We left Phnom Penh by ‘taxi’ for a four hour drive to Battambang which I think turned out to be a policeman driving us in his own car of which the lining of the boot was held together with duct tape! It was a pleasant drive through mostly rural farm land, passing through the odd village. We saw school children on their bicycles, tractors pulling huge haystacks, so many people crammed into a minibus that they were literally hanging out of the back, people sitting on the top of trucks, cows wandering by the roadside and motorbike trailers piled so high with stuff you wonder how they don’t lose their load. It was our first fascinating glimpse of rural life in Cambodia and what a beautiful country it is.
Battambang is about half way between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and although it is a major city there was a noticeable change of pace from Phnom Penh and had a more laid back feel. We stayed three nights in the Royal Hotel which was walking distance from everywhere and had a nice roof terrace and hot tub which we took advantage of. Nearby there was a big local market selling everything from fresh groceries to clothing to jewellery, with many of the vendors hand-making their wares in the stalls. The girls enjoyed watching a man carefully set precious stones in a ring, but they were less impressed by the smelly seafood department! We found a few very good cafe restaurants, some of which were not-for-profit organisations that helped to support disadvantaged or disabled local people.
We took a 45 mins tuk tuk drive to visit Phnom Sampeau a huge limestone outcrop that stands out against the flood plains. Around halfway up the hill there is a killing cave in which people were brutally put to death under the Khmer Rouge. There is a reclining Buddha and a memorial there now to remember those that died. We continued to the top of the hill where there is a temple and fabulous views. We adopted a 12 year old guide who was keen to practice his English and protect us from the cheeky (and apparently vicious) monkeys that live there. Back down at the bottom of the hill we stopped to watch the daily sunset phenomenon of bats pouring out of a cave in the side of the cliff face. The tiny bats made quite a racket as they departed in search of food. Although we didn’t count them I’d say the official estimate of 2 million bats is probably accurate!
The following day we tried to rent bicycles but couldn’t find any suitable for the children so we changed the plan for a tuk tuk outing instead. Our first stop was a temple which was used as a prison during the Khmer Rouge and another killing field with memorial. There was a moving tribute to the people that died, but also a pledge to move on from the shadows of the past and make the country great again. A reminder for me to stop dwelling on my feelings and enjoy Cambodia for the amazing country it is today. We moved on and crossed some rickety-looking bridges to Wat Ek Phnom a partly collapsed temple which has been taken over by nature and was fun to explore. Along the way we stopped at a fish sauce factory. We watched as the workers effortlessly sliced whole fish up into evenly-sized strips which were then carefully laid out in rows and left to dry in the sun. We passed a similar set-up but this time thin slices of banana are left out to dry and later fried and turned into delicious banana crisps. We developed quite a taste for those banana crisps!
We spent our last evening at Phare Ponleu Selpak, a school that provides free education in art, design, music and performing arts for disadvantaged children. We looked around their gallery before watching a fabulous performance in the big top by their famous circus troupe. We got there early so once again had front-row seats. The show was called ‘Influence’ and at times had a somewhat dark theme running through it about how power corrupts. It was a big hit with the children and a lovely way to end a fabulous stay in Battambang.
Click here to see more of our photos from Battambang.