We travelled from Chi Phat back to the capital city, Phnom Penh, in a rusty old mini van loaded to the brim with bananas and durian fruit (which accounted for the vile stench lingering in the car). This was allegedly the ‘VIP’ mini van, so we awaited it eagerly clutching our ticket simply stating ‘2X van’. It seemed legit. We were ferried across the river from Chi Phat along with a handful of locals who jabbered away in Khmer, and bumped along the dirt tracks towards the main road. There were multiple frustrating stops along the way to deliver the mountain of fruit piled high in the back seats. It became a game to periodically flick away the persistent ants that clambered from the fruit bags onto our seats and shoulders. This distracted us from the cramped conditions and bare minimum legroom. We finally arrived in Phnom Penh after 5 hours and gladly inhaled the sweet non-durian smelling air.
It was nice to be back in the capital as there were a few locations we’d saved for this second trip that we hadn’t managed to fit in the first time round. After our big Chi Phat trek, we felt we deserved a relaxing Japanese massage at ‘Seeing Hands Massage’ for $7 each. Seeing Hands is similar to the Omamori set up in Hanoi, where we went a handful of times when we were living there. Seeing Hands trains blind people in the art of massage and there are multiple chains all over the country. We enjoyed an hour-long full body massage and even bagged a cuddle from our masseuse’s at the end as they said goodbye to us.
Continuing our support for the local social enterprises in Phnom Penh, we dined at ‘Friends’, a restaurant supporting marginalised children and youth into the hospitality industry. We ate an array of tasty tapas style dishes, including chicken, mango and cashew chicken, a red snapper salad, and an aubergine dip. We couldn’t resist dessert; passion fruit tart with white chocolate ice cream, and a black rice and coconut ice cream pot. It was delicious and the serve was excellent.
After a wonderful evening in Phnom Penh, sipping cocktails at the famous FCC (Foreign Correspondents’ Club) it was time to head to Battambang and board another mini bus. Fortunately for us, the company we’d booked was a dream. There were no smelly durians, no ants, and we had loads of legroom. We were even given a wet wipe and chilled bottle of water upon strapping ourselves in (yes, it EVEN had seatbelts). The 4 hours to Battambang flew by and we arrived by 7pm, taking in the beautiful countryside and orangey sunset on our way into the centre.
We stayed at a wonderful place called First Hotel bang in the city centre and round the corner from where the bus terminated. After the horrors of Chi Phat and staying in a dormitory in Phnom Penh, it was glorious walking into a clean spacious room with private bathroom (including a sink in the bathroom wahoo), as well as super friendly staff.
We only had one full day to explore the city, which felt like a flying visit, but despite Battambang being the second largest city in Cambodia there were only a handful of tourist attractions. Battambang is in the northwest of Cambodia, not far from Siem Reap and the border with Thailand. The city is situated on the Sangkae River that winds its way through the province.
Our main priority was visiting the bamboo Train, one of the top attractions in Battambang. Our hotel arranged for a tuk tuk to transport us to and from the railway but our driver, Vany, ended up acting more as a tour guide than a driver. Battambang is noted for its French colonial architecture so we made a few pit stops on the way to the bamboo train with the help of Vany’s detailed explanations. We snapped some photos of the Bank, a monument of the King representing Battambang province and generally soaked up the colonial style buildings with their classic mustard yellow exteriors.
