Cambodia

Clare’s Cambodian Diaries: The lovely provincial capital of Battambang!

When I arrived in Cambodia, one of the places I really wanted to visit was Battambang. Last time I was here it was on the list however James and I ended up substituting it out for Koh Rong. Luckily for me, Battambang is only a 2 hour bus ride away from Pursat! After my first 1.5 weeks of work I decided to take a long weekend off and celebrate Christmas there, then head back again near the end of my trip.

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One of the corners of the Here Be Dragons complex

Trip 1

I arrived in Battambang on Christmas Eve and checked into Here Be Dragons ($8 for a private fan room). Dragons has got to be one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in in Asia and is definitely the best in Cambodia. It’s western owned and run, has delicious reasonably priced western food and the atmosphere is really chilled. They also have a super cute little garden with egg chairs, hammocks and places to relax and chat to people – perfect as this is what my weekend away was supposed to be about!

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The Battambang riverside area

My second day in Battambang was Christmas Day. I really wanted to spend the day doing things so I made some new friends, jumped in their tuk tuk with Nakim as our driver for the day and we went off an adventure. Nakim was awesome – a really nice guy and super knowledgeable about the area. He also personalised our day so we saw what we wanted to and gave us recommendations on other things to see and do around town. If anyones heading to Battambang, definitely get in contact with him either through Facebook or via Here Be Dragons!

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The crew posing atop Phnom Sampeau

Our first stop was the Bamboo Train. This ‘train’ is a removable bamboo platform attached to two sets of wheels. The train travels 7km along warped tracks to a small Cambodian village where you hop off, explore for 20 minutes, then ride the train back again. Bamboo Trains were used in the 1980s after the Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge era ended to transport anything and everything, however once the roads were rebuilt and the country started to recover they declined in popularity. Our 40 minute ride was a lot of fun however the village at the end was definitely an anti-climax – a whole bunch of tourist orientated stalls (statues, hippie pants, bracelets etc.) and a standard Khmer village with people going about their daily business. Still, we went past some beautiful scenery and were glad we did it!

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A bamboo train with its driver standing next to the tracks (waiting for us to pass!) 

Our next stop with Nakim was Phnom Sampeau. This  mountain near Battambang is scattered with temples and caves, including some used during the Khmer Rouge as torture temples and killing/grave caves. The most memorable part of our visit however was the bats. At around 6pm, thousands upon thousands of bats pour out of a cave approximately halfway up the mountains cliff face and head to nearby fields to feed. They fly in a funnel formation then spread as they get closer to the fields – such an incredible sight however one that was unfortunately hard to get a good photo of!

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The view from the top of Phnom Sampeau
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The end portion of the mass exodus of bats.

The following evening, Nakim took a group of us from the guesthouse to the circus at Phare Ponleu Selpak. Phare Ponleu Selpak is a non-for-profit organisation that works with vulnerable children and young adults, with one of its major programs being a performing arts school. The performance we saw told a funny romance story with plenty of acrobatics, balancing acts and juggling thrown in. It was quite expensive at $14 each but was for a good cause and was actually quite entertaining!

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The day after the circus I unfortunately had to go back to Pursat. My bus ride home was horrible – I ended up on a crappy old overcrowded bus that stank, sitting next to a guy whos stuff took up all my leg-room. Then, the ticket man shoved my small backpack into the overhead space (while I was telling him not to) where it got absolutely covered in mud, so I wasn’t very impressed. I hadn’t travelled with that company before and safe to say I won’t ever travel with them again!

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Trip 2

I had really enjoyed Battambang so decided it would be my refuge for when I wanted to get out of Pursat. However, as I did my Phnom Penh visa run, had my week off seeing James and did a few trips to other cities with work I never really felt the need to “escape” back to Battambang. Before I knew it I only had  4 weeks in the country left and I really wanted to go back to Battambang see the rest of the sights!

As I was a bit pushed for time, I did something I’ve never done before – booked accommodation in advance and organised a tuk tuk driver to take me out! So organised! Nakim wasn’t working that day, so Dragon’s organised DJ to take me out instead. DJ is another fabulous tuk tuk driver in Battambang and I highly recommend him if Nakim is unavailable!

