After a week in Siem Reap visiting the Angkor Temples and getting involved in other things the town has to offer, we were ready to hit the road again. But instead of making a beeline straight to Phnom Penh, as favoured by a lot of travellers, we wanted to take things a bit slower as we had decided on spending two months in Cambodia. So a quick look at the map showed Battambang, another large town, was not too far away.
Our guesthouse, Home Sweet Home, organised a cheap bus for us from Siem Reap to Battambang, including a pick up from the guesthouse to the bus station on the outskirts of town – all for just US$4 each, bargain! We were doubly glad when a Sorya bus rocked up at the station for us…they don’t (usually) stink of stale sweat and piss and they don’t cram 8 people where 2 should sit, result!
Anyway, we made it to Battambang after a 4 hour trip, with some short stops at the usual depressing, hell on earth toilet and road side cafe combos. Luckily enough a tuk tuk guy was waiting at the bus stop holding up a sign for our hostel, Here Be Dragons and so we jumped in and were at the hostel with minimal fuss. Emily had found the hostel’s website from a quick look online and had booked ahead by email before we left Siem Reap…and what a find!
A big, comfortable and clean bunk bed in a six person dorm for US$3 each per night is hard to beat. It’s even harder to beat when you factor in everything else on offer. There’s a large roof terrace where you can hang out or do weekly pilates, a cool garden area where you can lose yourself in a hammock or comfy chair with a drink or a book, and they put on regular pub quizzes and BBQ’s in the garden too. The pub itself is massive, has an array of drinks and beers, is pretty cheap and plays really good music, which you can choose yourself…if you ask nice!
All that said, the best thing about Here Be Dragons is the staff. The Cambodian staff working there can sort out everything from Cambodian and Vietnamese visas to cooking the creamy and thick Cambodian curry to sorting out transportation for days out in the countryside. One of the woman who works there is married to a tuk tuk guy, called DJ, who turns up almost in a plume of smoke he’s that fast when called upon!
The western staff, while just being as hard-working as the Cambodians, supplied us with some of our most entertaining nights on our travels yet. Whether it was Frankie, the wonderful Aussie barmaid’s turn, or Jen’s and Ferg’s (the English couple who own the place) time to partake, there was always someone behind the bar to drink and talk shit with way into the small hours and past the first light of dawn! It was all great craic, although it was my first time all night drinking since I had briefly given up booze before travelling, so the days after the night before were a bit of a write off indeed! I had to spend hours in a hammock listening to Neil Young on my ipod, drinking fruit shakes and eating sausage baguettes to nurse myself back to health (those baguettes are not to be missed by the way).
We did manage to get over our hangovers though at some point to explore a bit more of Battambang…
The city of Battambang is decent enough for a stroll around but we didn’t find anything there, our hostel aside, that’s worth shouting from the hills about. You can take a pleasant walk along the riverbank with its well-kept gardens and rest areas and people watch as loads of Cambodians mill about exercising and socialising in the evening. Although be warned, they like to do this in the darkness of 5am as well, blaring aerobics music up and down the riverside!
The town has the obligatory central market selling the usual stuff. On the plus side though it is not very touristy, compared to say the markets in Siem Reap, so that makes for a less pressured window shopping experience. We found a few good food joints in town – the cleverly named, Smokin Pot, standing out for me, which does cooking classes too. Apparently there are some cool art galleries and places to have a drink if you look close enough, although we ran out of time unfortunately.
No worries though, we got what we came for – to ride the Bamboo Train and stand close enough to smell the shit from the millions of bats flying overhead at Phnom Sampeau…
You can arrange a tuk tuk for US$10-12 to take you out from around 2pm to 7pm to hit up the Bamboo Train in O’Dambong village then on to Phnom Sampeau. If you share with three others, that’s feck all for a great day out.