Finally, we arrived at the bamboo Train. This tourist attraction is overseen by the tourist police and runs just outside the city to a village that has a brick factory. It’s the top attraction in Battambang and is one of the world’s all-time unique rail journeys. We didn’t quite know what to expect other than the fact we were boarding a train carriage made of bamboo, but it turned out to be the weirdest but most exhilarating activity in Cambodia so far. Each bamboo train, known as a norry, consists of a 3 meter long wooden frame covered with slats of bamboo, with an engine motoring you along the tracks. The ultra light bamboo carriage rests on two barbells and each can carry up to 3 tonnes (originally used to transport rice). We cruised along at 15km/h but it felt much quicker. The train journey runs 20 minutes each way with a 10 minute break in the middle to shop around, or like us, politely ignore the children begging you to buy 10 bracelets for $1 and then avoid pinky promising you’ll come back later to make a purchase. The most ingenious part of the bamboo train concept is its solution to two trains meeting when travelling in opposite directions. The carriage with the least number of people hop off, the car is quickly disassembled and set on the ground beside the tracks so the other carriage can pass. Whizzing around the click-clacking track was a lot of fun, the countryside was beautifully scenic, and we only wish we could have travelled around the whole of Cambodia on one.
On the way back from the bamboo train, we stopped at Kampheng Pagoda,a Buddhist Temple. Vany is a very philosophical man and also teaches at schools when he’s not busy being a five star tour guide and tuk tuk driver. He was kind enough to message his friend in Siem Reap to arrange free transport for us when we arrived in the city the following day. We exchanged WhatsApp details and Vany sorted the bus to hotel pick up for us free of charge. Our final stop was the Governor’s Residence.
French colonization resulted in well-defined streets laid out in a grid like pattern. There was little traffic in the city and the wide roads made it easy to walk around. Battambang was also awarded Cambodia’s cleanest city (which admittedly isn’t a great feat) as it actually implemented the novelty of public dustbins on the street. We enjoyed wandering around the laid back city, visiting sleepy cafes and bakeries as well as a couple of gift shops. There is a notable French influence in Battambang even today. Many of the cafés and art galleries we popped our heads in to appear to be run by French natives and many of the Khmer people working there spoke fluent French. Choco L’Art Café was our favourite place where we spent some time editing photos and blogging. They served some cheap and delicious Khmer coffee and their sandwiches were made with homemade bread.
We headed to Battambang’s local night market for dinner for some cheap grub. There weren’t many other tourists dipping their toes into the local BBQ’d buffet laid out on the streets and we were a little apprehensive ourselves. We haven’t really eaten ‘proper’ street food since being in Cambodia and we were anticipating a potential food poisoning explosion, code brown situation. But we enjoyed some rice and fried chicken on the bank of the river with no issues. It was tasty and we didn’t fall victim to the dreaded squitzy bottom. The main difficulty was ordering the food in the first place as the lovely ladies spoke little English (which is unusual in Cambodia – from our experience the locals have the highest level of English in all the places we’ve visited so far and most people can have a basic conversation). We almost walked away without paying and had crossed the main road before we saw a tiny Khmer woman running after us hooligans. We didn’t realise rice lady and chicken lady were different stalls requiring separate payments, you see.
Our final evening was spent watching Cambodia’s best-known circus, the magnificent Phare Ponleu Selpak. Battambang has been named by UNESCO as a City of Performing Arts and is home to the performance and arts school ‘Phare Ponleu Selpak’, a homegrown NGO that grew out of the post Khmer Rouge-era refugee camps in Thailand, which were eliminated by the city’s artistic heart. In the camps, a French humanitarian worker began offering sessions worked as art therapy, allowing children to express emotions through art, and the social enterprise grew from there. They seek to provide education, access to the arts and vocational training to young people and children in the community. They have a visual arts school, performing arts school, educational programs and also offer social support. Their professional enterprise, the Cambodian Circus, provides career pathways for circus performers and musicians. It was amazing to think the performers we were watching were only students as they already had what seemed like superhuman powers. The specific performance that we watched combined Cambodian folklore with modern day issues and included juggling, aerial acts, clowning, diablo and inhumane flexibility. It was clear how much fun the circus performers were having acting, dancing, swinging around and contorting themselves into rubik’s cubes. We were rather impressed.
Battambang was a pleasant surprise. We didn’t quite know what to expect from the city upon arrival but we really enjoyed our time here. It felt very different to the other places we’d visited and we saw a lot of things we’ve never seen in any other country, the highlights being the bamboo train and the circus.