Battembang hadn’t been on our radar until pretty much the day before we went there. It’s kind of on the way to Phnom Penh and having heard a few good things about it, we decided to tear ourselves away from Caryl and Paul’s place in Siem Reap and head towards Battembang via a very beautiful 3ish hour bus ride.
When our bus pulled into what felt like a totally deserted bus stand, we were quite shocked by the amount of hustling from the rickshaw drivers who were waiting to take visitors to their hotels. Keen drivers were literally climbing onto the bus to try to get a customer. It wasn’t aggressive, but it was uncomfortable and overwhelming. Arriving outside of peak season meant that our custom was desperately needed by the drivers. So competitive were the drivers that they were actually offering free rides into town (we did of course pay our guy anyway). All of the hotels in Battembang are pretty much the same and are in the same sort of area, so no point wasting time making much of a decision about it. Incidentally we stayed at Royal Hotel and it was perfectly fine. Nothing spesh. We took up the offer of a lift from a man called Phi Lay who, on the way to our hotel, wowed us with his impressive guestbook which was full of heartfelt messages and recommendations from travellers from all over the world. He explained to us that he had lived through the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and would be able to give us an honest and firsthand account of the region’s dark history. He seemed like a kind and gentle guy so we agreed to spend the next day with him.
Sure enough, the next morning Phi Lay was waiting for us outside our hotel at 9am on the dot, eager to take us out and show us his home town.
Our first stop was the main food market. Unfortunately this was absolutely full of very unpleasant sights of dead, half dead and fully living creatures. We saw everything from sacks full of dead bats to live ducks being trodden on by busy shoppers. Dead snakes lay slopped in baskets next to what we were told was a skinned baby tiger.
While not wishing to offend any locals for whom this kind of thing was totally normal, I kept my head down and tried to breathe in as little as possible. Not long into the walk of death, we told Phi Lay that we didn’t eat meat. He said neither did he really and proceeded to give us the much shorter version of the tour.
The next stop of our trip was to the world (?) famous bamboo train. If nothing else, this experience was unique. The bamboo train or “nori”, as it is locally known, was created as a solution to the lack of available transport for lugging goods around back in the 1980s. It gave the local people who were struggling to rebuild their lives after the rule of Khmer Rouge, a means of transporting produce, products and people at a low cost.
Each nori is made up of a big wooden frame with wooden slats running across it, made from bamboo. This sits on a set of wheels which, by the power of a gasoline engine can cruise along the rail track at a whopping 10 or so miles an hour.
As we bounded through the countryside along the single track, we noticed another train ahead, coming towards us. Hilariously, when we came head to head, we were told to jump off so our driver could disassemble our train to allow the other to pass! Once they were out of sight, he then reassembled the nori and we set off again. This happened a number of times. Sometimes we let other people pass, sometimes they let us pass.
We eventually made it to the other side, doing our best to avoid the swarms of flies that were smacking into our eyes and mouths…
…and were greeted by several sellers desperate to make a sale. After being harassed by one family, we took refuge at the stall of a quiet lady who gave us snacks and sold us drinks, before heading back the way we came.
While scouring google to get the correct spelling of our next destination, I was surprised to discover that it isn’t a particularly popular place to visit and is in fact one of the lesser known sites, albeit a fascinating one. Wat Samrong Knong, which is just outside of the city, is home to a genocide memorial stupa, known as the Well of Shadows. It was at this site that the Khmer Rouge murdered 10,000 innocent people as part of their sick regime.
Around the bottom of the stupa, the horrendous acts are depicted in beautiful yet truly harrowing bas-relief. The engravings are accompanied by detailed explanations in English of what exactly the victims endured here.
Phi Lay also shared his own personal experiences of his forced labour during Polpot’s rule. Urban residents, including Phi Lay and his family were driven out of their home towns and forced to live and work in the fields under extremely harsh conditions. He shared stories of being worked almost to death, while friends and family both died and disappeared around him. He also spoke of only being allowed a spoonful of soup each day and having to eat leeches to avoid starvation while being forced to work for 12 hours a day, doing exhausting manual labour in the blistering heat. He told us of a time when he became very sick for several weeks. For many people who showed signs of weakness out on the field, their fate was certain death. Not of course before they had been forced to dig their own graves. By some miracle, Phy Lai was spared. This link provides a concise and heartbreaking insight into just how awful the conditions were in the working camps.We observed the hundreds of skulls and bones of the regime’s victims that can be seen through the glass of the stupa and wondered how on earth we had gone through our whole lives without really knowing anything about what happened in Cambodia only 40 or so years ago. Any Cambodians over the age of 40 would have lived through the regime and suddenly we began to look at those around us with different eyes, as we imagined the weight of the sorrow that so many of them must have been carrying. We also felt overwhelmed by the strength of the Cambodian people who over only a few decades had manage to rebuild their lives and their country.Our next visit was to Phnom Sampeou, which is about 7 miles southwest of Battembang. Phnom Sampeou is a big mountain with a beautiful temple at the top and stunning views of the surrounding countryside. On the way we stopped off to get some fresh spring rolls and learned how rice paper is made, as well as stopping in on a family who were making dried banana.
