Bats and Bamboo Trains in Battambang

Our journey to Cambodia’s second largest city, Battambang, was probably the most frustrating and strangest journeys we have had on our entire trip so far. On Wednesday 31st January 2018 we got a bus from Kampot to Phnom Penh at 8am to get into the capital for 12pm and then head straight to Battambang. This bus went smoothly and as planned. We were up early but still had time for breakfast (our trusty giant French toast) and the bus journey had been on schedule. Once we arrived in the capital we were told that the bus to Battambang wouldn’t be leaving Phnom Penh until 2pm, two full hours from when we arrived! With nothing we could do about it, we were used to the Asian way of travelling, you just had to go with the flow – we went off to have a walk around the area and then got some lunch from a little restaurant on a side street. Back and ready to get the bus at 2pm we waited and waited and at 2:45pm (after another bus from Kampot had arrived making us leaving so early pointless) we were taken to what we thought would be our bus but was actually another travel agent. From here we waited in the midday heat for the bus that didn’t come until 3:20pm, three and a half hours after we had arrived in Phnom Penh. They told us the journey would be around five to six hours which probably meant that it would be more like seven hours and we estimated it would be around 11pm or later when we would arrive in Battambang. It was a very, very long journey that involved us being on a bus with a handful of locals with only one speaking any English, loud Cambodian music playing through the bus and us stopping constantly to pick up parcels or passengers or to drop things off. We were worried our accommodation’s reception would end up closing before we arrived, but I managed to find someone on the bus who spoke enough English to let us borrow their phone so that we could call our hotel and tell them we were still on our way. We eventually arrived into Battambang at 10pm after one of the most bizarre trips of our travels. People were very helpful to us at the bus station, lending us a phone to call our hotel again to give them the address so they could come and pick us up. Instead of the nine hours we thought the bus would take, it took us fourteen, we were glad to finally arrive!

We had found a hotel that had prices the same as if we were both staying in a dorm so decided to do that as it would hopefully mean we would get a more peaceful night’s sleep – especially after a tiring and frustrating day travelling. We hadn’t realised that travelling to Battambang was so much off the beaten track for tourists and had never expected to be the only ones on the bus but, as always, the Cambodian people had done all they could to help us and so the misinformation we had seen from the travel agents (who I think sometimes just tell you what they think you want to hear) was placated by this.

The driver who had picked us up from the bus also offered tours of the area. This is the best way to see things in Battambang (or hiring a bike) so we waited until the next morning – so that we could have a lie in – and called to arrange for him to drive us around. We had wanted to do the tour the next day but he didn’t want to do this as he hoped to be able to get another tour booked in from the next people he picked up so we were able to negotiate $10 off the price and got the tour for $20 instead of $30. It was already 12pm and we went for lunch before heading out on our tour.

The first stop of the tour was to a winery. This is one of the only wineries in Cambodia and it was interesting to walk around to compare it to the ones we visited in Australia and New Zealand. The main difference we noticed about the grapes being grown here was that they were grown on trellises above our heads. We walked down passageways that were framed by the grapes on vines and both red and green grapes were grown here. I think they’re likely grown so high up off the ground to protect them during the rainy season but that’s just speculation. It was nice to walk around and we could have tasted some wines but we still aren’t massive wine drinkers and it would have cost more so we didn’t bother. The winery also had some really cute little dogs which gave it extra points in my book.

We carried on through bumpy country roads (this wasn’t the smoothest journey of our lives) to Banon Hill Temple. This temple was at the top of a hill reached by a load a of stairs (358 steps to be exact). This seems to be a theme for temples and we were, surprisingly, not as tired as we expected when we reached the top. At the top were a number of small stupas that seemed to have the rocks making up the structures precariously balanced on top of one another to hold it all in place. Some were in worse condition than others with the most intact one having being decorated and housing the statue of a deity. This temple was originally built in the 11th century with further renovations on the place going into the 12th Century. The views were quite nice from the top although there was a lot of trees to obscure most of it, though we were able to spend as long as we wanted up here so got to have a good look around even though it’s a very small area.

When we got down, our tuk tuk driver was making some lunch so we got a drink and waited for him in one of the little restaurants. We weren’t in any rush so it wasn’t a big deal to us – he needs to eat after all and I think he expected we’d take longer than we did.

