April 18, 2015 – April 20, 2015
After tackling the New Years crowds and the heat to see the ruins of Angkor Wat, we left Siem Reap behind and headed further west to our next destination in Cambodia, Battambang. The city of Battambang at first glance appears to be a scruffy city, dirty, crowded, and woefully uninteresting, but we soon discovered beneath the surface, many hidden jewels. We would get to experience more village life, take another great cooking class, see a million bats and ride some old train rails at breakneck speeds while sitting a piece of bamboo, and I got Krista and Bre to eat a rat!
Battambang is about four hours from Siem Reap by bus. The bus stops in a fairly desolate part of town, devoid of anything interesting alongside a road which looks nothing like a bus stop except for a half dozen tuk-tuk’s vying for your business. We found a pleasant tuk-tuk driver to take us into town, where the impression of the city picks up a bit. The downtown portion of the city is cut in half by a river with a greenbelt and walking trails built along either side, giving it a much more inviting appearance.
After reaching our hotel and reviewing the business card our tuk tuk driver gave us, we realized our tuk-tuk driver is actually the same person who is teaching our cooking class the next day. While not teaching a class he doubles as a tuk-tuk driver for some extra income. We gave him a call and arranged for him to pick us up later that afternoon to see a spectacle the city is well known for, the bat caves. In the meantime, we were hungry and had a meal at the hotel restaurant.
Battambang Bat Caves
About 45 minutes out of town in a clump of otherwise un-noteworthy hills, you can find several caves which are home to around 3 million bats, and each and every evening like clockwork right before sunset, the bats fly out of their caves in a long string of bats. We pulled up just before it started at a cave that was less well known and climbed a hill a short distance to the entrance, just as the first bats were beginning to fly out. First a few, then a dozen, then hundreds and thousands of bats fly out in a long continuous stream. It takes about and hour and a half to two hours for the caves to empty out. They also fly continuously and unerringly straight out of the cave in a long uninterrupted line, meaning you can stand right next to it. On one side of you will be no bats at all, and just a few feet the other direction a constant stream of tens of thousands of them. They seemed not to notice anyone as they come flying out and not a single one swerved in our direction or bothered us. We snapped a few pictures and I tried to take a few videos, while our tuk-tuk driver went and captured one in his hands and brought it over to show us up close.
On the way to and from the bat caves, we noticed lots of people standing along the side of the road, or riding in cars, car trunks or on motorbikes with water balloons in their hands. It turns out that pegging drivers, and passengers in tuk tuks with water balloons is a tradition around New Years. We watched many motorcycle drivers get hit with water balloons and even got hit by a few ourselves. Bre almost got hit in the head but it nailed our driver, Sambath, instead. Krista got one on the leg and lastly my luck dodging balloons ran out and I took one square in the chest. Luckily it was hot outside and we didn’t mind getting wet. Everyone either throwing the balloons or getting hit does so with a big smile, it seems none of it is done in anger or spite and everyone we saw had a good humor about it.
We have both enjoyed taking the cooking classes we have found along the way on this trip, so we signed up for a Cambodian cooking class before we arrived. We took the class offered by the Sambath Home Cooking School (Sambath coincidently was the tuk-tuk driver who picked us up from the bus). Sambath and his wife teach the class, she does most of the cooking, and since her English is not good Sambath translates and answers questions. This was our fifth cooking class on our trip, and was a good one, it had a good mixture of hands on and watching the expert (Sambath’s wife) and like the others after the class is over you get to eat everything, and in case you weren’t paying close enough attention, there is a cookbook to take home with all the recipes mentioned in the class.
A short distance out of the town you will find a small unassuming complex next to a very old rail line. Here you can ride the rails, not on a proper train but a bamboo platform which is dropped down on top of two loose train axles, a small lawnmower sized engine sits on top of the bamboo platform and a rubber belt loops around the rail axle and around the engine’s axle. The whole train can be dismantled and put back together again in about a minute. Which is good because there is no where to “turn off” or get out of the way if another bamboo train is coming your way. When they meet both trains stop and one party will dismount and dismantle their train in about 30 seconds and reassemble it on the other side. Typically the train with more people gets to stay on the rails and go by, but in the case of a tie (equal number of passengers) the ancient tradition of rock-paper-scissors will often decide. The rails have not been particularly well maintained, so they appear to wobble up and down and side to side as you ride along at ever increasing speeds. The bamboo train will sometimes ride up on one side, drop down suddenly and lurch and jump at the gaps between rails, making the ride a bit bumpy and unnerving at times, especially as the speed just seems to increase more and more. It was great fun, though perhaps not for the faint of heart. We had a great time taking pictures along the rails, though they don’t properly show the speed we were traveling, our ‘engineer’ even photo bombed us in one picture.
