Published: February 3rd 2013January 22nd 2013
We woke early at 5am for a 6.30am start on our last morning in Phnom Penh. We packed, showered and headed down to the lobby where our pre-ordered breakfasts were waiting for us in plastic containers. I had yoghurt with roasted cashews and honey, while Ren had a banana pancake. Our minibus was a bit late, so we ate outside the hotel while we waited. We eventually jumped into the minibus at 7am and headed to the bus station, where we transferred to a larger bus for our six hour trip to Battambang
. We left Phnom Penh at 7.15am. The trip was uncomfortable, as the Cambodian roads were rough and I was feeling the onset of a chest cold. The apparent lack of road rules was also a bit disconcerting.
We stopped at a roadside rest area at 11.15am and snacked on pork buns, sticky rice with pork and beans wrapped in banana leaf and Khmer iced coffee, which were all fantastic. We eventually arrived in Battambang at 1.15pm. The place was incredibly hot, and we were met with absolute mayhem. Battambang doesn’t have a central bus station – it just has numerous bus stops where remork
tuk tuks, which are motorbikes that tow a covered trailer with seating) drivers wait anxiously for business. They stood five-deep in the doorway of the bus asking if we needed a lift to our hotel – it was almost impossible to get off the bus. We literally shouldered our way through the crowd to get to our packs (which were in the storage compartment under the bus). We walked to the Star Hotel in the stifling heat and checked in. We weren’t overly hungry, so I scurried outside in the afternoon sun and picked up some water and a baguette filled with caramelised fish and onions at a street stall for lunch, which was unbelievably good.
Having freshened up at the hotel, we headed out for a remork
tour of the Battambang countryside at 3pm. We visited a family making rice paper, one making Cambodian cheese and another making rice noodles. The rice paper making process was incredibly monotonous and labour intensive for very small returns, but mesmerising to watch. The cheese making process had a base of fermented fish, and the smell in the late afternoon heat was overwhelming. Three young girls – all around eight years old
– were crouching on the ground cleaning huge piles of fish. It was becoming very evident that rural Cambodian life is underpinned by poverty and extremely hard work. Our guide explained the cheese making process, but the smell and heat was just too much – I didn’t take anything in. Big vats of fermented fish were literally bubbling in front of us in the searing afternoon sun. The concept of tasting the cheese was turning my stomach – I’m so glad I wasn’t offered any! I breathed a secret sigh of relief when our guide said we were moving on, which is unusual for me. I was lacking energy, exhausted from our six hour bus trip that morning and struggling with a chest cold that I couldn’t seem to shake.
We jumped into the remork
and continued our countryside tour. We visited a local woman who had just made a batch of sticky rice with black beans in bamboo. We didn’t see how the rice was prepared or cooked, but we tasted the end product and it was sensational – it gave me a burst of energy that I’d been lacking during the day. We jumped back into the remork
and travelled to a family making rice noodles. The process was fascinating to watch, and it really was a family affair. The only male in the family started the process by forcing a rice mixture through a wooden press into boiling water over a fire, and then draining the resulting noodles through a series of sieves. He then handed the noodles to three women, who neatly folded and placed them in large bowls. The women were laughing amongst themselves, and Ren picked up that they seemed to be talking about us. She asked our guide what they were saying, but an answer was not forthcoming from our guide or the women. Eventually we discovered the women thought Ren was southern Cambodian…
We continued our remork
tour to a huge statue in a roundabout at the entrance of the town (which I couldn’t help but notice when we had arrived that morning). The statue is meant to commemorate an incident in Khmer history when King Kron Nhong threw his wooden staff from Angkor and it landed in Battambang (Battambang apparently means ‘disappearing stick’). The statue was pretty tacky, but there’s nothing quite like a tacky statue to put a
place on the map! Apart from the giant crab in Kep (which I’ll write about in the blog on Kampot), this was my favourite tacky statue in Cambodia. I think it added to the general atmosphere when a young Asian tourist battled the very busy multi-lane roundabout to run over and ask Kim to accompany him back to the statue to take a photo of him and his friends. The look of utter disbelief on Kim’s face will stay with me for a long time. Luckily, our guide told him in no uncertain terms to run back and ask his remork
driver to take the photo.
