February 19 & 20, 2016
We take the ‘local’ bus from Siem Reap to Battambang and this takes 3.5 hours to travel just 68 km. This includes blaring Cambodian karaoke music videos. We quickly reach for our iPod shuffles (2nd generation-yes, we are that old) brought on the trip for emergency purposes. We suddenly find new life for those little match booklet sized music players and discover music we had forgotten a long time ago.
We check into the Paris Hotel. At $18 USD a night, nothing resembles Paris. The front non-English speaking staff laze around on the lobby sofa watching soccer/football on TV and we are not surprised to discover that our room does not include toilet paper! Only a ‘butt gun’ (yes that is what it is called!) for cleansing at this hotel. We still do not know how to use that darn thing! Water goes everywhere!
The tourist draws to this town include a ride on the bamboo train, bat caves, French Colonial style buildings and the Wat Banan temple. We luck upon a very good, English speaking tuk tuk driver, Lizy (pronounced Lee-cee), who convinced us to hire him. We walked off the bus around noon and we are on our first tour at 2pm.
Originally we did not really care if we went to the bamboo train or not, but we were pleasantly surprised by the major fun, entertainment and grin factor it provided. The one rail line runs straight from one village to the next, and the bamboo train itself literally consists of 3 sections. There is a bamboo platform topped with a matt and seat cushions and a lawnmower-type engine. It rolls on 2 sets of wheels that are easily lifted off the track when 2 trains come head-to-head. Before road travel was easy, this was the only method these villages had to get supplies from town, and goods to market. With no changes or visible up-keep, it is now open for tourists to experience and a family from the local village runs the train each day and collects the profits.
As we cruise down the line through farm and rice fields, I smile and I think how a friend of ours (who worked for CN) would absolutely love this trip. I also think if Disney could patent this ride and make it safe, they would have a serious winner on their hands. We jerk left to right every few seconds as the wheels hit the connecting rails at speeds unknown to us. We think to ourselves that we are 1 millisecond from death if anything goes wrong. We stop several times en route as we meet up with other trains making the return trip. The train with the least amount of cargo or passengers has to leave the track… Stop, remove platform, one driver grabs the one axle while the driver of the other train grabs the other axle. They unceremoniously throw the pieces to the side, then push the oncoming train forward and then reassemble our bamboo train so we can continue on our journey. Repeat every time a train approaches. The driver lets me lift an axle off at one stop. It was heavy. I tell him he is much stronger than I am and he grins from ear to ear showing off his crooked teeth. He appears thrilled to be engaged by a traveller.
Check out these 2 bamboo train videos
At the end, there is a small village of shacks with a few shops set up for tourists. We go for a little walk and see children running around naked while giggling and laughing. I wish I could run around naked outside and giggle instead of getting arrested. I start chatting with 2 young boys who are determined to sell us another 2 cent bracelet. They teach me a cool handshake. I teach them the English word for chicken. I learn the Cambodian word for chicken, pronounced “sach mean”…and we buy 2 bracelets for $1 USD. We shake hands and wave good bye to each other. They made our day!
We finish our first day at “the bat caves”. Lizy drives towards the bottom of a cliff that is the only elevation on this very flat, flat land. We climb up an unsafe, insufficient, vertical ladder made out of rebar. Unsure of the number of steps, we both figure it was easily over 100 steps. At the top, we are greeted by a Buddhist head approximately 20 feet high carved out of the mountain. The location provides a look out for the amazing display of mother nature about to unfold. Lizy tells us that Animal Planet was just here in the past couple months to video what we were about to watch. At 6:05 pm the sun has set behind us, dusk unfolds and millions upon millions of bats begin flying out from a cave in the cliff side! Right out of a horror film, the sky begins to darken over us as we watch the line of bats head out to the fields to start their nightly feeding. The marvelous display lasts almost half an hour and we can see bats snake through the sky in the distance for as far as our eyes can see. The “lazy bats”, as Lizy calls them, continued to leave the cave as we drove away in the darkness of the night.
Here is a video of the bats in action
On our second tuk tuk tour Lizy brings us through villages along the Sangkar river. The poverty is saddening, but I suspect these people are not sad. He shows us the agriculture that covers the banks of the river during the dry season. The river bank drops very low revealing fertile soil perfect for growing amazing organic vegetables. Fishermen are throwing their fishing nets into the water from their traditional wood boats and cows are grazing on the green weeds growing along the banks.
Our tuk tuk tour continues to an old, rickety, swinging bridge the width of a motorcycle and a half. It connects a village to the Kampong Pil Pagoda Buddhist temple. We walk across the bridge and have to squeeze ourselves against the rusty, twisted, pointy, 50+ year old chain link sides so that a scooter/moto with his side food cart can pass. We also get a lesson in Buddhism. I ask Lizy if he was ever a monk and he chuckles while saying, “for a week”. He couldn’t last as he enjoys eating too much.
A short tuk tuk trip from the Sangkar river and the swinging bridge, Lizy slows at a roadside vendor with skewered barbecue rat. No we did not eat it, that is where we draw the line!
We also see an ancient looking rice production shed and a novel mushroom farm.
The leafy-looking mushrooms are a new source of income that some of the villagers have trained on.
We continued on to see Cambodia’s only winery (we would have never guessed it was a winery) and then Wat Banan temple. The temple is reached via 358 stone stairs climbed in 35+C heat and we were rewarded by a small temple the locals believe was a template for Angkor Wat. The location provides a terrific view of the surrounding valley.
As we said farewell to Battambang with cheap dinner at a pop-up restaurant along the Sangkar river, complete with plastic chairs and the infamous $0.50 Angkor beer, we are reminded of the phrase ‘travel is the only thing one can buy that makes one richer’ …and we are feeling quite rich these days.
Next stop Phnom Penh.
Mark and Christine
Sample expenses for Battambang, Cambodia (all in USD)
- $4 breakfast for 2, omelets
- $2.50 for 2 mango smoothies
- $0.50 papaya from street side vendor
- $0.75 for a beer at the village on bamboo railway
- $5.75 dinner for 2, pop-up restaurant on the bank of the river. Fried rice and stir fry vegetables with steamed rice + 2 beer. Excellent view!
- $0.50 for a 1.5 L water street side
- $1 for a 12 pack of water street side, after we turned down a shop lady who ‘saw us coming’ and asked $2.50!
- $0.50 for 2 bags of popcorn, sweet, street side
- $13 for Tuk Tuk tour with Mr. Lizy to bat caves and bamboo railway
- $20 Tuk Tuk tour to Wat Banan, fishing villages, vegetable farms, rice processing
- $26 for 2 nights, Paris Hotel… no toilet paper provided… ever!
- $4 for admission for 2 to Banan temple
- $10 Bamboo railway for 2
- $1 for 2 bracelets at village, worth it to hang with the kids!