Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Countryside of Battambang | Cambodia

     Destination number two on our Cambodian adventure was a bus ride away, to Battambang, the country's second largest city. We had already bought the tickets, and arranged to be picked up from the hotel. I don't know the name of the company now, as rather than taking us to the one I asked for, our tuk tuk driver had taken us to another company, which he said offered the same price. My understanding of it was that he didn't know where the other office was. But we got the tickets, and the price was fine, and we were all ready to be picked up at 7.30am, as they had told us, the first pick up for the departure at 8.30am.

     But then 7.30am came and went. As did 8am. As did 8.30am. I try to be laid back on holidays, I do, but this was starting to stress me out. A lot. I asked the hostel reception, where we were still waiting, if they could call, and he told me he was getting no answer. Great. We could get another bus, sure, but we'd already paid for the first, and then there'd be even more waiting around. Eventually, another 20 minutes or so later, the reception were able to contact them, and they said our pick up was coming. Which it did, a few minutes later, a minibus rather than the big one we'd been expecting. However, this was not for a short, bumpy ride to where the big bus was waiting at the side of a road. So at 9.30am or so, we finally rolled out of Siem Reap. The journey itself was fairly uneventful, taking around 4 hours in total, with a rest stop along the way. There seemed to be more locals on it than tourists, though there were a handful of others like us. I would've dozed through most of it, if the driver hadn't been so damn horn-happy. I get you're driving a big bus, and there's a ton of motorbikes whizzing up that road, but they're not moving even if you honk! It got really annoying, really fast.


Decorative window on Wat Damrey Sar, Battambang, Cambodia

     Once we arrived on the outskirts of Battambang, the bus was met by drove of tuk tuk drivers clamouring at the door before we'd even stopped, calling out to everyone on board. It was pretty overwhelming to be surrounded by them all as we disembarked, but fortunately I'd been looking up things to do in Battambang before we arrived, and knew what the scramble was for. We grabbed our bags, and the most persistent one led us to his tuk tuk, where sure enough, we were handed a leaflet for a tour around the countryside of Battambang. I knew at this point that this was something we wanted to do, there not being all that much available in town, so we agreed for him to pick us up again the next morning.
      We still had the remainder of that afternoon in town though, so we spent it having a wander around. We managed to find a Cambodian equivalent to Pizza Hut, which was a little pricey, but very good! This had brought us along to the riverside, so we walked down here. I instantly noticed that it was very less busy here than in Phnom Penh, or even Siem Reap, which is smaller but full of tourists. I'd read about lots of colonial style architecture, but didn't see too much of that, and felt the town lacked much personality. We saw a few of its many wats, but we're only able to see the exteriors, as they looked closed up, and while they were colourful and ornately decorated, they seemed like poorer counterparts to the ones I saw in Phnom Penh. We were somewhat put off too by the crowds of people standing around one of the entrances, almost as d guarding the wat, and making us feel rather unwelcome... We used a different entrance for that one! Then we saw army vehicles and soldiers on the street, which was rather unnerving too, so we kept walking past that pretty quickly. However, we learned the next day that Angelina Jolie was filming in the area, as she had been in Siem Reap, and we now think that's what was going on there. After a rest in First Hotel, which is technically a motel, and did the job for what we paid, but had annoyingly thin walls that let a lot of noise through, we went back to the river for dinner. There's lots of tiny street restaurants, which are very cheap. We didn't think food poisoning looked likely from then, as you're always warned about at such places, and sure enough we managed meals there both nights without incident.

Fitting the engine into the bamboo train waiting on the tracks, in the country near Battambang, Cambodia

Riding the bamboo train through the countryside outside Battambang, Cambodia

Ruins of Phnom Banan temple to the south of Battambang, Cambodia

    The next morning we were greeted on time by our tuk tuk driver, who, as it turned out, would not be taking us around that day. He was having problems with his tuk tuk at that moment, and would have it fixed in time for his other customers later, but for us, he'd arranged for his brother to take us instead. I noticed the tuk tuk was much bigger than the one we'd had in Siem Reap, which I assumed was for extra comfort, since most of these tours involved driving round the country all day. I wasn't complaining anyway! Though the bigger size doesn't necessarily make for a less bumpy journey, but at least I didn't drop anything out of this one.