We jumped back into our own remork
and headed to the bamboo train, which was to be our last experience of the day. Even though we all had slightly different expectations of what a bamboo train would look like, there was a general expectation that we would be travelling on a train-like structure made from bamboo. However, no-one expected an open wooden tray with bamboo slats that sat precariously on two unattached axles, one of which was driven by an incredibly noisy old truck engine. The whole contraption could be dismantled and reassembled
in under a minute, which is what happened every time we met another bamboo train coming in the opposite direction. The rail track itself was in spectacular disrepair, warped with heat and use over the years. Yet somehow our bamboo train (which could manage four people and a driver) managed to stay on the tracks as we sped along a dead straight section of track deep into the Cambodian countryside. We eventually stopped at a small concrete bridge, where we jumped off and experienced a beautiful Cambodian sunset over the rice fields. It was a fantastic experience. The train had to be dismantled and reassembled for our return journey, which our driver did with the help of another driver. We sped back over the warped track with the wind cooling the warm evening air.
We headed back to our hotel by remork
, freshened up and then jumped into another remork
and headed out to the Cold Night Restaurant for dinner. We decided to share three dishes – chicken fried rice with ginger, papaya salad with shrimps and steamed fish. We completely over-ordered (we were hungry), but the food was nothing to write home about. It had been a long,
long day, and we were exhausted. We headed back to hotel by remork
When I woke at 6.30am, Ren was already awake. We headed out to a local bakery and picked up a sweet baguette with fish filling and a sweet donut. We were still coming to grips with the local currency and language, so we simply held out a handful of Cambodian Riel and gestured to the owner to take what she needed, as she did not speak English and we did not speak Khmer. We also picked up some Chinese New Year pastries, this time counting out Riel until the owner said enough (much to the amusement of the locals around us). The bread and pastries looked fairly dry, so we picked up some flavoured yoghurt and milk from the minimart across from the hotel. We’d managed to gather a fantastic breakfast, which we took back and enjoyed in our hotel room.
We showered and headed down to the hotel lobby at 8.30am. We jumped into a remork
and headed to a peace monument made of old weapons and artillery (named Naga for Peace and Development
), which “commemorates the commitment, efforts and hopes of
the Cambodian people in breaking away from their violent past and in establishing a peaceful, non-violent society”. I was taken by how poorly maintained the area around the monument was, but then again, this lack of maintenance would continue to surprise me as we travelled throughout this country. We jumped back into our remork
and headed to an old house that had been set up for tourist visits. It was uncomfortable walking through someone else’s house (even though it hadn’t been used for years), but it gave a great insight into Cambodian life, albeit the affluent and well-educated. It was a beautiful old dusty place built on stilts. Samples of different currency greeted us in plastic folders as we walked through the doorway, and 1966 school graduation certificates graced the walls. I wanted to ask our elderly host how she had survived the Khmer Rouge, but I think her answer would have been politically adjusted in translation by our guide. It was too uncomfortable a question anyway.
We jumped back into our remork
and headed to Phnom Sampeau, a limestone outcrop about 12km southwest of Battambang. We ordered our lunch at a small street cafe before beginning our ascent
up a series of very steep stairs to the golden stupa at the summit. This was a fantastic experience, but it was exhausting in the heat of the afternoon sun. As we arrived at the top we were greeted by a group of monkeys. We walked around the summit, amazed at the vista it provided of the flat and endless Battambang landscape. We walked past old German artillery alongside giant Buddhas, and sampled green mango and a sour red sticky berry fruit that I loved (so much so that I bought a plastic bag full of it). We then walked to the Killing Cave of Phnom Sampeau. By this time I was starting to feel very exhausted. The chest cold I’d picked up was having an impact, and so was my recovery from recent surgery. The heat was intense and the stories of genocide and brutality by the Khmer Rouge inside this very stale cave were chipping away at my resolve. A rusty cage made of chicken wire lay at the base of the staircase leading down into the cave. It housed human bones of innocent Cambodians who had been bludgeoned by the Khmer Rouge and thrown thirty metres to
We eventually left and walked back down to the base of Phnom Sampeau via a cement road. We were hungry and thirsty and looking forward to our pre-ordered meal. The fresh coconut and cold beer were very welcome, but the beef lok lak
and roasted fish were mediocre. In fact, they were downright awful. The beef was sinewy and the fish was roasted within an inch of its life. Maybe it was just a reflection of the way I was feeling. Anyway, we finished the meal, jumped into our remork
and headed back to the hotel.
