As a last minute decision and in the spirit of travelling we decided not to go straight to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap. Instead we decided to go to the small town of Battambang, which incidentally is Cambodia’s second largest city founded in the 11th century in the Northwest of Cambodia.
The name Battambang or Batdambang, literally means “loss of stick” referring to a legend of the Preah Bat Dambang Kranhoung (Kranhoung Stick King). The population is nowadays around 250,000 people . It’s a riverside town, home to some of the best-preserved, French colonial architecture in the country. The journey from Siem Reap to Battambang is about 4 hours by coach and in the wet season you can take a boat which takes about 9 hours and is meant to have some of the best scenery in the whole of Cambodia. Its dry season, so bus it is.
On entering the town we are greeted by the usual Tuk Tuk men asking if we need to get to our hotel, which luckily enough was opposite the Sorya (bus company) bus station. The whole town can be walked around in less than an hour so there is no need for
tuk tuk’s, but this is a much needed source of income for many families in this beautiful but very poor town.
We stayed at the Shang Hai Guest house coming in at £4 a night again so very cheap. The room was big, bright and airy and the owner was friendly and helpful.
So we dropped our things off at the hotel and go for a wander around town. Its quite dirty here and our feet are soon full of dust, and when you look around there is litter everywhere. But if you look past that, you can see all of the beautiful french colonial buildings, decorated with bright colours and beautiful ornate architecture. The one thing that stands out here more than anything though is the friendliness of the people. We seen a bit of it in Siem Reap, but here it seems to be a smile on every corner, people seem really pleased you have come to their town for a few days. The kids of Battambang are very cute, little boys and girls running up to you from the shop fronts (most cambodian kids seem to go to work with their parents as child care
is probably none existent in this country) to practice their english, “hello, hello” they shout, then quickly run back to their mum’s arms. You also get lots of waves from the kids and when you wave back it seems to make their day. Its all very humbling but upsetting at the same time, especially for myself as I have never really seen this type of poverty before (Suu-Min has recently been to Nairobi in Kenya to work in a school so she’s seen poverty like this before)
So after meeting the locals we get a bit hungry and stumble up on a lovely restaurant called ‘The White Rose’ on Street 2 Battambang. It was the smell of the food that drew us here, and we weren’t disappointed. Its fairly cheap with meals coming in at $2.50-$3.00 for a main. It took a while for the food to come, but thats always a good sign as you know its being freshly cooked, and it was very very tasty and filled a hole nicely!
Suu-Min has really been making a massive effort to speak cambodian and delivers it in perfect style when asking for the bill, “Sohm keht lui” phonetically
is ‘Som Cut Loy’. I love the expressions on people’s faces when you make an effort with their language, I think both sets of people really get something out of it. Well that’s until they assume Suu-Min has Cambodian blood in her, (a few people have mentioned this to her) and as they start speaking fluently, she gets a bit shy and gestures “only a little bit of Cambodian”.
So after a lovely walk down the low level river (I assume its much more beautiful in the wet season) we head back to the hotel for a rest.
We get up early on our second day to go hire some bikes to cycle to the killing caves one of Cambodia’s darker sides from the Khmer Rouge ere. We are unsuccessful as the only bike hire shop for tourists is closed. So we decided to hire a tuk tuk for $12 and drive out to the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau.
A little bit of background to the caves (don’t read on if you get upset easily)
“Many victims were bludgeoned to death and then tossed into holes which served as the
skylights to the caves. Men and women were placed in separate caves and clothes in another. Today there is a large glass memorial in the cave next to the skulls and bones and a golden reclining Buddha. It is reached via a staircase. A memorial, assembled from cyclone fencing and chicken wire, contains human bones at the base of the stairway.” (Wikipedia)
Its a short 15 min drive out to the cave’s and when you approach you see the big mountain the caves are in. At the top is a temple which also served as a prison during the Khmer Rouge occupation, an insult to the people being locked up there.
Its $3 each to enter the site and a very steep walk up the side of the mountain, but this always means an amazing view once you get to the top.
About a quarter of the way up is a beautiful Wat and we rest and take in the first views. A little further is a big Buddha which hides the atrocities of the killing caves that are just behind it. So we pluck up the courage and head down to the caves. On approach you
see a purple serpent staircase leading down to where the bodies where pushed down and dumped. There is a reclining Buddha that was built more recently out of respect for the victims. The first thing you see is a wooden chicken wire cage holding some of the skulls of the poor people that were executed. We look up the shaft to the top, where people would have been pushed down from (sometimes still alive) and hear a voice behind us: “Hello?” We turn around and see a man sitting on the floor in front of the Buddha. He gestures to a memorial next to him. “Bones.” When you inspect the skulls most of them have large pieces missing from them, you can only imagine how that must have happened on point of impact from being pushed 100ft down into the cave.
Its our first contact
with the horrors that took place in Cambodia in that era and upsets us both with the brutal way life was disposed of.
We quickly head out of the caves and make our way up to the summit of the mountain. Once at the top you are presented
with panoramic views of the surrounding area which is mainly rice paddies, one of the main sources of income for the area. We sit for a while on some benches taking it all in, contemplating what we have just seen in the caves. Suu-Min bought some Mango from a lady at the top of the mountain and as we eat we are engaged in conversation by a lovely retired Spanish couple. We end up chatting for about half an hour about our travels and what travelling they have done in their past. They gave us some good tips and we part company and head back to town in the tuk tuk.
I would recommend anyone who has time in their travels to visit Battambang and spread some of their tourist dollars around to this part of the country. If anything the people will blow you away with their friendliness and thats worth the bus fair over here alone. Next up the dangerously exciting Phnom Penh.
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