Near to the temple was the bamboo train. The bamboo train (called ‘norry’ by locals) was developed in the early 1980s after the Khmer Rouge lost their stronghold over the country. The parts were originally taken from old military trucks or broken tanks. The cart has a motor at the back which is similar to that on a boat with a brake and then a flat platform made out of bamboo which could hold cargo or people like these ones did. The track had indents to catch the wheels and went through some farmland before each cart was put on a turn-table and turned around to bring us back the way we came. We had a cart to ourselves and so sat on the padded cushions they provided for us at the front.

The original bamboo train was closed down to make way for a proper train in the area and then the new one got built here so that tourists could still see what it was like to travel on one. We weren’t sure if we were going to go on it as we had heard you were only on for around 5 minutes but you were actually on for around 20 minutes to half an hour so we thought that was worth the $5 it cost to go on it. We enjoyed the bamboo train. It’s only one track so they wait for all of the carts to come back before the next lot of passengers get a go so we had to wait around 5/10 minuets before we could get on. You actually go surprisingly fast down the track so it’s almost like being on a kids fairground ride. The original one was properly used by locals and I read that sometimes you would see a cart coming the other way and whoever had the lightest load had to take their cart off the tracks to let the other one past – that would have been cool to see!

We were then driven through more countryside to Phnom Sampov Temple and Killing Caves. You can pay a bike a couple of dollars to drive you to the top of the hill where the temple and cave is located but we decided to save that and walk up to the top – exercise is good for you after all. It was pretty steep but we managed it and there were stairs to come back down so that wasn’t too bad. There is a Buddhist temple at the top of the hill which is brightly painted depicting scenes of the Buddha’s life.

From here we walked to the Killing Caves. As with many parts of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge regime also had an impact here with Battambang being one of their last strongholds. The Killing Caves are a mass grave used during the Khmer Rouge regime. Over 10,000 people were killed here. They were taken to the top of the cave and hit on the neck or head before being thrown down into the cave to their death. It was sad to see the cave and know that so many people had their last fearful moments here before being thrown to their death. There is a memorial here housing some of the skulls of the victims on a small stupa but there is surprisingly little information here such as an information plaque on what happened here so I wish we had read up a bit on it beforehand or that our driver had told us some information on it.

Near to the caves there was a viewpoint that gave you great views over the surrounding farmlands. There is another temple here which is very pretty with intricate patterns on the walls and there were also a few monkeys! The whole area was very nice and worth the walk to the top.

We were told to be back down the hill by 5:30 to get a spot for the bats coming out of the cave. These bats are part of a colony of over one million Asian wrinkle-lipped bats and is one of 13 colonies that are in Cambodia with the one at this cave thought to be one of the biggest. In total, it’s estimated that there are around 6.5 million of these bats in Cambodia. We chose to get a drink at the Bat Cave Pub as this was high up giving us a good view of the cave entrance and meant we could sit and enjoy the bats leaving the cave. At around 6pm the bats started leaving the cave. It was amazing to see thousands and thousands of bats fly out in synchronisation and swoop around eating up the flies that were out in the early evening. For around 10/15 minutes the bats flew out in a steady block of tiny black dots and so we were able to pay for our drinks and go and see the cave from the ground to get a different vantage point of them. You could see the bats swirl and bend off into the distance which was cool. It was nice that they all seemed to stay together in a united mass of bats. They can travel up to 50km away from their cave each night to eat insects. The locals like the bats as one of their main foods include serious agricultural pests like plant-hoppers. The bats can eat 50-100% of its own body weight each night which has been estimated to prevent the loss of over 2000 tonnes of rice a year! That amount of rice is enough to feed 21,000 Cambodian’s annually – no wonder they’re protected by Cambodian law and are so popular in the local area!

Once the bats were starting to lessen, we went and found our driver and headed back into town where we were dropped off at a night market to get some food for tea. It had been a good day and we were happy to have got a driver for the day as it was quite a lot of driving which would have been tiring!

We had a really chilled next day where we got to lie in and then walked around the city exploring. We had downloaded a map of architecture in the area but when we started to do it we realised it wasn’t really for us so we just walked about and enjoyed doing relatively little instead.

Battambang is a nice city but there isn’t an awful lot to do in the city itself. We didn’t mind though and still had a nice day. Despite a very long journey to get there, we were glad we made the trip and enjoyed our time in Battambang.

Next stop: Siem Reap

Sending love x

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