We grabbed an hour’s sleep and then headed out to a small house in a dusty back street of Battambang for a cooking class with a local family. We dropped into the local market on the way and picked up our ingredients. One minute a fish was swimming around in a large bowl on the pavement, the next it was gutted alive, still thrashing as its scales, head and tail were removed by a woman wielding a huge meat cleaver. It really was a different approach to buying and selling fresh produce – flies were crawling over everything in the
market (including our ingredients). But it didn’t matter – we were hungry and looking forward to cooking and eating Cambodian food. We jumped into the remork
with our ingredients under the seat and headed to our driver’s house – Sambath Home Dinner and Cooking School
. We cooked chicken curry, fish amok and fresh spring rolls. It was sensational food – possibly the best we’d tasted to-date in Cambodia – and we’d cooked it (with incredible direction and support from our host family). We finished the meal with a shot of rice wine from a bottle that housed a scorpion and a snake. It was smooth and powerful. We wrapped up at 8.30pm after some great party tricks from our host, and headed back to the hotel by remork
. We had a long boat trip to Siem Reap the following day, so we desperately needed a good night’s sleep. SHE SAID...
We woke at 5am for our 6:30am start on our fourth morning in Phnom Penh. We picked up our take-away breakfasts (banana pancake for me and yogurt and honey for Andrew) from the hotel and waited for our minibus to take us to the bus station. It
finally arrived at 7am, and by the time we got to the station, the public bus to Battambang
was ready and waiting for their last 13 passengers. We scrambled on board, took our allocated seats at the front and started our six hour journey across more than half the country.
‘Even though it’s spelled ‘bang’, its pronounced BattambOng’ I heard a certain someone advise everyone in a slimy supercilious tone. I have dutifully kept calling it ‘BattambAAAng’ since then. No, I’m not being childish. Ok, maybe a little childish.
The bus trip from Phnom Penh to Battambang was relatively comfortable for the first half of the trip; that is if you could ignore the usual Asian suicidal overtaking and the quite bad road conditions. We had two stops – the first one had the mankiest toilets I've seen in a long time, and the first time I'd seen eggs skewered on a stick and grilled (not surprisingly, the toilet situation cast a bad light on all the food). The second was a lunch stop where we sampled a pork bun with a boiled egg inside, and sticky rice with pork and red beans steamed in banana leaf –
which was superb. Lee ordered a few hot dishes to share, and the caramelised bamboo dish was not a favourite, but the beef and bean stir fry was a winner. The glasses of black sweet Khmer iced coffee were also very welcome.
The second half of the journey was more painful, but we managed to hang in there. Andrew was starting to feel a bit fluey, so the trip was more uncomfortable for him than normal. They screened a few Khmer pop videos, all with tragic love scenes, and a hilarious Korean James Bond type film which kept Andrew amused.
Watching the changing countryside was very interesting. The Phnom Penh traffic was full of scooters and motorbikes on wide multi-lane roads. This gave way to a red dusty pot holed narrow road with trucks filled with produce, road works, machinery, zooming cars and creamy Brahmin cows and water buffalo wandering freely on the roads while they moved between grazing on the brown rice stalks in rice fields. The sides of the road were either filled with tropical fruit trees or wooden farm houses on stilts that overhung the rice fields. The dogs here were similar to Vietnamese dogs,
dingo-like with short brown or fawn fur and curly tails. They drive on the 'wrong' side of the road in Cambodia, so for the first hour or so my heart was in my mouth; but I got used to it soon enough.
We arrived in Battambang at 1pm and stepped off the bus into a very, very hot, dusty and noisy bus station. Touts stood five deep around the bus door vying for custom. Luckily we were able to ignore them and walk a block to our hotel. The Star Hotel was clean, comfortable and very much of the marble and heavy lacquered wood style. Our room on the third floor was lovely, but we had another all-in-one wet bathroom (no separate shower).
For Cambodia's second-largest city, Battambang was friendlier and more accessible than I thought it would be. It’s setting on the Sangker River was attractive in a dusty Wild West kind of way, and the crumbling French and colonial architecture along the riverside added further to its provincial charm. The war side stepped Battambang in some ways, so there are temples and buildings here from periods not represented in Phnom Penh. It also felt like mass
tourism hadn’t discovered this place yet.
The whole group decided to do a tour of the countryside and surrounding villages that afternoon, so we showered and regrouped at 3pm. For $10USD we got a three hour guided tour on a remork
that took in the local rural way of life. Within a few kilometres, the built up town turned into small villages filled with stilt houses and rice paddies that stretched to the horizon. The rice had already been harvested, and all that remained were the brown rice stalks that seemed to be popular with grazing cattle.
