade came past the window. It is fascinating to be in the country during all the electioneering and fun to see how another country does it. I went out onto the balcony to have a look and met Jullet, a solo traveler from New York, who was also watching the parade although she quickly went back to reading the her book, They Killed My Father First, an incredible account of life during the Khemr Rouge.
Amazing Noodle Shop
It was late in the afternoon now, and having been on a several hour bus ride from Siam Reap I was starving. Jullet highly recommended the ‘Noodle & Dumpling Shop’ just around the corner. The Noodle Shop is an absolute must when visiting Battambang. Not only are the prices incredibly reasonable, bordering on insanely cheap, but you will witness fresh noodles being made by hand right in front of you. Its a fascinating process, I couldn’t believe it! I think some of the staff may have thought I was a little odd the way I watched as the noodles were stretched and twisted into existence. (GPS; 13.099479: 103.19831)
Battambang is well known for its Circus School (Phare Ponleu Selpak), well if you didn’t know that, you do now! A few of the young Cambodians trained here have ended up performing with Circ du Soile. The school often has performances and luckily I was here on show night. The students are incredibly talented and the show is very well scripted, yes scripted. The performances are all carefully worked into a narrative. I was properly impressed, as was Jullet who had pulled herself away from her book. (GPS; 13.1114: 103.18541)
The Bamboo Train or Norry
Day 2, and I found a motorbike! I had become quite comfortable riding the Automatic & Semi-Automatic bikes that are common in Thailand & Vietnam, but here the rental only had fully manual. I had convinced Jullet to join me to explore the town and find the Bamboo Train. I suddenly lost a whole lot of confidence when I found out the motorbike was a manual shift, but after a few loops around the block felt comfortable enough to carry a passenger.
The bamboo train is one hell of a ride, the trains run at speeds of up to 50 km/h (31 mph) on the 1 m gauge tracks. The rails are ridiculously wonky, many of them not even aligning accurately with the next, and all this whilst you sit just inches from the ground. I am no expert in railway lines, but this gives you a pretty up close and personal view, making you feel like something is a little wrong. This is asia though and health & safety rules… wait… what rules? :p
The railway now only runs a few kilometers outside of town and sadly has become a bit of a tourist trap. Little children come out to you asking if you would like to see the brick factory, and the local make shift curio shops nag you to buy from them. It is still certainly worth the trip, the brick factory is fascinating and the experience of the bamboo railway blew me away.
The Battambang Bat Cave
Just outside of town there is a cave that has thousands of bats living inside it. In the evenings these bats come pouring out to feed. I popped my camera into a ziplock bag, threw my poncho into my motorbike seat and set off the 15kms hoping like mad that the rain would just hold off for a few more hours. Travelling by motorbike is great, being able to experience the landscape wide open, layed bare in front of you. I had to stop a few times along route, partly in fear of drizzle turning into rain and to check my map along the route. I arrived, just before sunset, and the sure enough the bats were pouring out from the cave, making an incredible sound as they shot through the air… a pungent smell of guano around too. It turned out that, clearly, every other tourist and their tuk tuk drivers had decided to see the bats too. I was not content with this singular view from the road below the cave. There is a small one man rusty old ladder up to the left of the cave that leads to a giant buddha head in the side of the mountain, it was a rather dodgy climb in the wet. Dodgy enough to mean that I was the only one mad enough to climb up giving me a brilliant perspective. I found a seat and just sat soaking up the majesty of this massive colony of bats as they moved like a singular creature across the landscape. Cambodia is an incredibly flat country and this area is thick with palm trees, with just the odd little hill in the distance. The clouds broke just as the sunset, and drive home was spectacular!
The next morning I had until 9am to return the bike and so I headed out for my own little breakfast run, I followed the river north outside of the city finding a fascinating part of town with local shops, metal workers, potters and every sort of life imaginable. If you are ever in Battambang be sure to take a drive up road 156, yes its just a number. It runs up north on the west side of the Steng Songkea Sangker River toward Wat Kdol Don Teav.
A Khemr BBQ
A final must do whilst exploring Battambang is the Khemr BBQ. Its a buffet style eat as much as you can ‘fondue’, for lack of a better word. A metal cooking contraption is brought to your table, around its edges it is filled with water for cooking prawns and noodles. In the middle rises up a dome area with a piece of pigs fat that drips fat down the sides, a replacement to cooking oil I guess. This dome is used to fry chicken, pork and any other meats and veggies you choose. Beer is sold by the jug full, so grab a group and expect an amazing social dinner. Find it on the east side of the river just down Street 213. (GPS; 13.092104: 103.201843)
P.S. If you are needing cash the only Canadia Bank ATM is just around the corner from the Phsar Nat Market. (GPS; 13.102372: 103.19918)