Battambang was one of my favorite days from our entire trip.
Battambang is both a province and a city located about 3 hours west of Siem Reap.
Battambang city is the third largest city in Cambodia in terms of population size, but this isn’t what necessarily drove me to want to visit. When planning the trip, I found the Battambang Dream Bungalows and that was that. I needed to stay there. Luckily, there were no protests from the rest of the crew.
We were able to travel there by bus using the company Mekong Express. I would highly recommend them for getting around Cambodia if that is of interest to anyone. All the busses/vans we took with them were clean, you could book ahead online and reserve your seat, there was a bathroom break halfway, and they gave you a bottle of water for the journey. And despite a few mishaps which were out of their control (more on that later), they were more reliable and had nicer staff than the other company were forced to use later on.
We arrived in Battambang city at night and had to take a tuk-tuk about 8km outside of the city to reach the bungalows. 2 tuk-tuks, 6 people, and luggage made for a squishy yet entertaining ride.
Despite our heavy load, the scooter managed to make it to the bungalows and we were greeted by the owners. We came here with no real plans; during dinner, the owner asked if we would like information about a tour the next day so we jumped at the opportunity! As I said at the start, this ended up being one of everyone’s favorite days from our entire trip.
The next morning we woke up to beautiful views of the rice paddies and the non-stop party music from a nearby wedding. I say non-stop because it started at 3am and went for a literal 24 hours. Apparently, wealthy Cambodians have a 3 DAY long party. Your average person, only one full day. Anyway, two tuk-tuks came to pick us up and off we go! First stop… bamboo sticky rice! Shane was thrilled.
Since we told our guide we had sticky rice before we only stopped for a quick snack and went on to our next stop: rice paper! This was insanely cool and just really makes you appreciate the hard work that goes into food preparation. It’s so easy to be detached from where food comes from, but when you see a chicken outside that is probably someone’s dinner, or in the case of the rice paper, you realize someone sat for hours to make these, it really starts to put things into perspective.
Rice paper is made by first soaking the rice overnight in water, then it’s ground and the water filtered out through a cloth. The remaining mixture is put in small batches on a heated plate, covered with a metal lid to cook (long enough to get one going on the 2nd hot plate), then it’s removed and draped over the wooden (rotating) sticks. The 2nd person lays out the rice paper to dry on the bamboo sheet and when it’s full it goes into the sun for a few hours. Then, ta-daaa! Rice paper for delicious spring rolls (for example)!
We were also able to see how rice wine was made. Long story short, a lot of rice, heat, fermentation, wine! But don’t let “wine” fool you, this is no wine. This is 80 proof rice liquor, and to sweeten the deal it’s seasoned with cobra.
Yes, like the snake (poor buddy).
But, when in
Rome Cambodia, right?!
Can’t say the cobra wine will become a staple in our house, but I think I (oddly enough) liked it a little better than the mango version.
Now that we’ve been properly liquored up, it was time to head to the famous Bamboo Train! I had done some internet stalking before the trip, so I knew exactly what the Bamboo Train looked like and I was THRILLED to try it! As for everyone else, I’m not sure they really knew what to expect.
I mean, did you expect the Bamboo Train to be a bamboo platform with a motor on the back?
A quick history:
Back during French colonial times, a national railway system was built, but it was shut down during the Khmer Rouge. In the 1980s, after the civil war ended, the people of Cambodia used what was left of the tracks and spare abandoned parts from the war to create the Bamboo Train. It provided a quick way for locals to travel between villages through the countryside. I say quick because this bad boy can go up to 50 km/h (30mph)!
What’s this like, you ask? Click here to see for yourself!
As you might notice, there’s only one track but it goes in both directions! Soooo, what happens if you run into someone on your way? Everyone gets off one train, it’s taken apart, the 2nd train passes, the first train is put back together, and off you go again!
I will warn, even though our guide insisted that this train was “used by the locals!” it was certainly a tourist trap. Once upon a time it was used by the locals, but the only people we saw on the train were clearly tourists, and the train stops in a small village full of shops with t-shirts, drinks, and small children trying to sell you things. We came home with a lot of bracelets…
Is it touristy? Definitely.
Is it worth the $5 round trip ticket? Hell yeah!
So grab a beer before you board and enjoy the ride!
Next up, lunch! Yes, all this happened before lunch. It was a busy day. We requested somewhere local and authentic for lunch so our drivers took us to a lovely spot on the river, which also happened to back up to our after-lunch destination: Banan Temple.
Banan Temple was cool, but what I remember most about Banan Temple was the stairs… 376 to be exact.
After the temple we went to our final destination, which was actually a 2 part event and probably the most impactful; partly due to history and partly due to nature.
Part 1: The Killing Cave
Yes, it’s exactly as the name suggests.
I don’t know if this was for immaturity and lack of caring about history or if this isn’t really taught in American schools, but I honestly don’t remember learning about the Khmer Rouge. None of us did. (Any high school history teachers want to comment?). My parents certainly remember it since they lived through it in the news, but we were very much nieve.
In case you’re like us and know very little – the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia between 1975 – 1979. The communist movement came to Cambodia, similar to Vietnam, as they tried to free themselves of French colonization. In 1975 the communist regime, the Khmer Rouge, and their leader, Pol Pot, took over Phnom Penh (the capital) to officially begin their reign.
In an effort to make a ‘classless’ society, almost everyone from the city was sent out to the agricultural areas to work where if people didn’t die from the journey, they died from the hard labor, poor living conditions, and starvation.
Additionally, to make this “ideal” society, they stripped away all freedoms. No school, no gatherings, no religions, if you can think of it – it was most likely taken away. On top of it, all educated people were killed. Doctors, teachers, if you wore glasses – all were murdered. All in all, approximately 2 million people were killed during this 4-year time frame.
Which brings us to the killing cave.
There are many killing caves and killing fields, where mass murders took place, all throughout the country. This one, Phnom Sampeau, is located about 11km (7mi) outside of Battambang city. You had to visit with a guide, and as it turns out, our guide (and tuk-tuk driver) lived through the Khmer Rouge regime. He was separated from his parents at the age of 5 and never saw them again.
The picture above can’t even do it justice, but this was a deep cave. Here, men and women were brought to the opening of the cave at the top and hit in the back of the neck to push them through the hole and into the cave. If you were lucky, you died from the blow to the neck or from the fall. If you were unlucky, you survived the fall but had no escape. Our guide told us how people who survived the fall would essentially lay there, waiting to die while other bodies fell on top of them.
Absolutely unspeakable and completely unimaginable.
And while this wasn’t the most upbeat part of our day, it was certainly worthwhile to visit and necessary to learn. It really helps you understand the country as it is today.
Part 2: The Bats!
Nearby to the killing cave is yet another cave, but with a little nicer story. This particular cave houses over 3 million bats! Every night about sunset the bats fly out to forage. This has become such a spectacle, that tourists and locals alike grab a drink and a snack, and line the streets to watch the bats leave the cave. It takes over an hour, by the way, for the cave to completely empty.
Naturally, we followed suit!
This was probably one of the coolest natural phenomenon (can I call it that?) that I’ve ever seen.
And with that, our tour of Battambang was complete! The day was long and jam-packed but worth every second.
Next stop on the trip (and our final stop as a group of 6)