The country side around Battambang was just gorgeous. It is known for good produce and referred to as Cambodia’s rice bowl. I had begun to feel like we were venturing into the real Cambodia now. However, being in the country meant being constantly mindful of never stepping off the path, as it is thought that there are still many undetonated landmines around Cambodia.
We followed the river and stopped at Pheam Ek village, where they specialised in making rice paper for spring rolls. We got to see the process from making the batter (rice flour, salt, sugar and water) in
an antiquated mill, to the steaming and drying of the circular paper on bamboo racks. The cooking was fuelled by rice husks. Our next stop was a fish market that specialised in making fish paste and fish cheese, and as interesting as it was, the smell of fermenting fish in massive open vats in the afternoon sun was unpleasant to say the least...it was a very quick stop! Then it was off through more villages to a row of open stalls on the roadside where sticky rice and red beans in bamboo had been cooked on red hot coals in the ground. We loved the samples offered, and bought a few bamboos for later. Our last stop was at a family house where rice noodles were made. It was such a labour intensive process and took four people all day to meet the quantities they needed to make. The rice flour is delivered in large pillow sized blobs of hardened paste, which is then cut into smaller portions and fed into a mould that hangs over boiling water. The boiled noodles are then cooled in a large container of water in sieves, before being hand washed and separated into sellable
portions. All of these processes required precise timing and skill to make rice noodles with perfect consistency. The women washing the noodles seemed very interested in me, and after some coaxing, they confessed that they had been discussing whether I was Cambodian from the south west of the country. I’m intrigued by the assumption that I look slightly Khmer. My sister has been quick to comment (on the last blog where I mentioned this) that this could prove the theory that I was adopted!
Then it was all aboard the bamboo train, which is known to locals as a nori
. The bamboo train is a unique (and extremely creative) form of local transport that uses the abandoned train tracks. It consists of a small open bamboo slatted cart on four train wheels, which is powered by a small engine and used to transport passengers, cargo, animals and motorcycles between villages. There is only one track, so when two nori
meet, the one with the most passengers gets right of way, and the other nori
can be disassembled and taken off the rails in a minute or two. It travelled much faster than I expected. However, once we got
used to the feeling it was a lot of fun! It transported us to a small bridge over rice paddies about 20 minutes away, and stopped long enough for us to stretch our legs and watch the sunset. Then it was back on the bamboo train for a 20 minute very fast and jolting ride back in quickly fading light. This ingenious form of transport was just adorable, and so quintessentially Cambodian. I loved it very much.
That night we went to Cold Night Restaurant for dinner. We didn't realise the portion sizes were huge and ended up over-ordering. The green papaya salad was not to Andrew's taste, as it was packed full of saw-tooth coriander, but I loved it very much. The chicken and ginger fried rice was lovely and fresh, and completely filled us up. By the time the whole steamed fish in lemon sauce came over, we had to get help from the rest of the table to finish just half of it! I knew Andrew was still feeling unwell, as his appetite was virtually non-existent.
By that night we were starting to feel the effect of the early morning starts, and even though it
was only 10pm, any plans to do any blog writing weren't going anywhere. However, I managed to stay awake long enough to post the blog about our plane trip over to Cambodia (which was four days ago). And it was another early 5:30am start to get an hour of writing in before the day started.
We felt like a bakery breakfast, and the first bakery we went to was as local as it got. With many gestures and miming, we bought a doughnut and what I thought was another sweet bun because of the sugar glazing, but it turned out to be filled with pork! It was oddly delicious. The next bakery had Chinese New Year pastries so we bought two bean paste ones. The Mini Mart stop wasn't as productive as I couldn't fulfil my craving for iced milo, but I got coffee and strawberry flavoured milk which surprisingly had little tapioca pearls in it. Andrew's iced milk drink turned out to be a sweetened yogurt drink! A most adventurous and surprising breakfast.
We met at 8:30am for a guided tour of the town by remork
. Our first stop was at a naga
(serpent god) ‘peace’
monument made out of used guns, shells and other artillery. The sculpture itself was quite eye catching, but it was set in the middle of an ugly, forlorn and scruffy looking square. I felt sorry for the artist. Our next stop was at Wat Kor village known for its Khmer heritage houses. We stopped at Khor Sang House, an ancient house dating back to 1907, built of teak and mahogany. The original owner's granddaughter – who was now 80 years old – showed us around. The garden was full of established fruit trees like jackfruit, mangoes and citrus. It was an interesting visit to an affluent Khmer-Chinese house, but the house was clearly now just a show-house for tourism (even though they tried to convince us otherwise).