     Anyway, our first stop for the day was the bamboo train, regularly listed as the thing to do when visiting Battambang. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from it, if I'm being totally honest, I'd just heard it was a pretty fast ride through the countryside. We saw the tracks first, which seemed straightforward enough, and there were tuk tuks full of other tourists waiting beside them. Then I saw them assemble a cart. Two pairs of wheels rolling loose on the track, until captured by placing a rickety, holey board on top of them, then inserting the engine on top, which fixes to the back wheels, and is filled up with fuel from a plastic bottle. Oh, and a rug to sit on. I don't know how it works or stays together, but somehow it does! There's only one track though, so our ride was interrupted almost instantly when we had to get off, and our cart was dissassembled again and left at the sides of the track while several other carts came past in the other direction. The ride itself was pretty fun, though not as fast as if been mentally preparing myself for. Our driver did offer me the seat on the ledge at the back next to him though, which offered a much better view over everyone else's heads, but did get quite warm from the engine. As we approached the end of the track he and I also had to duck as we passed through a swarm of massive flying bugs, yuck! We had a brief stop at the far end, where a woman had a stall with cold drinks and various clothes. We were immediately accosted by a young girl there, perhaps around 10 or 11, who made us pinkie promise that if we were to buy a bracelet, it would be from her and not one of the others. I didn't buy any from any of them, but it was good sales technique!

     We had two more main stops on our tour that day, but in between we had some long driving periods through the countryside around Battambang. This was pretty interesting, as a lot of locals live out in tiny villages around the area. Their homes are very basic looking structures, though nearly all of them own a motorbike, as does most of this country! Many seemed to be farming communities, as we saw a few tractors pass by us on the road, and many cows wandering around - once we even had to skirt some of these standing in the road, who refused to move no matter how much our driver beeped. He also stopped by a startlingly green field, in the middle of an overwhelmingly flat, brown landscape, which turned out to be a rice field. The most fun part of this driving was that any time we passed by children they would yell hello to us and wave frenetically, as seeing tourists in tuk tuks seems to be a source of great excitement and amusement for them. We were happy to wave back, which did feel very funny, as if we were celebrities or royalty of some sort, which is hilariously absurd.

Looking down the staircase from Phnom Banan temple to the south of Battambang, Cambodia

Rice fields in the countryside around Battambang, Cambodia

Inside the Killing Caves outside Battambang, Cambodia

     Our second stop of the day was the ruins far to the south of town, Banan, which pre-date those at Angkor. I knew these would be far smaller and less impressive than what we'd seen before, but what I was unprepared for was the stairs. Good grief, the stairs. It was the middle of the day, and probably the hottest day we'd encountered in Cambodia so far, and there were so, so many stairs. I was dying after the first dozen, but then I'm not a very fit person anyway, and I was still feeling slightly ill. They got steeper towards the top as well, which didn't help at all. We did encounter some children swinging in hammocks halfway up, with not a care in the world, and at the top there was a group doing a photo shoot, which left me wondering how they got the models up there and still looking as glamorous and non-sweaty as they did. The ruins themselves were significantly underwhelming after the grandeur of Angkor, and did make the stairs feel like they weren't really worth it, which was a shame. They'd probably be a better taster for people who hasn't yet visited Angkor. We had lunch from the local stalls at the bottom after, similar to those in Angkor Thom, while our driver dozed in a nearby hammock, along with the other drivers. Well, until one cockerel decided 2pm was basically the same as dawn and began crowing his lungs out, which nearly made one driver fall out his hammock!

     Our last stop was the Killing Cave, a terrible site from the Pol Pot regime, where people would be thrown down into the cave and killed. There were even some horribly graphic statues about torture methods used. I was aware that Cambodia has this dark period in us event history, but I don't know all that much about the specifics of it. Unfortunately, the cave doesn't tell you much either, so even seeing it in person, I don't feel better informed, but it's something I should look up later. A young boy acted as our guide for the first cave, but all he really did was show us the stairs, then ask for a donation, as I suspected he would. The second has a bit more to it, being larger so you can climb all the way down. Most disturbingly, there was a pile of skulls stacked in a case at the far end, which did make the events feel a bit more real, as there weren't many other remnants. Having visited a concentration camp before, I'd been anticipating a similar feeling, the sickening sense that something truly awful happened here, but I didn't get it this time round, which I can only attribute to my lack of knowledge about said events.

      Eventually the day drew to a close, and we had another chilled out evening grabbing some dinner, then simply making use of the wifi at the hotel. It's irritating still, but I've just been feeling too ill to do very much - I've barely even had a drink! So this is certainly not a party holiday, not that Battambang seemed like the place to do that anyway (Siem Reap definitely had a few more options, but I was not in the mood at all). As for Battambang as a whole, it did have a few interesting things to offer, with the bamboo train being a highlight. The town is pretty quiet though, and two nights there definitely felt sufficient.

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