Our first day together was a trip out to Wat Banan. Wat Banan is an Angkor-style Wat that sits atop a hill in a very picturesque area of Battambang province. Unfortunately it’s now March and it was the afternoon, which means  it was about 36 degrees and extremely humid, so safe to say the 356 step climb to the top wasn’t exactly pleasant. It was worth it though as the Wat was well preserved, very peaceful and quiet due to the lack of tourists. Descending the stairs was a lot easier than ascending, however the best part was the mango shakes at the bottom – a gift from the heavens!

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After my big stair climb I felt I deserved a treat, so headed over to Choco L’Art Cafe after dinner. Holy moly. My little treat turned into a giant chocolate fix as I sat there for an hour reading their books, eating a chocolate mousse and drinking a hot chocolate! They were both incredible, however I did feel a bit sick walking home…

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For my second day with DJ I managed to recruit 4 other girls from the hotel to join me on a sightseeing loop. First stop, Wat Ek Phnom! This complex is an old Angkor-style ruin with an accompanying modern temple and giant Buddha statue. The ruin itself was a lot more ruined that I had expected – if you had to choose one ancient temple I’d definitely recommend Wat Banan over Wat Ek Phnom. It was so ruined and looted that it would be unrecognisable as a temple if it weren’t for the rebuilt central pillar and planks of wood holding it together!

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The loop then took us to three separate villages to see three different Khmer staples being made – rice wine, rice paper and sticky rice. Usually I shy away from these sorts of trips as they feel fake and touristy however this time it was actually quite nice – it really did feel as if we were just dropping in on their shop to have a casual look then moving on. Our first stop was the rice wine factory. We had a look at the ingredients that are added to the rice for flavour, saw the process of fermentation and had a look at how they actually extract the wine from the rice (spoiler alert – they steam it). I’ve had rice wine once before and that was enough however the other girls tried it and said was strong but not too bad!
Rice wine
1 – The ingredients; 2 – First the rice is combined with the ingredients and left to dry; 3 – Then it’s is placed in buckets to ferment for a few days; 4 – Under this metal roof there is a fire where the steam travels through the pipe into photo 5; 5 – The rice is placed in here and steamed; 6 – The liquid leaks out into this small bucket. And there you have it – rice wine!

Our next stop was a rice paper shop/factory where we watched the ladies creating rice paper before having a drink and trying two spring rolls for 50c. I went for the fried version and they were good, although not the best I’ve had. The paper was nice but the filling let them down as all she had put in them were bean sprouts!

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The lady who is sitting pours a liquid onto a tight piece of fabric covering a small fire. She makes it round (similar to making a crepe) and puts the lid on for about 15 seconds. She then takes the lid off, carefully pries off the rice paper and puts it onto one of the wooden tubes. The second lady pulls the tube off its holder and uses it to lie the rice paper sheet on the rack behind her to allow it to cool and dry.
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Rice paper drying on racks
Our third stop was the sticky rice stall. We had a brief explanation of how the sticky rice is packaged into bamboo before getting one stick of sticky rice to share between the 6 of us. I had a bit of an incident with sticky rice last time we were in Laos and haven’t been able to eat it since, however I tried this one and it was actually quite nice – they add coconut milk and vanilla beans which makes it quite tasty!

 

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Sticky rice in bamboo once opened – the black seeds are vanilla beans.
Our final stop on the loop was the Well of Shadows and Wat Somrong Knong – a very sombre way to end the day. Wat Somrong Knong was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1976 and the various buildings on the complex were then used as prisons and places of torture. The Well of Shadows is a monument built opposite a mass grave (now a small lake) that contains the skulls and bones of over 10,000 people who were tortured then murdered and thrown into the grave. Carved into the monument was stories and pictures of various tortures performed in the area. Within the Wat complex itself was a small museum with further information and a map showing the different buildings – almost all of the buildings used by the Khmer Rouge are no longer in use and have been left as memorials.
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One of the original temples that the Khmer Rouge used as a prison – over 100 people were imprisoned in here in one large room. 
On arrival back into town it was time for me to head back to Pursat! Battambang is a town often missed by tourists due to it not having many things to see that you can’t see elsewhere in Cambodia. This is true, however it’s just a really nice place to be. It’s probably my favourite “tourist town” within Cambodia – it caters just enough for Westerners but not so much that it feels touristy. My kind of place and definitely a recommended destination!
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