In the center-west of Cambodia lies a small town called Battambang that popped up in a Lonely Planet article about lesser-visited-but-great places to see in Cambodia, and it sounded like a place I really wanted to go, so I bought a ticket to go there in between the tourist hotspots of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
The bus trip to go from Siem Reap to Battambang was nonsensical, to say the least.
I booked the bus through my hostel, and I was told that it departs at 10:30, they will pick me up, and to be ready around 10, because you never know if you’re getting picked up first or last. I got picked up around 10:20, jumped in a completely packed van, turned the corner, and we were there. Less than 2 minutes! Why did I need to get picked up?
Anywho, we waited at this makeshift bus station, a van pulled up and said “Battambang,” and everyone piled in. After a few minutes of driving, I realized that we were going Southeast. Battambang is due Southwest. I was suspicious. At the outskirts of Siem Reap, we pulled into a bus station and were told to get out of the van and board this giant bus. It was after 11 at this point, and we hadn’t even begun the “3 hour” bus trip I was told to expect.
At the station, a girl asked the driver while boarding if she had time to go use the toilet. There was a real language barrier, so I told her that I’d make sure we didn’t leave without her. Good thing, since they closed the door and started the engine shortly after.
We then drove back through Siem Reap, past the makeshift station where everyone had assembled, and didn’t actually get out of the city until after 12. For a 10:30 bus. For a 3 hour trip.
The bus wound up getting so full from picking people up along the way that some people were sitting on plastic stools in the aisle. The guy next to me wouldn’t stop talking on his phone (loudly) and touching my leg. At a short break, I went to the girl who’d almost been left in the bathroom earlier and asked if I could sit next to her, instead, to get away from that guy. This turned out to be a good decision; she was going to the same hostel as me, and we wound up hanging out for a few days in Battambang.
Oh, the bus also played a bunch of super weird karaoke videos on the TV, but, thankfully, no one was singing along.
When we arrived at the bus station on the edge of Battambang, I planned to share a tuk-tuk to the hostel with K, the Dutch girl from the bus. Our tuk-tuk driver pointed out that we were pretty close to the famous Bamboo Train and talked us into going there before going to the hostel. This was a good tip.
The Bamboo Train is purely a tourist thing. The train tracks in Cambodia are abandoned and not maintained. They were originally built during the French colonial times and were used for moving supplies & workers for construction projects. In Battambang, some enterprising people have made little carts out of bamboo, some leftover tank wheels, and a small engine from a go-kart or lawnmower. The train cars almost look like a bed frame rolling down the tracks. For $5/person, you can ride down to the next “station,” which is about 20min away. We were surprised that it went so fast—maybe 30kmh/20mph. The best part is when you encounter a cart going the other way, and one side has to disassemble to clear up the tracks. The driver from the other cart will help, then they both continue on the way. Great times!
At the “station,” it’s purely a tourist trap. There are trinkets, clothes & souvenirs for sale, plus a little coffee shop. K & I realized that we basically had to buy something, so we got a drink each at the coffee shop, drew pictures with this little girl, and talked to her grandfather. After this, we rode back to the start. It’s a fun thing for $5 each and makes for a good story.
From the Bamboo Train, we rode back in our super-sized tuk-tuk, through the city, and went to the hostel. For the rest of the evening, we walked around, got some dinner, and looked at what else there is to do in Battambang, since the Bamboo Train is probably the biggest thing around.
The next day, we walked through Battambang. It was nice to find that the tuk-tuk drivers don’t hassle you nearly as much as other places in Cambodia; they only approach you when you flag them down when looking for a ride. What a relief!
After walking past the park and the regional governor’s mansion built during the colonial days, we came across a really cool temple.
Continuing on, we came across this place, which is both interesting and really sad. I’ve heard about these companies in Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos, who are working to continue removing unexploded bombs & landmines from the wars that happened here in the 60s and 70s. A lot of the employees are former military from western countries, and most of the reports on things to investigate come from local kids & farmers finding the UXO (unexploded ordnance). Unfortunately, most of the deaths from these things going off are poor kids in the countryside trying to remove them from the ground to sell for scrap metal.
After seeing this statue in the road, we started walking back to the center of the city and came across the regional office of the charity started by Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt (and whoever Maddox is).
We saw the rooftop of what looked like a large temple behind another building, so we went to check that out. This turned out to be the semi-famous “White Elephant Temple.”
Walking through the center of the city back toward our hostel, we saw some interesting sites and then stopped for lunch.
Our hostel had a list to sign up for going to the circus that night, for anyone who was interested, and we decided to go. I haven’t been to a circus in years, because the ones in the US are all travesties, filled with abused animals, and I won’t go. This circus was started through a project in a children’s refugee camp during the Khmer Rouge era. What started there has turned into a school that provides room & board + education to nearly 1,000 orphans and street children, teaching them various arts (painting, music industry things, graphic design, etc.) and offers them the option to learn circus skills, like juggling, acrobatics, etc. This provides the children with a fallback employment opportunity after graduation, in case their art stuff doesn’t take off.
At $14, the circus is “expensive” by Cambodia standards, but it was something I was interested in seeing and wanted to support. I had rather low expectations, but the performance was actually GREAT. The small arena also made for a great, intimate environment, and everyone seemed to have the same feeling of “exceeds expectations.”
After the circus, a large group decided to get dinner together and hang out until around midnight at a pub near the hostel, and it was a lot of fun to meet everyone.
The next morning, I booked a bus to Phnom Penh, because I felt like I was running out of things to see/do in the little town of Battambang. After lunch at this great little street cart (TONS of food for about $1.50 US), I went back to the hostel to wait for the bus to Phnom Penh.
Battambang was a great place to visit for 2 nights. I keep recommending it to other people in Cambodia. It’s fun, quaint, has some nice things to see, cheap food, and very friendly people.
Thanks for some great memories, Battambang. I’ll take them with me forever.
Next post: Phnom Penh, Cambodia & the killing fields/genocide history
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