Countryside, Temples and Krista and Bre ate a Rat!
On our last full day in Battambang we had our tuk-tuk driver/cooking class instructor, Sambath pick us up for a tour of the countryside. We explored several temples, stopped by a local house to see how rice paper was made, and we enjoyed some non-traditional cuisine. Temples old and new are scattered all over the country, it is hard not to bump into one. Sambath took us to a few of his favorites, the more unique and photogenic ones.
After visiting several temples we stopped at a local’s house to watch rice paper being made, specifically the circular kind used to wrap spring rolls.
Somewhere along the way I spotted someone barbequeing something which smelled amazing alongside the road. I mentioned it to Sambath, and asked what was being cooked up. We stopped and walked over to find a grill filled with small pieces of meat cooking over charcoal. I asked what it was and he said it was rat, and bought one. He then asked if I wanted to try some. It smelled delicious which I found intriguing so I agreed, and I can tell you truthfully, barbequed rat tasted amazing! It tasted like perfectly roasted chicken. I was so impressed with it, and convincing enough that the girls decided to try it as well, Bre had a bite and Krista too, they both agreed it was good, but didn’t eat any more than a bite. So we all found rat to be surprisingly good. Sambath later told us that the rats were often better to eat than chickens, as the chickens eat dirty junk from ditches and gutters around town, while the rats eat fresh clean rice from the fields.
Sambath made a great cooking class instructor and tour driver, one of our favorite on this trip. He shared a bunch of funny stories with us, including one about the drivers in Cambodia. We asked whether their were any rules as motorcycles seem to drive around with drivers of all ages, with helmets or without and sometimes up to five people squeezing on. Apparently there is a driving age of 18, which is apparently ignored, and there is a helmet law, though it is only enforced in large cities, if at all. As to the number of passengers it is in fact illegal to have more than two people on one motorbike, but he told us when a cop tries to pull someone over for having too many passengers they just wave back at him and say “Sorry can’t stop for you, there’s no more room” and drive off.
In case you’re wondering if there are a lot of accidents, there are. There was one intersection in Battambang we drove through twice, and both times we witnessed two motorcycles hitting each other and ending in a pile of bikes and people (as each bike had multiple people on it). Thankfully, they weren’t traveling very fast and everyone got up and looked to be okay. Seeing a motorcycle fall over, whether in an accident with another, or just on its own as it went around a corner was almost a daily sight in Cambodia.
Visiting a Cambodian Household
One of our good friends in Seattle is Cambodian, and has family in Battambang. While talking via Skype our last morning in Battambang, she suggested we pay her uncle and cousin a visit. We asked Sambath to work the family visit into our tour for the day, and he even served as translator between us and our friend’s relatives. It was fun for us to meet her family, see a real Cambodian household, and taste the amazing grapefruit grown in their backyard, which did not look or taste like any grapefruit the three of us had ever eaten.
Our final evening in Battambang, we hired Sambath one last time to be our driver to and from the local circus. Created by a non-profit organization, vulnerable children and teens participate in arts schools and other activities. The circus is a product of the performing arts school. The admission price of US $14 may be steep by Cambodian standards, but all the money goes towards supporting this good cause, and you will be amazed at how engaging and talented these young performers are.
After our final goodbye to Sambath, we woke up the next morning and headed back to Phnom Penh via bus. Originally we had planned to go to the beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia before flying out of Phnom Penh. However, traveling from Battambang to Sihanoukville requires going through Phnom Penh, and given our busy schedule in Cambodia we all decided the extra bus journeys weren’t worth the short amount of time we would have spent at the beach. So instead of the beach, we spent our time in Phnom Penh at the hotel pool, drinking coconuts as well as the occasional beer or cocktail. On Bre’s final evening we took her to a fancy restaurant, and she ended up with food poisoning later that night. Needless to say, she was ready to head home after that. We sadly said goodbye as Bre climbed in her taxi to the airport. We are so thankful you came to share in our adventures Bre, we had a blast with you in Cambodia!
While Bre was heading home to Seattle, our journey was continuing. We were headed back to Thailand for the third time.