Hello from Ganesha guesthouse, Battambang (top tip: not battenberg!) Yesterday was mainly spent on the bus from Siem Reap and escaping the heat in a local swimming pool. Bliss! Last night the girls and I visited Battambangs #1 attraction, the Phare circus, where we saw a story about a young disabled man who overcame adversity and discrimination by appealing to the gods. The story was all told through acrobatics and dance. It was incredible. The circus has become so successful that they now also have a big top in Siem Reap, and have put on shows in international cities such as Paris. Dad and Joy saw the alternative story in Siem Reap about a young girl who got caught up in the Khmer Rouge. They were equally impressed, so a highly recommended activity all round.
My new travelling buddies, Felix (Swiss radiographer) and Ava (aspiring hippy from Birmingham) been greeted off the bus in Battambang by the usual wave of tuktuk and taxi drivers, but one cheeky face and huge smile had stood out instantly. Peter is a young student who had been studying English at the local university until his funds ran out. Now he rents a tuk tuk and offers rides to tourists to save money in the hopes of going back to school. He told me he was studying to be a tour guide, and honestly his English and knowledge of history and legends in Battambang was so good he was could definitely fulfil that dream in my books! But he wants to be qualified and work for a reputable company with a stable income rather than working for himself and battling against the other drivers in the heat to win work off the daily tourist buses.
We began our Sunday with Peter by visiting the bamboo train, which was originally set up to transport rice from the fields to the major cities. The train used to run from the capital to Siem Reap, and was named for the bamboo sticks used to push the train forward – kind of like punting. Nowadays they are motor-powered and mainly used as a tourist attraction to a small village and back. A police guide explained a little about the history of the train and how to sit etc; if we met another train coming the other way it was a face off to see who would have to disembark and dismantle their train only to rebuild further up the tracks. At the other end is a market, selling the Aladdin pants and t-shirts you see in every market place, with children selling bracelets they have made, or showing you how to make grasshoppers from bamboo leaves.
Ava was quickly accosted by a group of kids, all claiming to have been promised that she would buy a bracelet off them. Valiantly leaving her to deal with that issue, I asked a girl named Kim if she would give me a tour of her village. Kim is 10 years old and currently speaks Khmer, almost fluent English and German, plus a little French, Spanish and Italian; all of which she has learned from tourists. She cycles to school a kilometre away 6 mornings a week, then works selling bracelets in the afternoon and all day Sunday. Kim showed me the pond where they do laundry, her favourite place to play with friends, a farm, where they keep the snakes for delicious snake soup (they were fricking huge!) and her house which sits on stilts next to a rice field.There was also a huge warehouse with whirring machinery processing and packaging the rice to be sold to businesses in Battambang the next day. Kim was quite taken with Horace, the hippo mascot. After asking ‘what’s the matter with your elephant?’, she asked if he could stay to live with her; I hope I explained well enough the reasons why he couldn’t. They don’t have hippos in Cambodia, so he’s been quite the discussion point. Other than the elephant question, my favourite quote has to be the kid who asked if Horrace was the same size as real hippos. His eyes shot through the roof when I explained how big they can grow! Before we left we spoke with one of the stall holders who had worked on the trains for 10 years before getting married and being able to open her own shop. She now earns enough money to send her 3 children to school for 5 full days a week and told us she would not let them work as the children there soon get used to the pocket money and then lose interest in their education. I hope Kim continues to go, even if just for the mornings!
A quick and exhilarating, butterfly dodging, ride back through the rice fields as storm clouds gathered above us and we were back at the station where Peter was waiting. He told us the villages here used to be far smaller, but the tourism opportunities attract people from further afield. In a few years time I’m sure it’ll be a metropolis. For the next few hours we dodged the rain at Here Be Dragons hostel, reading books and swapping stories in huge papasan chairs whilst enjoying ice coffees and my favourite watermelon shakes. Probably my last for a while as the oh too common traveller tummy has resigned me to bread and water for a few days, bleugh.
After the storms passed, Peter picked us back up for the second part of our tour, we headed to Sampeu mountain, home to the killing caves used by the Khmer Rouge. Peter dropped us at the base of the mountain and up we went, a 10 minute uphill climb designed to test your heat endurance. At the top was a school, with children ready and eager to show you to the caves in exchange for a few real. We had the second cave to ourselves, each feeling a little eerie as we descended into the chilly cavern. It was so quiet and peaceful, it’s hard to imagine it was home to such a horrific end for hundreds of thousands of lives. Bones of the dead remain in the cave, and a monk stands watch at the base ready to offer blessings.
We stayed a few minutes, then Declan, ever articulate, announced ‘I’m getting the creeps now’ and we ascended once again into the light and heat. From the caves it was another blistering climb to Wat Banan and the monastery at the summit. The view from the top was stunning, especially as we could see a storm sweeping across the rice fields.
If the journey up the mountain was blistering, going down was terrifying. I’m SO pants at stairs! After the first flight my legs were shaking so much I had to hold on with both hands and move at a snails pace. Useless. The guys were nice though and waited for me at the bottom before we went on to the main event. The bat cave. After MANY bad batman style jokes from yours truly we were finally treated to the spectacle of tens of thousands of bats leaving a huge cave in search of food and water. The mass exodus lasts around an hour, and from the road slightly further out you could see the swam forming stunning shapes in the sky; dragons, swirls and snakes.
We spent the evening in Here Be Dragons, the place to be hostel in Battambang. We were true rock and roll stars watching the tennis and talking to the guys running the place, all of whom are travellers who fell in love with this sleepy town. Highlight of the evening: I spotted an unusual bottle on the top shelf which turned out to be snake whiskey, with a scorpion infusion just for an extra kick. ‘If you’re up for it, it’s on the house’ says the barman ‘Challenge accepted’ says I! It was actually pretty good, smooth whiskey, with only something of a kickback.