Despite the memorable boat ride in, it was nice to step onto land when we finally did arrive in Battambang. This is Cambodia’s second largest city next to Phnom Penh, though not one that too many tourists will stay very long to explore. We had heard great things though about bike rides through the country side and a welcoming city life so we had planned to stay a few nights and give this place a shot.
Unfortunately for us, some sort of stomach bug caught up with us in Siem Reap and I was feeling fairly ill for our first 2 days there. As a result, we took it pretty easy and didn’t do very much exploring of the city at first. Luckily, we were staying at a really great placed called Battambang My Homestay which is owned and run by a lovely man named Mr. Kun. He has a beautiful property a bit outside of town where his wife cooks guests some lovely authentic Cambodian breakfasts (definitely the freshest and tastiest food we’d eaten thus far) and you can take free bicycles to ride into town. Mr. Kun was a really fantastic host, always inviting us into his home to chat in the afternoons about anything we were interested in. We learned that he is a lawyer by trade, but recently decided to stop practicing due to the strains of working with all the corruption in his country. Now he prefers to run his excellent Homestay and teach law at the local university. He also has a side consulting business that (we think) does evaluations of other companies from an audit / balance sheet sort of perspective. Anyway, despite not really getting out as much as we normally do, we felt really at home with Mr. Kun and his family.
By our third day, I was in better spirits and felt safe enough to head into the city again. In one of my sick days, Jesse had gone off to find lunch and discovered an awesome Chinese noodle & dumpling place where the owner hand pulls noodles to order! After hearing about this and craving the comforts of home from being sick, I felt that Chinese noodles would be the perfect ‘first meal back after being sick’. It was exactly what I needed and soooo tasty. I was sad however that I missed going with Jes to this restaurant that first time because apparently during his meal, the red plastic chair he was sitting on actually completely collapsed (all legs just split) and Jesse suddenly found himself on his bum on the ground! Think about how amazing that photo would have been!! Anyway, I was happy to hear that the owner’s young son erupted in laughter when this happened and seemed to recognize him when we came back the next day.
That evening we decided to head out and see one Battambang’s main draws – a circus performance (think Cirque du Soleil genre) that happens twice a week, put on by students of a multi-disciplinary art school called Phare Ponleu Selpak – whose name means “the brightness of art” in Cambodian. The school is run by a non-profit organization founded in 1994 “by young returnee Cambodians from the refugee camps who learned about using art as a means of coping with trauma”, according to its website. The organization is dedicated to taking care of vulnerable and disadvantaged children from the area by giving them classes in subjects like theatre, visual arts, music and of course, circus.
The show was absolutely incredible. The performers were really extraordinary story tellers, and despite all the dialogue being in Cambodian, we felt completely drawn in by the show from beginning to end. Our show (they have several rotations, depending on which class of students is performing) was called Eclipse and it was filled with crazy acrobatics, fire juggling and fire jump roping, beautiful dances and super cool fight scenes. We felt like little kids, watching in awe the whole time. The show was so well put together, with dramatic lighting and live musicians (also students) playing to match the emotion of each scene. It was a really special night and I’m so glad we went. They told us after the show that two of their students were recently awarded 3 year scholarships to the National Circus School in Montreal. We were impressed and not at all surprised…they must be doing something right in this school!
The next day we decided to take a tuk tuk tour of the surrounding country side with our favourite driver Lichi (he had originally picked us up from the boat drop off and already driven us pretty much everywhere else we’d been in Battambang so far). We’d actually originally signed up for a mountain bike tour the previous day, but after chatting with Mr. Kun, we decided to cancel. The reason was because Mr. Kun explained that he didn’t recommend the company we had chosen (he actually looked extremely sad and disappointed when we told him we’d signed up for the tour), which was a surprise to us because we’d heard and read really great things about it promoting sustainable ecotourism, giving part of the proceeds back to the communities and having local guides. As it turns out, Mr. Kun explained that there are a lot of foreigners that come into Cambodia, set up companies or NGOs that make claims about communities they are supporting or how they’ve giving back but actually do this more for the “photo op” than truly doing good for Cambodian people. As is often the case, nothing is regulated or documented when you make claims like that and in this case, he explained that he did not have a good impression of the company we’d chosen. I guess he’s had a lot of experience with these companies that set up shop and often overstate the efforts to involve Cambodians and give back to the community, so we trusted his advice and opted out. So instead, we asked Lichi to give us a tour by tuk tuk (which worked out better still since neither of us were at 100% health anyway so biking in the heat of the day may not have been a good idea!)
