To get to Battambang, you can either take a bus for 4 hours, or a boat for 5-12 hours (depending on how often it gets stuck in the mud). Naturally, we chose the boat.
After our boat ride in Myanmar, we were expecting something similar – a nice passenger boat, perhaps with an inside cabin, rows of seats, etc etc. The reality was completely different. Our boat was just long and white, with a row of seats along each side. Fortunately, they were padded! We, along with another couple from the UK, were the first ones there, so we arranged ourselves all at the front of the boat, furthest from the loud motor, and with what we hoped would be the best view to take photos along the way.
The boat quickly filled up with tourists and locals alike, and we were on our way. As it turned out, for most of the ride one or more of the guys working on the boat were sitting directly in front of us, because they had to help navigate and push the boat out of the mud when it got stuck every few minutes. They were pretty nice about at least trying to move to the center so we could take pictures, though.
Stuck in the mud again..
The water was obviously several feet lower than after the rainy season, evidenced both by the banks far above our heads and our motor churning up mud pretty constantly. It was still a really nice ride though – being in the front definitely helped, as we were still in the shade, but had constant breeze cooling us off. Looking back at everyone further in the boat, I think we definitely were lucky to get there first, they didn’t look quite so thrilled to be there… It ended up only taking around 9 hours, which was better than we’d hoped for.
Battambang itself is an interesting town, but there’s not a lot to do. The province is one of the areas of Cambodia with the largest number of unexploded land-mines, so while the area around the town is fine, you can’t just go off hiking into the woods…
Ready for our ride on the bamboo train...
The main attraction as far as we were concerned was the Bamboo train. The locals, wanting to utilize the local train tracks, built extremely portable and easy to disassemble carts that run on the tracks. Whenever a “real” train comes, they unload, take their cart apart, and wait for the train to pass (the current trains come by a few times a week, and go pretty slowly, as the track is in pretty bad shape, so they have plenty of time to see them coming).
Disassembling the "train"
When two carts meet, the one with less people and/or stuff gives way, and both drivers work to quickly take the other cart apart, push the remaining one past, and then reassemble and move on. Unfortunately for the locals, lots of tourists like to take the bamboo train, and at $5/head, the train owners would rather take tourists than locals, so the original use – moving goods around the area – doesn’t really exist anymore. Even more unfortunately for the locals, the whole track is being replaced in the very near future by a new, higher-speed system, and it will be illegal to use the bamboo carts, so both the tourism and the local transportation will be cut off once that gets finished. The ride itself was fine – we went about 20 minutes in one direction, then stopped for what was supposed to be around 20 minutes so locals could try to sell us cold drinks and everything else under then sun, and then came back to where we started, where the drivers asked for even more money because it was such a hard job. I do feel pretty bad for them, that they’re all losing out soon on what appeared to be the main source of income for the area, but still, we paid $10 for a 40 minute ride on a bamboo platform, and weren’t really inclined to give more.
The view from our sweet ride...
After the train ride, we headed out into the Battambang countryside. Our tuk tuk driver was pretty awesome- he’d clearly learned quite a bit of english from watching movies, and repeated random lines exactly like they were said in the films, so he just sounded like a really confused Brit/Australian/dude from the hood. He learned english “on the street, bro”, repeated phrases like “O. M. G.!” and “W.T.F.?” just like a teenage girl would say them, and told us several things were “bloody awesome, man!” We had fun with him, other than his random phrases, his english was quite good and he was able to give us a lot of information about the area.
We saw some temples, and went to the killing caves – an expectedly depressing place. We had to hire motorcycles to take us to the top of a very steep hill, which was scary enough in itself as our drivers were around 13 and a huge rainstorm was threatening to explode overhead… The caves were near a now-temple, then-prison that the Khmer Rouge kept hundreds of prisoners in, and then separated them, either chopped their necks with a bamboo pole (the adults) or slammed their heads against rocks (the babies), and then threw down into caves to let them die. There are memorials in the caves (you can walk down into them now), with skulls and bones from some of those who died. The whole thing was such a horrific time in history, there really aren’t even words to describe the places and the legacy. After the caves, we headed back to town, and decided we were done with Cambodia for this trip- we’d planned on possibly going down to Phnom Penh and seeing the killing fields and the museums, but confirmation that a friend was arriving in a few days in Bangkok made that itinerary pretty tight, and we were sufficiently depressed to just honestly not want to go see all of that so soon.
Seriously good nachos...
The brightest part of the day was dinner, at Gecko Cafe, in Battambang. Like many restaurants, it’s sort of an NGO/charity, and when we sat down, we got a card with our waitress and cooks’ names, and then a sheet that introduced us to everyone who worked there. Many were girls from the country who were supporting large families, many had no families and were trying to pay for school- the restaurant was set up to provide a good wage and training for the girls to make a better life. This was all nice, but the best part was the food. They had a promotion where all margaritas were $2, so we had some tasty pineapple and watermelon margaritas, and I had some really fantastic nachos (seriously, they were good, and you could tell a lot of thought went into the ingredients and the preparation! and homemade chips!), and Tony had a delicious blue-cheese hamburger! It wasn’t cheap – we spent around $20, but it was worth it. Service was good, food was great, everyone was super friendly. Definitely a must-visit if you make it to Battambang.