We added Battambang to our Cambodia route to try and see another side to Cambodian life; the metropolis of Phnom Penh gave us a view of the country’s tragic recent past and uncertain near future, Siem Reap transported us way back in time to the glory days of the ancient Khmer empire, whilst time in Ko Ta Kiev, Ream National Park and Kampot had shown us south Cambodia’s stunning coastline and rivers.
Battambang in the north west, although the second largest city, doesn’t make it onto quite as many tourist tick-lists. It’s also not reachable by our tried and trusted Giant Ibis bus company. Mekong Express ended up being a good alternative. The bus was a little older, and needless to say didn’t come with free snacks and wifi, but water was free, the bus wasn’t overcrowded, and the driving was safe.
Local tuk tuk drivers have obviously cottoned on to the fact that more and more people are now adding Battambang to their itineraries. We stepped down from the bus and into a scrum of beaming drivers all waving homemade signs with every possible hotel name squeezed onto them, trying to second guess where you’re going. Free lifts in exchange for their sales pitch for a full-day tour of Battambang’s highlights.
We knew exactly where we were headed; our hostel was just 1 or 2 streets away. Or neither, to be precise; it turned out we were staying in Battambang’s answer to Platform 9 and 3/4 – Street 1.5.
We knew it was a tiny fraction of the size of Phnom Penh, but for a second city, Battambang felt more like a sleepy town than major city. The whole place seems to enjoy a lie in, as all cafés and street stalls only start setting up around noon. At 12.01 we found ourselves perched on the quiet balcony of Kinyei at the end of Street 1.5, Cambodian coffee, fresh lime juice and local map in hand.
From the tuk tuk drivers’ guesswork greetings we’d worked out what they reckoned to be on the must-see attractions in Battambang. Bat caves, big tops, and bamboo trains featured on every list. We could live without seeing the bat cave, and, though it was for a good cause, the circus didn’t look amazing. The bamboo train, though? That sounded like a one-of-a-kind thing, and something you can’t skip with a blog title like ours.
Cambodia’s train network was all but destroyed under the Khmer Rouge. Battambang used to have a busy railway station, but the tracks and platform are now completely overgrown, and time stands still at 08.02am on the abandoned station’s clock.
Though there are now a few freight lines running on restored stretches of track, there’s no passenger railway at all. Or so we thought.
A Battambang bamboo train is a thin bamboo platform strapped to a pair of train wheels, powered with the ingenious use of a lawnmower engine. We hopped on board and were soon hurtling through the countryside along old, warped tracks at 40km an hour! The metallic CRACK when you bounce over a big gap between rails makes you realise this was designed to get places. Fast.
Though it’s now mostly just a fun way for visitors to speed through the countryside, the train was once the main mode of transport for villagers to get into Battambang before they were connected by road. We went 7km along the track, where a few stalls were waiting to sell us cold drinks and t-shirts, and children (speaking much better English than their parents) had been put to work selling friendship bracelets. We stopped and spoke with a woman who remembered the train before it became a tourist attraction – she rode it to school before a road was built to her village.
Aside from the hair raising speeds, the highlight was each time another bamboo raft came hurtling in the opposite direction along the same track. With a perfectly choreographed routine, the two drivers hopped off, dismantled the raft, and moved it onto the grass to let the other pass. There is a system for the stand-offs; whichever raft has more on board wins, and the other must wait in the hedgerow. Our driver only had us for cargo, so used our hedgerow pit-stops as smoking breaks, rolling cigarettes with leaves he picked next to the track.
Elsewhere in Cambodia we’d had to look a bit harder than usual to get beyond ‘Western food’ and find cheap local food. In Battambang this was easy. Other than a short strip of expat-owned cafés dotted along Street 2.5, Battambang doesn’t have nearly as big a divide between local and tourist places. We quickly realised we could live on just a few $$ per day, and now had to regularly work out the Riel exchange rate as this was the first place we’d seen it used almost as much as dollars.
We ate fresh baguettes for 500 Riel (under 10p) from the bakery, fruit from the market for lunch for even less, and a big bowl of noodles for about 50p. The charcuterie platter at Canadian-owned Bric-A-Brac on Street 2.5 looked very tempting, but not tempting enough to be worth double our whole daily budget.
In the end we did make it to the bat cave, but not for the bats. The cave is inside a hill a few kilometres outside the city that has amazing panoramic views of the otherwise completely flat landscape.
Once we’d dodged the macaques along the trail to the top we found a colourful monastery perched on the top and the beginnings of what looked like Cambodia’s highest tree house.
Back in town we walked north along the river on a route that supposedly leads to a Pepsi factory that’s sat abandoned since the Khmer Rouge times when the employees either fled or were forced out to work in the fields. Apparently ready-to-ship bottles still line the shelves inside.
We didn’t get as far as the factory but the day-to-day routines were maybe more interesting. Getting petrol involves pulling up at a rack of old gin, Pepsi or water bottles filled with petrol, and funnelling in the amount you need. Picking up ice is easy, any of the huge red chest-freezers along the roadside are full of ice, just scoop out the amount you need for a handful of Riel. Walking back into town we almost crashed a wedding; the marquee was stretched over the pavement right in front of the family’s house full of guests enjoying a buffet while the bride and groom had their photos taken.
As our final stop in Cambodia it was nice to see more of the countryside and everyday life in a laid-back place before flying back into the madness of Bangkok.