We weren’t sure what to expect from Battambang but it turned out to be one of our highlights of Cambodia.
We expected a small sleepy town, not knowing that it is the second biggest in the country after Phnom Penh. It’s still a lot smaller than the capital but packs in a lot of sights.
We weren’t sure what to do sightseeing wise, but this was soon decided for us as a Tuk-Tuk driver literally ran after our bus when we arrived. Tourists were obviously scarce this time of year and we were a valuable commodity. Similar to everywhere else in Cambodia, the driver (Mr Rich) offered us a cheap ride to our hotel if we used his services for sightseeing. Not being committed to anyone else, we were happy to take him up on his offer.
Our first stop was a unique experience you aren’t likely to find anywhere else – the bamboo train. Since regular service on the railway ended in the 1970s, locals have used basic bamboo rafts, with rail axles driven by a small petrol engine. Presumably these were originally used to transport people and goods to towns which had built up along the rail route that were now otherwise cut off. These days though it is undoubtably mostly a tourist attraction.
We took our seats (a cushion) and our driver started up the ‘train’. Despite the small engine, the fact that the train weighed virtually nothing meant we reached a surprising speed – probably about 50Kp/h. At this speed you got a feel of the condition the track was in – every kink and bump was amplified. At some points the rails had actually come apart, I was worried about derailing but it just meant a larger bump. The scenery was rather nice though, unspoiled countryside, though I couldn’t shake the feeling that a lot of it looked like English countryside!
After around 20 minutes we came to the end of the line where a line of souvenir and refreshment shops awaited us. Our driver disappeared, obviously so we were left with little choice but to buy something. We chose a shop with a lovely woman and purchased some drinks and bracelets from her. You might not like these cynical tourist traps and of course there is no obligation to buy anything, but people are trying to make a living, and it was worth a few dollars to us.
The return journey followed, and we had to pass some people coming the other way. With only one line, this involves dismantling the train and physically taking it off the rails to let the other pass.
We paid our fee (a rather steep $5 each, plus a mandatory tip for the driver) and that was it. Despite the expense it was a bizarre and exciting experience, and something which may not exist for much longer, since the railway is being renovated and passenger services should be starting again in the coming years. This section of track though will need to be heavily repaired before that can happen though.
After stopping at the ‘Golden Gate Bridge’, a cool wooden bridge over the river, we went to Wat Banan. This was a very steep and sticky climb up stairs for a small crumbling temple with some great views.
Down the bottom there were loads of cages full of rabbits for some reason. Our driver said they were pets but I’m not so sure…
After a lunch stop we visited Phnom Sampeu. Faced with a 1 hour hike up a steep hill in extreme humidity and storm clouds forming ominously, we took up the offer of some locals to go up on the back of their motorbikes. Yeah we’re a bit lazy, but it was worth the $2.
At the top of Phnom Sampeu is a Buddhist monastery, but the reason most people visit here is to see the depressing Killing Cave, used by the Khmer Rouge. From high up, people could be thrown down into the cave, and there is a collection of skulls in a case within the cave. Utterly horrible and a reminder of what monstrosities occurred here little more than 30 years ago.
Our second day started on a similarly depressing note, as we visited Wat Samaraong Knong, a temple used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge and now the site of a monument of the era. Funded by Cambodian expat groups abroad, the structure tells the story of the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Battambang, from evacuation, to forced labour, to starvation and mass execution. Again there are a number of skulls inside a glass window at the top of the building.
We then went to see some local industries at work, starting with the production of fish paste. We saw different types of fish drying in the sun, before being ground up and pounded into paste. It smelt as bad as you would imagine, but was interesting. I was surprised (though probably shouldn’t be) at how the fish and paste was left out to attract flies. This is an ingredient you are probably eating in most Khmer food. I guess it gets cooked though so is probably ok…
Next we saw some rice being milled, which was really interesting. The rice is poured in, the motorised machine mills it, then the grains which are broken are separated from the top quality grains to be sold more cheaply (we buy broken rice at home for this reason!). The husk, or ‘hash’ is the waste product but is not wasted, as we soon found out.
The husk is used as fuel to heat up the plate used to make rice paper for spring rolls. The rice itself I think is soaked in water until it becomes a paste of sorts (I forget the exact process) then spread out like a crepe, scooped onto a bamboo tube to dry, then left on a wicker sheet to dry further, giving the paper the criss cross pattern which I was always intrigued about.
The last temple we saw was Wat Ek Phnom, which consisted of a giant Buddha, a new temple and an old Angkor era ruin, which was very impressive.
Our driver saved the best for last – the crocodile farm. Two large pools absolutely full of enormous crocodiles. Why? Well when eggs are laid, they are taken away until they hatch, then sent to Vietnam to sadly be made into handbags and belts. It is a sad industry and I don’t really approve of it but I can’t deny how amazing it was to see the adult crocodiles.
You could walk on a narrow concrete path above the pools, giving a great view of the crocs. Slightly scary, as one slip and you would probably be dead. At first I thought the crocodiles weren’t even real as there was no movement, they just lay in the sun, sometimes with their jaws locked open. But after a while you saw movement. I have to say I was in awe of them and could have stayed to watch them all day.
That was it for our sightseeing but I can’t not mention the best restaurant we have been to so far on our travels. Battambang has no shortage of quality food, from local places to very good expat owned tourist restaurants. But the best without a doubt was Jaan Bai.
Run by the Cambodian Children’s Trust, Jaan Bai is a restaurant which not only ploughs its profits back into the charity, but also trains and employs Cambodian youths. So what about the food? It is utterly fantastic. A small menu of Asian fusion dishes, priced at $3-5 each, every one we tried was exceptional.
The chefs were trained by David Thompson, an authority on Thai food and a chef whose book I have on my shelf at home. With the classy setting and the quality of food it felt like we were back in London. Until we saw the bill – it is ridiculously good value and a must visit in Battambang.
Where We Stayed
There aren’t a huge amount of hotels to choose from in Battambang. We went to the Star hotel, spurred in by the good reviews on Travelfish. For $15 we got a nice sized, clean room with TV and decent WiFi. Staff were friendly and helpful, even walking us to the right place to catch our bus when we left.
If you would like to contact and use the services of our excellent driver, Mr Rich, when you are in Battambang, his number is (+855) 12 93 92 46 and email is firstname.lastname@example.org