From Siem Reap to Battambang
To go from Siem Reap to Battambang, we had 2 choices: either the bus (4$, takes a few hours, not very exciting) or the boat (25$, recommended in many guide books, goes through floating villages on the Tonlé Sap lake). Because we were quite far already in the dry season, we still asked whether or not there was enough water to take the boat. After a quick phone call, the guy from the agency assured us that yes, there definitely was. Brilliant ! We booked for the next morning and took the opportunity of an afternoon without plans to try and sort out the million pictures we had taken at the temples of Angkor 🙂
The next morning, we left at 6.30am in a minivan that was supposed to bring us to the port. We started to be a bit worried when he dropped us at what looked like a bus station, We showed our tickets to several members of the staff and they all nodded their approval while showing us one of the big buses at the back. Clement still felt like something was not right and tried to find a manager to confirm that we were in the right place. Panic ensued when we were told that actually, we were not in the right place at all, that our boat was supposed to leave in 20 minutes, and that we should be dealing with a totally different company (this one didn’t even organise any boat trip). Despite the general indifference, Clement manages to get them to call back the driver of the minivan who mistakenly brought us there. It’s a mess, the poor guy didn’t understand what was wrong at first, didn’t know what to do and kept trying to call the ferry company… In the end, we ended up in a tuk-tuk that seemed to be doing an inverted remake of the movie ‘speed’: it was as if we were rigged with a bomb set to go off as soon as we exceeded 10km/h… After what seemed to be a never-ending journey, we were hastily put inside the boat that had been waiting for us: some kind of a big barge with an engine that was too small for the 40 or so people already there, looking at us rather furiously (the boat was 30 minutes late because of us).
As the other passengers did not seem to be willing to move to let us sit altogether (we were still travelling with Camille), we ended up on the roof of the boat with all the bags. It was hot, the sun was shining hard, but at least we were comfortable with a fantastic view and the ability to take the pictures we wanted. The floating villages looked beautiful and looked like nothing we had seen before.
Around half-way to Battambang, we stopped at some kind of floating restaurant. Great, a little break! Everyone jumped on the cold drinks on sale. While we were
sipping wolfing down our bottles of water, the staff got all the bags off the boat. Worried, several other travellers started to inquire about this, and after several minutes of questioning we were finally told “No water! Bus!”. Okay. It sucks, but if there’s no water, there’s no water. We were then directed towards two old-looking pick-up trucks waiting in the bush nearby. Everyone remained calm until they started putting all the luggage on the roofs of the trucks. If the back of the trucks were not for the bags, what were they for…? A stampede then started to get a good spot sitting down. As we did not really want to fight, the three of us remained on the side, rather confused by the whole affair. The drivers gestured for us to get in the back anyway, so although the other passengers protested that there wasn’t enough room, we still got up there and stood in the middle for a while. The positive side of this is that we learned how to dance tango/rodeo on these very dusty and bumpy roads full of potholes…
Everyone soon realised that this wasn’t going to cut it for the remaining two hours of travel. After a bit of fumbling, we managed to find a way to kind of ‘sit’ somewhere. The bags were set up too high on the roof of our truck so we actually couldn’t pass some of the low beams in the villages on the road: this meant that we had to dismantle and put back everything each time, except for the electric wire, that one we just tore it off.
One of the travellers who was with us started to severely burn under the sun, so much so that the elderly woman inside the truck gave her her top and finished the trip in her bra. The pile of bags collapsed several times, we ate a lot of dust, and every bump destroyed our backs. The locals we met fond the whole thing very funny, and we are pretty sure that they see this every day in the dry season.
When we finally arrived in Battambang, we were not dropped off in the centre of town (that would have been too easy), but instead were given over to the waiting tuk-tuks. We were very happy once in our guesthouse, after a nice and cold shower to recover from this memorable journey.
Battambang is the 3rd biggest city in Cambodia, although it is surprisingly quiet. During the afternoon, we walked on the river front while the locals were getting some exercise with the outdoor gym equipment. In the evening, the streets were practically empty, except for a few eating spots. More than the colonial buildings spread throughout the city, it is the neighbouring countryside that makes Battambang attractive. After having rented our little motorbikes, we took off.
The few active temples north of town are not particularly beautiful or extraordinary, but we very much appreciated the unusual sculptures used as decoration for their gardens. We also went to see the “Well of Shadows”, a memorial about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouges lead by Pol Pot in the 70s. Not familiar with this dark chapter of Cambodian history, we were rather shocked by the descriptions of the gruesome tortures inflicted upon the Cambodian population. We did not take any photo but started to read more on the subject.
After lunch, we had only one goal: to see some bats. Our first stop was at a slightly isolated temple where there are many fruitbats (also called flying foxes) hanging from the neighbouring trees. These diurnal bats are really big and we tried as best we could to take pictures of them flying. Not really succeeding, we started to talk to a nearby family to ask them if there were any other places around with bats. As their daughter was the only one who spoke English, she was hurriedly called out of her shower in order to be the interpreter. The patriarch of the family got up when he understood we wanted to take pictures of the bats and asked “Do you want to see them fly?”. We told him not to disturb the bats, but he went behind the house anyway. A few minutes later, while we were talking merrily with the family, we suddenly saw dozens and dozens of bats flying in all directions and the man coming back with a big smile on his face. We don’t know what he did to them but they flew away! We talked a bit more with this lovely family and went on our motorbikes again to ride in the middle of the dry rice fields and get to a bat cave southwest of town.
As it’s one of the main attractions in Battambang, we took place alongside the many travellers who came to see the bats fly off the cave entrance at dusk. Finally, after an excited wait, at almost 6.30pm, thousands and thousands of small bats got out of the cave in a continuous flow to hunt.
This time, we took the bus 🙂
We found Phnom Penh dynamic and airy with its many esplanades full of activity throughout the day and the night (aerobics classes, football, chinlone and badminton games, etc…). We found the atmosphere very pleasant.
We spent a day visiting the Tuol Sleng museum (also known under the name S-21). This museum is located in a former high school which was turned into a prison and torture centre during the Khmer Rouge period, between 1975 and 1978. During those 3 years, 17000 people were tortured there before being executed at the “Killing Fields” 15km away. The museum is extremely well made, as is the accompanying audioguide, and the testimonies poignant. Under the authority of Pol Pot, every person who had the slightest education was systematically tortured to extract confessions to imaginary crimes before being executed. The simple fact of wearing glasses put people in danger as they were considered to be intellectual. The rest of the population was forced to work in the fields, often day and night in terrible sanitary conditions. It is estimated that 2 million Cambodian people, or 25% of the population, died during these years.
We strongly recommend to every traveller going to Phnom Penh to visit this museum. Graphic and poignant, the visit is gut-wrenching but it forces you to think about the consequences of this cruelty on the current population.
We spent our last evening in Cambodia, as well as our last evening with Camille, at the night market near the river. We enjoyed the music, ate coconut ice cream, and strolled around.
The next morning, we took the bus to Vientiane to meet up with Yann, a friend of Tracy’s father who has come to visit his family in the capital.