If you’re doing a speedy trip through Southeast Asia, you’d likely miss Battambang, Cambodia entirely, and what a shame that would be. Battambang is a hidden gem. Because it gets less visitors it is laid back and relaxed, but not without plenty to see. Two days is sufficient to visit the town and you can head from Battambang straight to the Thai border. It’s not an easy journey, but I’ll share more on that later. Here’s how David and I spent two glorious days in Battambang.
Hire a Driver
The sights surrounding Battambang are a fair distance from one another. The only sane way to get around is to hire a driver for a day, and you’ll get your money’s worth in distance traveled alone. For a day, a driver can cost between $20 and $25 USD. It’s up to you how hard you negotiate. In one day, a driver can take you to the Banon Temples, the Crocodile Farm, the Killing Caves and the Bamboo Train, all of which I’ll describe below. BEWARE! As you get off the bus in Battambang, you’re going to get ACCOSTED by drivers. Literally, they will be tugging at your clothes and bags throwing prices at you. Locals looked as though this was normal, but ours were not the only harried faces of Westerners. Luckily, despite all of the commotion, we landed a good driver. Mr Phi Lay. I would definitely recommend him and you could book in advance with his email email@example.com A nice guy with many stories to tell.
The Infamous Bamboo Train
Go now! I mean it. Now! Seriously, though, the train is only going to be around a little while longer (a year, maybe more). A legit train line between Siem Reap and Battambang is in the works, so the Bamboo Train will soon be no more. What is the Bamboo Train? Well… it’s a train… made of bamboo… and it goes really fast. Do you really need to know more?
This ‘train’ is more of a platform on wheels that goes a breakneck speed. Safety? What safety? There is nothing for you to hold on to. You simply grip your fingers around the edge of whichever bamboo pole is closest. When your ‘train’ comes up against another, it’s a question of who has more trains behind them. He with the longest trail gets to go and the others need to take their platforms off the line and let trains pass. When you get to the end of the line, your driver conveniently disappears for fifteen minutes giving you just enough time to get a drink or buy some “bamboo train” branded crap. This was honestly the most awkward I’ve ever felt with children selling you things. We politely declined on a number of occasions, to which a ten year old girl says to me, “I know you can afford it. You’re rich.” Ouch. By her definition of rich, I suppose I am, but does that make it necessary for me to buy from her? Is giving my tourist dollars to the economy not enough? I definitely questioned, and still question, the pros and cons of encouraging this type of sale.
What I’ll never forget (I wish I had the camera handy) was seeing a young boy running down the tracks with a kite flying in the air behind him. He’d made it out of plastic and thin strips of bamboo for the frame. Three tails of fluttering clear plastic dragged along and his face beamed with the pleasure of succeeding to make his kite fly.
The Crocodile Farm
When you say the word farm, I think of green pastures with cows lazily chewing on grass. Crocodile farm? I imagine crocs bathing in the sunshine next to a pool of water. I suppose I wasn’t wrong, there was just about 10x the amount of crocs that I’d have thought reasonable to be in such a small space. And safety, again, wasn’t exactly paramount. I don’t normally suffer from balance issues, but having a barrier be less than half my height was a tad unsettling. Our driver would throw balls of leaves at the crocodiles, yelling, “take picture, take picture!” as their jaws snapped and they scurried into action. What I didn’t realize, not being an Animal Planet watcher myself, was that crocodile eggs are typically buried underground, letting the warmth of the soil keep them toasty until hatching time. Perhaps I’m just late to this piece of knowledge, but it was interesting to me. This was an extra $2 USD per person on top of our driver hire for the day. Unexpected, but an experience nonetheless.
The Banon Temples
As we pulled up to the Angkorian temple at the top of an enormous staircase, our driver asked us if we wanted to have lunch first or afterwards. One glance at the steep stairs and I knew I wouldn’t be doing that on a full stomach. Up we went! From the bottom we were trailed by a pair of kids, a little girl fanning me. I politely declined saying, “no thank you.” It was at that point that she began poking me with the fan instead. Little madame indeed!
