Crocodiles, Bats and a Bamboo Train: A tour of Battambang, Cambodia

Battambang (pronounced Battambong by locals), not to be confused with the British cake Battenberg (yes, I constantly have food on my mind!) is located three hours South of the travellers hub of Siem Reap, however the bus will take much longer to reach the city, as is often the case in South East Asia.

It is often an unexplored area, and many people skip through it in favour of other cities such as Phnom Penh, and the islands off Sihanoukville.
After 6 days in Siem Reap of mainly exploring the Temples of Angkor Wat, I decided to break up my journey to Phnom Penh,  and stop by, to see what was happening.
Battambang is Cambodia’s second biggest city, yet walking through it. You wouldn’t think it. Traffic is constant, but slow, as were the people, no one seemed in a rush to do anything, or be anywhere. Walking along the riverfront in the morning you’ll encounter many Monks on their way to the monastery, and several other local people exercising, before the heat of the day.

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There is an air of calm, as the slow Sangkae River passes you by. Small cafes and vendors selling French baguettes at the side of the road, makes you instantly slow down. So much so that I ended up in a café for breakfast, and stayed for two hours reading, and people watching.

 

Prior to my visit, I did little research into this area (as is normally the case, with my ever changing travel plan) I just wanted to see what the locals and my hostel recommended.
As I got off the bus at the bus station, I was met by several tuk tuk drivers, shouting at me for my custom. I hadn’t even got my rucksack off the bus yet, and this constant chirpping in my ear really gets to me. However, I jumped in the nearest tuk tuk, with a guy offering me a ride for US$1, and was taken to my hostel; here be dragons, which for $3 per night, wasn’t bad. It was run by a British Couple, and was very quirky, with cheap food and drink, and great music. On the way, my tuk tuk driver offered me a tour of the city for the next day for $20. However, I decided to wait and see if I could connect with other people to make the cost of this a lot less.
I soon met another traveller from Australia, and we organised a tuk tuk tour, for the next day. Several other travellers arrived in the bar area, and most were heading out to Phare, The Cambodia Circus, but as I had been already in Siem Reap, I had a quiet an evening in, writing and editing photographs.
After they returned, we sat up chatting, drinking and playing trivial pursuit (pushing out the fun boat there!)

A tour of Battambang
Normally I am not much of a tour person. Mainly as you have got allocated times to see things, you are in and out, have 10 minutes to snap some photos, and then you’re off again.
However, tuk tuk tours are a little different, and often the driver will allow you as much time at a location, so you have more time to appreciate it.

By the time we were due to set off, most of the hostel had joined us, so in all there were about 10 people on the tour, and we crammed onto two tuk tuks. We were joined by an Irish couple, three German travellers, An Romanian-American, British and a French girl.

First stop: The Crocodile Farm (or Crocodil-E Farm)

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Crocodile Farms are very popular in Cambodia; they are bred for two purposes; their skin which is sold to Thailand for clothing and shoes, and as food, which is sold onto Vietnam.
I am not sure how I fully feel about mass farming of animals for this purpose. However, I guess Chickens, Pigs and Cows are all used in the same way.
We rocked up to a small ‘farm’, and paid the farmer $2. There was a small tin shack at the entrance, with some small Children lazing in hammocks watching TV. On the wooden platform was a large white, and very dirty looking bucket. Inside were two baby crocodiles, which we were able to hold if we wished.

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We washed our hands, and were given the extremely small reptiles. They squirmed about on our hands, and although they had teeth, they didn’t bite. We were told that they were approximately 6 weeks old. It was the closest I had ever come to a Crocodile before, so although it was highly put on for the tourists, it was pretty cool.
We were then lead to the back of the farm, the stench of what I guess was crocodile poo baking in the sun was overpowering. We stood of a metal platform, and watched about 500 Crocodiles lying motionless.

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For the most part, they did nothing. Occasionally one would crawl on top of another to get a better spot by the pool. I felt quite saddened by this site, as their living conditions didn’t appear too great.
The farmers then came with a truckload of small fish to feed the Crocodiles. Within seconds of the fish being chucked in the water, the crocodiles came to life. Others jumping up from under the water.
Second Stop: A ride on the Bamboo train to nowhere
Despite many guidebooks, and even local people saying that the Bamboo train was closing soon for repairs (they have been saying this for years), it was still operating. We were taken to a small station area, in the middle of nowhere. Many Cambodian men lay on wooden pallets on the ground in the sun, or hammocks (this appears to be the norm for most SE Asias, they wait for work to come to them. If there are no tourists, they’ll lie in the sun, smoking or doing nothing).
The tuk tuk tour didn’t include the price of the Bamboo Train, so we paid US$5 each. We then watched as a few locals put together the train. A two metal wheels went on the track, and a long wooden pallet made from Bamboo was sort on top. Thin cushions were set on, and we were told to remove our shoes and hop on.