Battambang is a very flat landscape. However, there are a few abrupt hills that rise like giant ant hills on the horizon. We drove to the foot of one of these – Phnom Sampeau – which is a hill with the Phnom Sampeau Pagoda and a radio tower at the top. It is accessed via the killer 300+ steep but shady stone steps. We ordered lunch and chilled coconuts at one of
the cafes at the base of the hill so that it would be ready by the time we walked back down. Half way up the hill we stopped at a look out that was full of monkeys. While it was fun to watch them, they got a little too friendly when they saw our bottles of water. They would brazenly walk up and try and grab it from our hands, or in my case pull it out of my bag! When they got a bottle that had a lid they couldn’t get off, they would bite a small hole in the bottom of the bottle and hold the bottle above their face, creating a tap. These monkeys were more intelligent than we thought. We also stopped to buy snacks of green mango, banana chips, sweet potato chips, and sweet, sour and sticky red berries for the walk.
The views were magnificent, but the modern style Phnom Sampeau Pagoda was quite gaudy and awkward, and looked so out of place that I could have been persuaded that it had been photoshopped in. If not for the view, it probably wouldn’t be noteworthy other than for religious reasons. After passing more
shrines and temples, halfway down the hill were the notoriously tragic 'killing caves' used by the Khmer Rouge for their grotesque business. The caves were accessed via lovely steps flanked by thick green foliage, and inside it lay a Buddha statue next to a glass walled memorial filled with human bones. There is also an older chicken wire memorial with bones haphazardly strewn around inside it. The bodies were thrown into the cave via a natural skylight, and left to pile up over time. The cave and it’s monstrous collection of bones make for an interesting visit (despite the gruesome history), and I think I preferred this to the Cheung Ek ‘killing fields’ in Phnom Penh, purely because of the lack of tourists. The hill also hides a secret canyon that looks like it belongs in another time period, but it only seems untouched until you see the Russian and German artillery still mounted on the side of it. Is there any corner of this country that hasn’t been ravaged by war?
Walking back downhill on the paved path was hard work, as there was no shade at all. We had lunch served to us when we arrived back
at the cafe – roasted fish with green mango salad and steamed rice, and beef lok lak
(grilled beef on a bed of salad, served with a salt, lime and pepper dipping sauce). The meals were very ordinary, but the cold coconut juices were superb after a hot and sticky walk. We caught the remork
back to the hotel to rest up for a cooking class we had all signed up for that evening.
We regrouped at 4pm and got back into our three remorks
to be taken to the market by Mr Sambath. For $10USD each, we started with a fascinating market trip to buy vegetables, fish that were thrashing about in buckets, and rice paper. We then proceeded to Mr Sambath's house to learn the secrets of fish amok
(fish seasoned with lemongrass paste, coconut and chilli, and steamed in banana leaf), Khmer chicken curry and fresh spring rolls. Six of the group including Andrew cooked the chicken curry, while I joined the rest of the group to cook the fish amok
, which was cooked for 10 minutes on the stove and then steamed for 10 minutes in little banana leaf containers they taught us to put
together. The meals were fabulous, and the spring rolls were probably the best fresh spring rolls I have tried. The fresh spring rolls were dipped in teuk trey
(fish sauce with crushed peanuts). The fish sauce is very much like Vietnamese nuoc mam
but the crushed peanuts gives it a nice rounded sweetness.
Mr Sambath’s efforts to ensure we had a good night were lovely, and as the night wore on his humour perked up too. He was full of jokes and could fashion very creative models out of cigarette packets. He had gone to great lengths to set up this cooking school business. It's pretty amazing for someone who couldn't read or write until his teens, and has since learnt as many languages as he can to make his business a success. This enthusiasm in the face of adversity is not only unique to Mr Sambath, but a common attribute to most Cambodians we have met on our travels so far. It was a fantastic night!
Battambang is a mixed bag of a travel destination, but I was very glad to have experienced it. Andrew looked like he'd definitely got the flu, so the cold and flu tablets we brought with us were being put to good use. Here's hoping it's a bug with a short life span!
See you in Siem Reap people!