As we approached the bus station the tuktuk drivers began running along the side holding up guesthouse flyers and tour prices. As I stepped off we were enveloped in a mass of drivers all attempting to get our business with varying degrees of force…it almost felt like being in a washing machine, wirling around, everywhere you look another smiling tuktuk driver! “Good price good price!” One guy even offered me his keys as some sort of sales pitch and another whispered “no pressure” menacingly into our ears. Hey just a thought, pressuring someone by saying no pressure doesn’t often work!
In what town could you see millions of bats flying out of a cave every night, eat BBQ’d rat on the roadside and finish the day by seeing a circus show? Well the answer is Battambang, Cambodia. Though definitely on the tourist map, it manages to retain its own Cambodian identity and culture perfectly. With streetside food, a bustling market and a local love for aerobics by the river come dusk, we felt like we were seeing a small slice of Cambodian life in the country’s second largest city.
Luckily this city is not all about pushy salemanship…it has a fair share of attractive colonial shops and buildings to keep you occupied! An alternative, and often young, expat community has set up residence in Battambang, meaning lots of these buildings double as quirky shops and cafes…hey we weren’t complaining. Good coffee is sometimes hard to come by in southeast Asia! But there is still a huge amount of yummy local fare to get stuck into, including delicious hand pulled noodles covered in about twelve bulbs of garlic, with garlic sauce on the side, and a few cloves of raw garlic incase you wanted more! They love garlic here…
Most of the more interesting things in Battambang can be found not in the town itself, but in the surroundings, and the easiest (or sometimes only) way to see these is by yet another Tuk-Tuk tour. We hired a driver called Mr.Bean (because he was the funniest guy in Battambang), who assured us his hangover would not affect his driving skills, to take us around the sites with the first stop being the Bamboo railway.
After the Khmer Rouge destroyed the majority of the train tracks in Cambodia, some creative locals made their own “Trains” out of nothing more than 2 axels, a motorbike motor and a sheet of bamboo. Originally used for moving locals between nearby villages, it is now a tourist attraction where you can pay a few dollars to hurtle down the dilapidated rails on the bamboo mat, feeling remarkable close to both the ground and death… it was slightly more scary than we thought! One of the highlights, however, is when you hurtle towards another train head-on, before screaming to a halt to dismantle your train to let the other through… a very odd and fun experience indeed, well maybe for the first five times…
On a tour the lunch stop is not normally one of the highlights, as you usually end up eating some overpriced, bland fried rice, bit not on this trip. As Mr.Bean pulled us over to the small stand at the side of the road our eyes widened and a grin came across our faces. We had wanted to try the local delicacy of BBQ rat since we got here and now was our chance. We purchased a whole rat for about $2, a bargain considering how much meat was on it, and the lady even threw in some dipping sauce and a glass of rice wine for good measure. The rat itself tasted like chicken.. tasty tasty chicken, so good you might even see it in Tesco one day. Our second course was another local delicacy, BBQ snake. This wasn’t quite as nice as the rat, but worth a try anyways…
Next on the trip was seeing the ‘Killing Caves’, once a holy mountain it was used as a strategic base during the Khmer Rouge’s time and was the site for hundreds of executions. People were thrown off the top of the cliff to be smashed at the bottom on the cave floor. A moving and sad place, that was made even more depressing by the child beggars all around the caves. We have mentioned before that giving these kids money does more harm than good as they don’t get any benefit from it, and it encourages them to stay away from school. Sometimes it is hard and heartbreaking to say no to these kids, but we would rather give money to an established organisation that will provide some long term help in Cambodia.
After the atrocities of the killing caves, it was time to see the slightly more light hearted bat caves, a place where every night millions of bats fly out in a long line to hunt the mosquitos on the nearby paddy fields. It takes an hour for all of the hundreds of thousands of bats to have emerged and is a very impressive sight…even though you will get defecated on several times while looking up at them… best advice we where given? “Just remember to keep your mouth closed!”
A perfect way to end our trip to Battambang was going to see the circus. Performances happen on Mondays and Thursdays at 7pm and are definitely worth the $10 ticket fee. This organisation trains young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in lots of circus skills. They are still learning so I think the real possibility of them all falling over or catching on fire made it all the more tense and exciting! For us going to see a show was a real change from the usual during our travels and made the night even better.
This was definitely worth the detour from the usual Siem Reap to Pheom Penh route most travellers take in Cambodia. But it was time to throw ourselves into the big city and see what all the fuss was about!