As well as being home to beautiful temples, statues and 360 degree views, Phnom Sampeou is also home to the Khmer Rouge killing caves. It was here that victims of the regime were horrifically bludgeoned to death before being thrown into a hole and into a huge cave. Bodies in one cave and clothes in another. Absolutely horrific.To get up the mountain, we hopped on the back of a motorbike and held on for dear life. Our driver first dropped us off at the temple. There were monkeys everywhere.To get to the caves, we followed the path past an unusual and haunting display of sculptures which depicted bloody scenes of people being murdered and tortured.The inside of the killing cave has now been turned into a beautiful memorial with a huge gold reclining Buddha. There’s also a shrine as well as a glass case containing bones and skulls of those killed there. As many Cambodians believe joy to be the only antidote to sorrow, Cambodian tourists can often be found singing and taking pictures. From the caves we followed another path which led us to a set of beautiful Buddhist statues looking out across the countryside.We were then taken by bike up to the very top of the mountain where we looked around some more gorgeous temples and admired the peaceful view of the setting sun. There was no time to hang around once the sun had begun to disappear as we had a date with some bats. Every night at the same time, millions and millions of bats can been seen emerging from a cave at the bottom of the mountain. We made our way down and waited with a beer for the bat show to commence. Sure enough a couple of bats emerged. Then a couple more and then like some kind of magic, a never-ending trail of them stretched across the sky. For about 20 minutes a continuous stream of bats all headed out for their nightly adventure. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
Our day out with Phi Lay had been wonderful, informative and moving. We did however have a real desire to get under the skin of Battembang and to visit some of the lesser known places where there were no tourists. Places where we could observe real life without intruding. We asked Phi Lay whether he could take us around for another day, showing us these kinds of things and he was more than happy to.
We ate lots of delicious food in Battembang and although we weren’t spoilt for choice, there were more than enough yummy options at Jaan Bai and Monorom Garden (second and third pics below). Our absolute favourite though, was Ambrosia cafe (first pic below).
Our first stop the next day was a clay oven factory. We were able to see all the different stages involved in making the clay ovens that are used in most Cambodian kitchens. It was so interesting but shocking to see how hard people were working for such a minimal amount of money. The lady in the picture below gets paid a few pence for every one of these oven parts that she makes.
Our next stop was an absolute delight. A family run brick factory where we were able to see the inner workings of the place as well as making some super sweet new friends. Unusually, our next stop was a plastic recycling centre. Not like the recycling centres we have at home, but a place where plastic gets recycled nonetheless.Although it may sound like a slightly boring place to visit, this was one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking places we saw that day. A sea of plastic bottles surrounded women who had the unthinkably repetitive jobs of peeling off their labels, taking off the lids and crushing them before throwing them into large sacks.
Seeing some of the country’s poorest people who were totally dependent on the waste plastic that we try so hard not to create kind of messed with our heads. Chickens dogs and babies wandered through the sea of waste and in and out of their tiny ramshackle huts. In most cases we were welcomed with warm and loving smiles. There was however one kid who had apparently never seen a foreigner before. When she spotted Tom it scared the life out of her. Our final stop for the day was to a small village on the river. Phi Lay had visited many times before and suggested we stop off and buy sweets for the kids as they were very poor and he knew they’d be chuffed. We’d been torn about buying gifts for underprivileged kids in the past, for fear of undermining their parents, but Phi Lay assured us that everyone would be happy so we bought some hideously fluorescent orange candies and headed over. The kids did indeed greet us with bundles of joy and laughter and even when all the sweeties were gone, our new little buddies were eager to play and hang out.
Adorably, before we left, Phi Lay treated the kids to a ride in his rickshaw which was met with pure glee. The sound of laughter from the kids is one we’ll never forget.