Lichi took us on a really lovely and jam-packed tour of the country side. First we went north of Battambang to a site called the Well of Shadows, which is a monument constructed in remembrance of the Khmer Rouge genocide. The monument is located next to a Buddhist temple that was seized and then used as a prison in 1976 by the Khmer Rouge, where over 10,000 people were senselessly killed. The monument houses many bones of those victims, and around the bottom wall has some very vivid depictions of some of the violence and atrocities that occurred during that time (conveniently with English descriptions of each scene). Along with this being a very moving monument, it became even more emotional for us when we asked Lichi about his own family’s experience and he explained to us some of the difficulties that his wife’s family had as well as his own. He considers himself very lucky because he explained that his family were fruit and vegetable farmers, so they were able to continue to cultivate the fields during that time. Even though his family was fed very little (often we have heard about how each person was allotted only a small amount of rice porridge which contained 3-5 actual grains of rice in it despite being forced to work long and arduous days of forced labour), his family had access to extra food by sneaking in little bites here and there of the food they were growing and blaming the nibbles on rodents or other animals if they were questioned by the Khmer Rouge. Amazingly, both his parents survived through that terrible time period, and though he was born right at the end of it all he still finds it very difficult to talk about because it’s just so impossible to comprehend.
Next we toured through some of the different family businesses in the area, seeing how bamboo sticky rice is made (saw a very young boy yielding a pretty sharp looking cleaver), got a little intro into how rice wine was made (though the family was taking a break so we didn’t fully see it all in motion), saw and smelled the “Cambodian cheese”-making process which is actually a fermented fish paste used in many local dishes, watched rice noodles being made (super cool!) and a man carving a wooden boat by hand (ok actually he had some power tools lying around but we watched him roughing out the main body shape and he was hacking away at this huge hunk of wood with what looked like garden hoe – crazy!).
Then Lichi asked us if we wanted to go see crocodiles to which we said yes, but didn’t quite get that we were going to visit a crocodile farm. Similar (I guess) to a fish farm, this lady has over 600 crocodiles that she raises on this farm, and sells them out (mainly to Thailand) for a variety of uses such as leather and for food. It was a bit sad to see so many of them piled up into a very small space, but I guess that’s what most farms/factories are like. Then she walked us over to where she keeps the babies (all separated into different sections based on age) and let us hold a one month old crocodile! Apparently at one month, they’re totally safe but by 3 months you’ll lose a finger. Our little guy was really cute (though I’m sure petrified of us). Not quite the “natural” experience we originally thought but informative nonetheless.
After lunch we headed out again to take a ride on Battambang’s famous Bamboo Train. It’s basically a one-track train track where relatively light bamboo platforms (a.k.a trains) can be “disassembled” (i.e. the drivers can lift it off the track and put it on the side of the track) if two oncoming trains come face to face with each other. Apparently this used to be an efficient way to transport cargo and food back in the day, but now there are roads and tuk tuks and trucks for those types of things. We’d read about it in the Lonely Planet and thought it sounded great (you know, Jesse being a lover of all things transit) but it wasn’t quite as exciting or as scenic as we’d pictured. It has a rustic charm, but definitely feels more like a tourist trap especially with a high $5 price tag and pretty much no real sights to see on the trip. Still, we had a nice chat with the British girl who was on our train with us and although we didn’t meet any other oncoming trains on the first trip, we did have to get off and let the drivers disassemble our train about 6 times on the way back. So that added some minor excitement, as we are probably in dozens of other tourists photo albums now! We also had an interesting chat with an older Cambodian man who owns one of the drink stations at the turnaround point. He was a former General in the Cambodian army and shared a bit of his life story with us as well as his difficult viewpoints on Cambodia’s past and present political situation. He spoke both English and French, and seemed to switch between them quite frequently during our conversation with him. Sounded like he had a fulfilling but trying life, having had the opportunity to travel to many countries with the army and working with UN in Pakistan. I guess he just felt like chatting so we were happy to listen.
Anyway, after arriving back from the train ride, Lichi then brought us to an area called Phnom Sampeau. Here we took a motorbike up to the top of a limestone hill where a temple stands on top with beautiful views of Battambang during sunset. Sadly, it’s also the location of a few caves that were used by the Khmer Rouge in yet another horrific instance of too many people being brutally murdered. One cave was apparently used specifically to bludgeon, drop and kill babies and young children. You can still see a lot of bones leftover all around. In one of the bigger caves, they have made a staircase that you can walk down and converted the space into a little temple with a reclined Buddha and memorial to those killed. When we returned to the base of the hill, it was just in time to see the mass exodus of millions of bats coming out at dusk for their nightly feeding. It was really breath-taking and particularly satisfying for us because when we went to Borneo’s famous Mulu National Park a few years ago we didn’t get to see the bats exodus due to the rainy weather that night. The bats move like a big black mass of smoke together as one in winding, curving patterns. The locals will strike metal against the ground to make loud sounds and throw off the bats sonar and you can see them all lose direction and scatter around. As soon as the sounds stop, they move quickly back into formation. Apparently this exodus lasts for over an hour, and so we watched for a little while, but then started to get peed on by the bats flying overhead so we opted to get back on the tuk tuk and head back into town. We could still watch them in the distance flying together which added a cool new look to the horizon.
Sadly after our awesome tour that day, somehow my illness must have been passed on to Jesse and we had to spend the next 2 days letting him recuperate. So even though we spent 5 nights in Battambang, we really only had about 2 days worth of exploring. Not a big deal…it comes with the territory, especially since we pretty much eat anything that we see so we knew that this would happen! Anyway, our stay in Battambang was not quite what we were expecting but we still have very fond memories of the incredible sights we saw and our new friends in Mr. Kun and Lichi.