Battambang is a quaint city in the northwestern part of Cambodia, the second largest in the country, is often referred to as the Creative Capital. Spanning less than 115 sq. miles and home to only about 200k habitants most travelers overlook Battambang for the ever popular Siem Reap. But I urge you to also spend AT LEAST a few days here, it’ll be worth the while. Battambang has a history rich in both glory and and sadness, a reoccurring theme in most southeastern Asian countries I came to realize. I spent a couple of days here, one of them bedridden due to food poisoning, the others spent exploring nearby with a new gang of peeps.
I recommend doing a city-wide tour as it’s the best way to get around and also to meet people, both local and backpackers. My hostel had a couple of tours to choose from, all varying in their locations and lengths so you really can pick what works best for you. One tip when you’re choosing though is this: pick something with a break in the middle of the day. Cambodia was THE HOTTEST country I encountered during my entire five months away, it gets brutally hot here. Needless to say I ended up going with a one day split tour, early morning then a break midday and resume in the late afternoon.
We were picked up in a tuk-tuk bright and early the next morning with a friendly driver. The idea was to do all that we can in that morning’s cool weather before we’re baked to a crisp later. Our guide sans introduction gave us the run down for the day:
- Tour a sweet rice production
- Visit the Well of Shadows
- Tour a fish sauce plant
- Tour a rice paper mill
- Bamboo Train ride
- Visit the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau
- Battambang Bat Caves
- Mountainside Sunset
With an agenda that long you’re going to need ALL DAY!
Sweet Rice Production
Our first stop was a roadside stand where we talked to a few nice ladies already hard at work. They were taking hallowed out sugar canes and filling them with a mixture of rice, coconut and beans. Once packed they were places over a bed of piping hot coals and roasted until the rice was cooked, the beans soft and the smell of coconut permeated through the sugar cane.
After a rundown lesson of how to open the sugar cane shell we got to sample a couple. I definitely had one too many bites of it, my belly being the telltale sign. This is a favorite among the kiddies as it’s both hearty, because of the rice and beans, and also sweet from the coconut. All you morning sweet tooth out there should give this a try with your coffee next time.
Well of Shadows
6 kilometres north of Battambang, on the east side of the Sangkar River laid the Khmer Rouge memorial known as the Well of Shadows. The name alone sent a bone chilling cold down my spine. An estimated 10,000 people were brutally murdered here, the memorial standing before us a relic to that time. It is laden with the remains of victims who could not be identified, souls that were never properly laid to rest. I will be honest that I have never in my life seen so many human remains in one singular place, for a second time.
We spent as much time as possible here, as with all memorials in this country. My cohorts and I were soaking in the past, reading everything written on the walls, gawking at all the paintings laid out in all the buildings, learning.
To do any less is to forget the past altogether.
It’s almost deja vu like – that eerie feeling. This experience (along with many others) kept me grounded and appreciative, not that it should, but you can’t help but feel it.
Fish Sauce Factory Tour
Before our next destination I warned my companions that what they are about to smell will haunt them forever, they didn’t believe me one bit. You see they’re of western European descent and have never really witnessed proper fish sauce production before so they had no idea what to expect. At very first glance the oversize stone barrels may look harmless, but once the kind gentleman tossed the lid aside a plethora of SMELLS fumigated the immediate area.
I love the stench of fish sauce in the morning, it’ll put hairs on your chest.
The process is simple: gather up your fish (usually anchovies) of choice, have plenty of salt, water, and add together in a barrel, either stone or wood. Let it sit and ferment for a period of time. I will warn you if you have a weak stomach then seeing the fermentation period mid cycle before it’s ready can make a person sick. For my nose and stomach it was a scent I’m all too familiar with so no issues here. It was nice to see things still made the old fashioned way under a watchful eye without the use of technology.
How to Make Rice Paper
I was very interested as a young lad to see how this process was done as I’ve used tens of thousands of rice papers while working at my parent’s noodle shop. The setup was simple and modest: a two person operation next to a HOT, HOT FIRE. A round stone sits near the fire, collecting its heat, as one person pours a ladle of the milled rice mixture into a thin film atop it. Next she covers it with a lid, let it sit for less than a minute during which time she prepares the next stone. Once she finishes step number one on stone number two she lifts the lid of stone number one and with a chopsticks pull off the cooked rice paper and lays it on a bamboo hanger.