Extra costs: the Bamboo Train costs US$5 per person and we gave a half-dollar tip to the driver between the two of us; a tip is customary given that the driver earns a pittance while likely the Tourist Police pocket most of the proceeds. At Phnom Sampeau, its free to watch the bats at dusk given the cave is at the bottom of the mountain, although to climb up the mountain to the temples costs US$2 per person (and that also gets you entry to Wat Banan, a type of Angkor Wat near Battambang). Also, we got to the mountain quite late about 4.30pm and so to make sure that we got back down to the bat cave for dusk around 5.30pm we paid for a moto to drive us up and down the mountain, although an Aussie girl we were with expertly haggled the moto guys down from US$4 to US$2 per person – cheers, wherever you are!
Tip: learn from our mistake and try to get to the mountain for 3.30pm or before so you have time to climb up and back down again, that is if you want to save money and have more of an adventure!
As you can see, the Bamboo Train is just that – a rickety sheet of bamboo precariously perched on top of a four train wheels, with a spluttering engine to power it! It may not look like much, but in the hard days of struggling to rebuild the country after the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge, the Bamboo Train, or Norry as its called by the locals, was an ingenious, cheap and reliable transport solution when the roads were f*%ked and there were few other ways to ship people and things about. If two trains approach each other from different directions on the same track, like happened with us several times, one train just unloads its cargo and passengers and dismantles with ease, leaving the other train free to pass, and then reassembles and is on its way – simples!
The train itself went about 30km per hour which is fast enough, especially considering you’re low to the ground, the terrain is damn bumpy, the jerky train tracks would be shut down as a health hazard back home and you have no seat belt! You settle in quickly though to the rhythm of the train and take in the sprawling countryside, laugh as another train approaches wondering how they’ll deal with this pickle and then marvel at the speed of the dismantling and reassemble process. After about 20 minutes or so you reach the end of the tracks, a village called O Sra Lav. This village gets a lot of bad press from travellers, as it’s basically a stop for 15 minutes for the locals to use various tactics to get money from you. I had one pushy woman trying to sell me vests, but it was no worse than any other tourist site, and her son gave me this little cricket thing made of grass for free (although I did buy a couple of drinks for a dollar). So I have fond memories of the place. I think that if you go on something like the Bamboo Train which is now essentially a tourist fun-ride, save the odd Cambodian jumping on to save themselves a short walk, in the midst of these people going about their normal lives, we need to grow up and expect them to try to sell us stuff, like anywhere else you go to do such overtly tourist activities.
After the short wait, you jump back on and head back to the start. We would definitely recommend it as a light-hearted, fun way to spend an afternoon, although our Belgian friend, Kurt, whom we met in Phnom Penh, wants to tell you otherwise…check out his video:
If you like that, he’s got many more offbeat reviews of destinations around the globe and you can find him, Dripadvizer Krrrt, on youtube!
About half an hour’s drive from the Bamboo Train lies Phnom Sampeau. The main attractions up the mountain are:
The Killing Caves, where the Khmer Rouge killed over 10,000 people with very gruesome methods. There are lots of skulls of the dead kept there in the golden Buddhist shrine you can see below (although in our haste, we missed those! not cool). It’s quite an eerie place when you think about its history, especially as its set against the backdrop of the beautiful scenery all around…
The temple at the top of the mountain, is a Buddhist templecomplex with great viewing platforms to take in the surrounding countryside. Although a word of warning, the monkeys there are cheeky little chaps who can get aggressive if you are silly enough to walk around with food on show – they will snatch it off you! There’s some out of action military stuff up there too…
The Bat Cave
Throngs of people turn up every day at dusk to watch the spectacle of millions of bats fly out from a huge cave high the wall of the mountains. They fly out to the rice fields to eat the insects that feed on the rice and so the locals love them! The way the bats move in unison is hypnotic, like a snake they twist and wind in one long column far above the countryside. I think that nature always provides the most memorable experiences, as we witness events so far removed from our lives back home and this was no exception, which I thought about as darkness settled in the tuk tuk journey home.
Check it out for yourself, on our (apologies, very amateur) video below…
There are other things to do in Battambang like visiting Wat Banan, or going to the Cambodian Circus (similar to the one we mentioned in our Siem Reap post) or simply renting a bike and exploring the countryside – although be careful where you tread, a lot of landmines still litter the area!
Cheers for reading