But actually, pronounced more like ‘Battambong’. Now you know.
Opting for the cheaper, shorter bus ride over the longer, pricier, no doubt infinitely more hellish boat trip, I left Siem Reap late Sunday morning. I’d stayed there two nights more than originally planned, the last day being an out and out chill day by the pool, something I’d felt I needed!
(The last night I had to change rooms from the 18-bed dorm (it was kind of seperated into two areas of eight and ten beds each) to a six-bed female dorm. It was two dollars more but INFINITELY more spacious and comfortable, WITH an en suite bathroom, leading me to an Important Life Lesson: Sometimes it’s worth paying a little bit more money for things.)
After a three plus hour trip in an ancient Korean bus that was full of locals and tourists alike, we arrived in the town of Battambang, Cambodia’s second biggest urban settlement. It doesn’t look like it, though!
Upon trying to exit the bus – I was right at the front – I was immediately and thoroughly intimidated by the a crowd of tuktuk drivers jostling and shouting and basically resembling nothing so much as a swarm of hungry piranhas awaiting a tasty, fleshy foot. I stood back to let the rest of the bus go first; the storm abated somewhat; and when I did climb off I was relieved to find that a kindly-looking tuktuk driver had a sign bearing the name of the hostel I’d booked and my name on a scrap of paper.
There was another girl’s name on the same paper: Alice, from Belgium, on her gap year (after high school. Yes, that thing for which I shall be attending a 10-year reunion later this year. Indeed) travelling through New Zealand, Australia, and now South East Asia.
Our dorm was basic: dark, but with large, comfortable beds and powerful fans. And really, for three dollara a night, what more could you ask for?!
We spend the rest of the day relaxing in the hammocks and big wicker chairs in the courtyard; I also take a brief walk around to look at some of the old colonial buildings and such. The night passes comfortably enough: the beds next to us are empty so we each get a fan to ourselves.
The next day Alice and I arrange to tour around with the same tuktuk driver from the day before, $18 for the day.
First stop is the bamboo train – which is not so much a train as a moving bamboo platform powered by a lawn mower engine. Cambodia has no functioning railway so this is pretty much the only train around. It was used by locals to transfer livestock, produce and motorbikes between villages, but as the only people we saw using it were other tourists and the terminus is a lady selling typical tourist wares, we can safely assume it’s become something of a tourist attraction. This may actually be a good thing: there have been persistent rumours about shutting the bamboo train, but I suspect that as long as they can make $5 for every tourist who rides it, it’s going to keep going.
Next up is a drive through rice fields and village streets to see some women making rice paper by hand, and then sampling the rice paper in the form of spring rolls. Yum!
We returned to the hostel to rest through the heat of the day (I can’t keep saying it because it’ll get boring, but please remember at every point in this narrative that it was stupefyingly hot). We went out again around three, having collected another traveller, a German girl. We drove out of town to the boat-shaped limestone outcrop of Phnom Sampeau, where we slogged up the hill to see the Killing Cave, a place eerie in its peacefulness, where bodies were dumped by the literal thousand during the Khmer Rouge period.
We then carried on to the temple at the summit for some stunning views, and eventually, after getting lost a few times, back down to where our tuktuk was waiting by the bat cave.
There are tens of thousands of bats living in this cave and they’re all supposed to swarm out in this massive cloud around sunset. Unfortunately the bats were not in a swarming mood that day, and instead just flew out lazily in small groups. Oh well.
After a quick shower (and a hideous encounter with a no doubt equally horrified frog) we went out yet again – this time to see the much-lauded circus. About eight of us squeezed into the tuktuk and paid about a dollar each for the round trip.
The circus is a non-profit initiative to train underprivileged children in acrobatics and other performance arts. The show is organised around a vague narrative; the one we saw was about a missing bicycle. The performers are all high school-aged, and happily enthusiastic, and impressively talented! But everyone I was with raved about it like it was the Cirque de Soleil, which it most certainly was not. It was good, maybe not $10 good, or as good as the one that its older performers go on to work at in Siem Reap, but good enough. Just don’t expect too much and remember that you’re supporting a good cause!
All in all, a worthwhile quick trip. Next stop: Phnom Penh.