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A motor, which looked like it was from a lawnmower was attached at the back, and the train was ready. I still don’t understand how it functioned fully, as we were able to go at various speeds, bumping along as it went.

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I was looking forward to my ride on the Bamboo train, but ended up feeling a little disappointed by it. The train sped through a very much overgrown countryside. Small gaps in the hedge provided you with some idea of what was around, but the train went to fast that you could barely get your camera out to take a picture.

The ride to the end station took about 30 minutes. We arrived at the end, in the middle of nowhere. A small market was set up, with Children selling bracelets, cold drinks, pants and various other pieces of clothing. We had 10 minutes here, and apart from walking around a small stretch of wasteland, there wasn’t much to do, apart from constantly say no to the Children selling things.

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The train was then put back together, and we were on our way back. A little purposeless really. I think if the area was tidied up a little more and there was a purpose to the train, a better attraction at the end, it would have been good. Still, sitting the idea was creative, yet simple, and very much a different experience.

Third Stop: Phnom Sampeau Temple

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After the train ride, we headed off to the Phnom Sampeau Temple, on a hill. Again we paid another fee of US$3, and walked the 30 minutes to the top. Although it wad about 4pm, it was still very warm.
At the top, a Hindu Temple stood. Its Gold painted exterior glistened in the sun, with a smaller Temple outside in the courtyard. I didn’t go inside, as having seen numerous Temples, I sort of have the view of ‘seen one, seen them all’ (shallow view perhaps, or maybe Angkor Wat was just too much for me!)

The Killing Caves (yes, it is a horrible as it sounds)

Not so long ago in Cambodia, the whole country was virtually wiped out in the Khmer Rouge, and although many people will visit the killing fields near Phnom Penh, which is the largest. Killings took places all over the country.
In Battambang, the cave was used for this purpose. Innocent people were made to march to the top of the hill, and were killed, normally by a blunt instrument, and chucked into the cave.

A small Stupa is erected at the bottom, were remains of people killed are held, a large sleeping Buddha is in the middle. Visiting the killing caves, was a harrowing introduction to what I would later experience in Phnom Penh. I have yet to write about my visit to the Genocidal Museum, and it may take me sometime to reflect on this.

After the caves, we were able to walk a little further up the hill. Along the way, we were pestered by various children, offering us a tour, so that they could earn money to go to school , to speak English. Although we repeatedly said no, they followed us saying ‘Mister, Lady, I give good tour, I need to go to school.’
At the top of the hill, was another small Temple, and an amazing view of the countryside.

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We stopped for a rest, cold drink and took it all in, a good reward for our long walk. A family of monkeys, particularly the cute baby one, kept us amused for a while.

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The Bat Cave
Around 5pm, we made our way to the bottom again, and met our tuk tuk drivers. We were directed to sit on a wall, near the famous bat cave.
A small dark cave on the hillside, looked pretty uninteresting at the start. 10 minutes after sitting down, we started hearing noises, and seeing small black shapes circling inside the caves, like a rocket getting ready to launch. Then, as if an alarm clock had gone off, hundreds of bats flew out of the cave, and overhead, in unison, they moved towards a lake not far from where we were, to feed off the mosquitos.

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It was a great sight to observe, they were huge and hundreds kept flying out.
After our encounter with the bats, we were driven back to the hostel and paid our tuk tuk driver $4 each.
Our evening ended having a good feed of Cambodian food, at a local restaurant, were we met a local Cambodian man, who bought our table three bottles of rice wine. He challenged us to various shots by shouting a Cambodian phrase, which I can only guess meant ‘Cheers!’.

The stuff smelt like it could strip paint off walls, and I had previously tried rice wine in Laos, so avoided this ritual. We later had a craving for something sweet, so found a cute café, called Choco L’art, where we could lie on the floor on cushions, eat chocolate cake, and talk about our travels.
A whistle stop tour of Battambang perhaps, with not the most exciting of nightlife, but with the chance to meet some really cool travellers, who I bumped into again in other parts of SE Asia, and whom I am still in touch with.
If you have time in Cambodia, I’d factor in a visit to this wee city, although it has its share of tourist tack, and possibly not the most authentic of experiences, there is a bit of history there, and cool things to see.

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