Considering we’d just visited Angkor itself, these temples weren’t quite as awe-inspiring, but it was the concept of placing a temple so high up that threw me. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for the monks and temple-goers in the height of summer. I can still feel that trickle of sweat that poured down my spine, and by Cambodian standards it was a cool day. There was very little signage or description around, so I could only let me writer’s imagination run riot.
The Killing Caves
Having visited the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh and S21, I thought I was prepared for the Killing Caves. Up in the mountains in this giant limestone cave is where the Khmer Rouge tossed bodies, living and dead, into its depths. Now, a shrine to those who lost their lives is sheltered inside, boxes of skulls a stark reminder to what happened not that long ago. What I couldn’t get past was the contrast of beauty and horror. You look out from the top of this mountain and it’s calm. The view is incredible, the land stretching out as the sun sets, and you wonder how anyone could do what the Khmer Rouge did. How is it that people can look another human being in the face before they do something so atrocious? Genocide is far too common. We think that we learn, yet humanity continues to make the same mistakes. All we have to do is look at the news to know that this kind of inhumanity continues. And yet for the small portion of the world that I’ve been lucky enough to explore, I’ve always seen more good in it than bad.
So, the above could typically be covered in one day with a driver. On our second day we decided to take it at a more relaxed pace. We had breakfast at our hotel, The Coconut House, which I have to give a shout out to. The staff were incredibly helpful and the rooms were gorgeous. The menu touts itself as health-oriented, and I have to admit it was the most fruit and veg we’d eaten consistently in a while! We were feeling good.
Battambang Royal Railway Station
As mentioned previously, the Khmer Rouge were responsible for much devastation to the country’s infrastructure. It was very apparent as we visited what was once likely a bustling local train station. The clock is frozen in time at 8:02 and the atmosphere around the station is eerie at best. Old platforms were now covered in graffiti, the walls wearing down as time passes. We stood on the platform, looking left and right at the overgrown rail lines. We wandered a little further out into the field and found a train car eaten away by rust. I can only hope that Cambodia will get their rail lines back. Without them, the roads are a bit treacherous with everyone in a rush.
My favourite kind of travel days are filled with the random, the unexpected that you don’t find easily in the guidebook. Explore! Get lost. Take your time. Here were our randoms.
- Explore the marketplace, it’s right in the centre of town.
- Get some food! We loved the Choco L’Art Cafe where I got the most decadent hazelnut chocolate tarte. Om nom nom.
- Needing to get fit? Try out the fitness park on the the waterfront. Bar that, around 5 p.m. each evening there are group dance classes in the parks along the river. Oh man, did I EVER have fun watching the ladies shake it to a song that sounded like the chorus was “drunkey monkey”. David was over me singing that song so fast.
- On Street 213 there is a park called the Yewan Garden with a gorgeous old ferris wheel and small amusement rides for kids. I couldn’t get over how stunning it was and took pictures every day.
Phare Ponleu Selpak … a.k.a. the Battambang Circus
I’m not one for the animal-type circus. Elephants, lion tamers and dancing bears are not my cup of tea. The Battambang Circus is not animal-focused. Instead, their performers are talented performers of balancing acts, flaming jump ropes, juggling, unicycles, flips and jumps and, of course, the clown performance. What began as an organization to help children express their trauma from the war has become a social enterprise money that is sustainable through performance fees. Underprivileged children can now access quality arts, music and performance training.
I was blown away by the talent of these kids. When I say they were good, I mean they were good. One of them has even received a scholarship to study at the Ecole Nationale de Cirque (National Circus School) in Montreal, Canada. This is the same school where many of the Cirque du Soleil performers were trained. My one advice for the evening is to bring bug spray!!! With the bright lights at night, the mosquitoes come a’bitin. Note: the circus performances are only twice a week, so make sure you plan your trip to Battambang around them. You can even go behind the scenes at the circus in the daytime, so check out the website for further details.
An ENORMOUS post, I know, but Battambang has a lot to see and do. Please! Please make sure you visit if you’re ever in Cambodia.
Ever been to Cambodia? What did you think? Do you like to do the random exploring?