Watching her work with such simple tools so quickly I was lost in a trance.
The second person then transfer the still hot rice paper to a cooling rack. You can see rows upon rolls of them lined up to be cooled into the all familiar circular shape my fingers know too well. On the cooling station I noticed a cross section between the weaves on the rack, these indentations on the rice paper are leftovers from the weaves! For my entire life I have wondered where this came from. Mystery solved!
Reuben took a few bites out of the rice paper, but no one bothered telling him it’s hard and tasteless when not dipped in hot water, ha.
Battambang Bamboo Train
After our midday break we headed back out into the cooler afternoon (I am lying, it’s still wretched outside) towards this old rail road track built by the Dutch. I kept hearing things about an old bamboo train ride and it peaked my curiosity so much I had to go see it. In my mind I thought of something grand, large, magnificent, I mean it WAS built by the Dutch after all!
Well another mystery solved: turned out to be a PLATFORM made from bamboo that was powered by a weed wacker motor sitting on two rail axles. This was THE TRAIN spoken in hush circles from the common areas of backpack hostels all over the city and I couldn’t be happier to ride it!
Riding without anything to protect you from falling out poses its dangers, but also comes with a set of thrills. Be careful not to stray too far off the side because falling off of this surely WILL HURT YOU. Our operator fired up his tiny motor, buzzing it to life, and we were off, zipping down these abandoned tracks at breakneck speeds.
The ride to a little village nearby presented an opportunity to cool down with winds rushing by, as cool as a day in Cambodia can be. One thought didn’t escape me the entire time: what happens if someone came the other way? I soon got my answer when I saw another platform approach in the opposite direction!
ahh a perfect game of chicken is about to ensue.
Don’t fret as your life is in good hands. When this happens both operators slow their platforms to a stop, preferably before crashing head-on. One will have all their riders dismount and then the two operators would DISASSEMBLE one platform so the other can pass through. This was totally unexpected and GENIUS on their part. The action was performed in less than five minutes and after we we’re on our merry way once more!
The Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau
The Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau is situated 7 miles southwest of the city where many acts of atrocity took place during the Khmer Rouge. The place’s history is like that of many I have mentioned throughout my series on Cambodia: sad but a real reality. The Khmer Rouge killed their victims on top of the cave at the rim of a daylight shaft or ceiling hole and then threw the dead body into the cave. Often times though the victim would still be alive, only to suffer a long and agonizing death.
Seeing the staircase that led to the cavern of the cave makes you wonder how many souls were tossed aside in here, left for dead. I made my way to the bottom and was overcome with such a heavy feeling on my chest that I almost couldn’t breath. Even the air was heavy, but that could’ve been due to the damp cave or all of the death that surrounded it. You feel the heaviest of all human emotions when you’re down there. Once a place where thousands of bodies laid was now home to a donation box, a desk, and one caretaker.
We’re fortunate enough to be able walk up the same steps unscathed when for many it was the last glimmer of light they’d ever see.
Battambang Bat Cave
When it starts to become dusk at the mountain you will be greeted with another flying mammal, or should I say a few thousand of them. After descending the mountain to the base you can witness a colony of bats exiting the heart of the cave for their evening hunt. The site is quite mesmerizing, nothing I’ve ever seen before, to see a colony of thousands strong emerging from the dark, damp caverns.
The base is loaded with shops and as you can guess a lot of tourist like us. Our guide, bless his soul, told us to hustle to the tuk-tuk as he knew of a better vantage point to catch the flock exiting. We went around the backside of the mountain and ended up sneaking through a cut chain-link fence. After a short hike up the side of the hill we found ourselves sitting westward facing, with a magnificent view and a few dozen of our closest friends.
The sun was just starting to set, the jungle glowing below, the bats flying in a choreographed dance, while traditional Khmer wedding music played in the background. What better way to end the day with another adventure in the books and another sunset evening to enjoy.
Battambang really treated me right in my book, despite catching a stomach bug. You will encounter locals smiling ear to ear, eager to lend a helping hand with suggestions on what to eat, directions if you’re lost, or just to say Hello. Never knowing what you can find in this country is something I was learning daily.
Come here, indulge in the people, the food, and some of the most beautiful mountainside sunsets in you will ever get to see in your life.