|The view from the top of the mountain at Phnom Sampeau|
Situated around three hours’ drive from Siem Reap, in northwestern Cambodia, Battambang is a name you’ll likely spot peering out from bus posters in Cambodia and Thailand alike. Serving as a connecting stop between Phnom Penh and Bangkok, Battambang itself isn’t as popular with tourists as other Khmer destinations- but it has decent places to eat and sleep, and activities to fill a day or two with as you break up journeys that pass this way.
|“I can shooooow you the wooooorld…”|
Battambang’s Nori – Bamboo Train
If you’ve ever watched the film Aladdin, you’re familiar with the concept of a magical flying carpet. Well the bamboo “train” at Battambang isn’t quite as smooth or high-altitude a ride, but as you whizz through the countryside at around 20mph on a cushioned rectangle that only gives the front-seaters the luxury of a handrail, you get a bit of a flying carpet feeling.
As there’s just the one track, oncoming traffic seems like it would be a bit of an issue. But no! Fear not. For your speeding platform comes apart alarmingly easily, and can be lifted right off the track to allow other people to pass by. I didn’t have to get off my “train”, and instead rolled smugly by the other tourists slowly cooking in the hot sun.
A round trip on the train costs $5 a person (though perhaps allow a little extra to tip whoever is running your engine) and there’s a small market at one end where you can buy cold drinks and lurid tshirts. Expect to get mobbed by small children selling bracelets as soon as you arrive.
To see a video from the ride, hop over to my Instagram account @tabbyfortea and scroll down!
|Out of the way, traffic!|
The Killing Cave
Another grim reminder of the horrors of Cambodia’s recent history, the Killing Cave at Phnom Sampeau was used by the Khmer Rouge as a convenient place to kill victims. People were marched blindfolded to the top entrance of the cave and pushed down onto a particularly large and jagged rock below. Those who didn’t die immediately were then pushed off a second, internal ledge, in the hope of finishing them off.
In recent years, efforts have been made to collect the skulls and bones found here and store them together out of the damp, dark crevices they were previously left in. I hadn’t clocked the open tomb of human remains when I first entered the cave, which doesn’t keep the dead behind glass like the monument at the Killing Fields does. Be prepared as you’re shuffling down to the rocks for a history lesson- I’ve seen a lot of skulls and bones in this trip already and I still jumped when I turned around and found myself looking at more.
There’s no entry fee for the Killing Cave, but to access it you’ll need to push yourself up a small mountain in what may well be some serious heat and humidity. Luckily there are steps all the way up, and a couple of flat spots where locals sell cold drinks from cool boxes for 50C/2,000 riel a go.
You can access this easily yourself by hiring a tuktuk driver for the day to take you around the various local sights, but for extra insight into what you’re seeing there are cheap guided tours available as well.
Oh- and watch out for all the monkeys. They know what a bottle of water is and how to get into it, so you might need to buy more than one…
|Shiny jazzy things|
The Killing Cave isn’t the only feature of Phnom Sampeau, which is also home to beautiful temple buildings and less-beautiful Buddhist sculptures… Such as the unfortunate women below.
There’s a small park-like display at the top of the mountain, between the temple and the cave entrance, which depicts the various unpleasant things that might befall you between lives if you earn yourself some bad karma in this lifetime. Into cockfighting? Perhaps you’ll spend time as a fighting cockerel yourself. Committed adultery? Maybe this man will spear you in the butt while you climb a really prickly tree.
Don’t worry though, because soon you’ll be reborn! You might be reborn as something rubbish, still having a terrible time. But you won’t be climbing that nasty tree anymore.
Last up before I retreated back to the town for fried rice and iced coffee, the bat cave! Bats are so great. The local people love these bats, because they eat little bugs called plant-hoppers that go around destroying rice crops. Thanks, bats.
Upwards of three million bats live here, and they’re pretty punctual when it comes to heading out to hunt. In the rainy season you can see them all leaving from 6.30pm, and in the dry season you can witness the spectacle from 5.15pm. It takes about an hour for them all to get out, so don’t worry if you’re running a little late getting back down from the top of the mountain.
There’s a video of some of the first bats leaving over on aforementioned Instagram page- @tabbyfortea – complete with the sound of someone going “ahhhh” in the background.
Eating and drinking in Battambang
There isn’t exactly a wild nightlife scene here, but there’s great (and cheap) food and drink to be had at venues like Nary Kitchen, Coconut and Delicious.
If you’re in the mood for western food, The Lonely Tree on Street 2.5 has a varied menu from tapas to cheeseburgers as well as decent local grub. The venue is run by a social enterprise, so by dining there you’re also supporting humanitarian causes, educational schemes and all manner of other good stuff. Alternative venue Coconut also offer Khmer Cooking classes, which I didn’t try out but am reliably informed are great value and a lot of fun.
Day tours or helpful tuktuk drivers will also suggest a visit to the nearby suspension bridge, seen below. I mean, it’s a bridge, you know? It’s good if you’re into bridges. Particularly if you’re into suspension bridges. I was underwhelmed, but you might want to go. There’s a really awful/hilarious sculpture of a tiger at one end that I’m not showing you so that you’ll have to go if you want to see it. Personally I enjoyed the questionable tiger more than the bridge.
That’s about all I’ve got to say on Battambang right now, so when my wifi starts to be more cooperative I’ll be taking you over to Sihanoukville, where I’ve just spent a very hot day being quite ill. Yay!