Planes, trains and automobiles: Cambodia part 2
... and Tuk Tuk's and bamboo trains, and longboats, and pretty much any other form of transport you can think of. That's what this leg of the journey is going to be about! Cambodia is a vast country; to see it you're going to have to get used to long stints on various forms of public transport, so word of advice, pack yourself a Kindle, or download some Netflix, because to get from city to city, you're going to need something to pass the time.
On leaving Phnom Penh, I can only say I was slightly sad. I'd grown to love the stifling heat of the city, I'd learnt to just step out into the manic road and cross it with FULL confidence (if you didn't, you'd be stood waiting to cross for hours) and had made new friends here I'd stay in touch with for life. But I was also incredibly excited to head out to Battambang. This is about a 6-7 hour coach/bus journey from Phnom Penh, which I know sounds like a long time, but I promise the time flies when you see the urban jungle of the city melt away into the lush countryside of this pocket of South-East Asia.
Not far out of the city, we stopped off at a shop. A convenience store if you will. But on stepping out of the bus, it was clear that this was no ordinary Co-Op. The sheer smell was overwhelming, and it took me a minute to understand what this smell was. Purely pungent, it turned out to be a form of dried fish.
Now as you can imagine, in the sweltering 40 degree heat of the day, this was less than inviting, but it's worth noting that the Cambodian people are incredibly kind, and generous; they will likely offer you a chance to try some of the local delicacies. Now it's up to you whether to accept or decline, but be mindful to do it politely and courteously. This is their livelihoods and they're incredibly proud of their traditions. I did decline, but I know others that accepted and actually found the taste fairly pleasant! However, I'm happy to say I don't feel like I've missed out on this one.
Battambang is located in the North-West of the country, and all I can say is from the minute I arrived here, I was completely in love. The vibe of this town I'd describe as 'cafe-culture'. I'm not saying you'll find Starbucks on every corner (save that for Phnom Penh), but It's a complete world away from the chaos of the capital, with it's French colonial architecture and trendy hang-out spots lining the riverbank- for a moment you could almost mistake this small-town atmosphere for somewhere on the European continent.
One of my top tips for this part of the country (and actually applies for the whole of travelling around South East Asia actually), is make sure you have something to cover your shoulders with, either just short sleeved t-shirts, or a shawl to drape around your shoulders. It's tempting to dig out the string vests in the extreme heat, but remember this is a modest country and it's respectful in Cambodia to cover your shoulders and knees when out and about, especially if entering local resident's homes and shops (and most definitely for the temples). This is less of an issue around the beaches and islands of the South, where bikinis are common place, but err on the side of caution, and pop a light shawl in your backpack and you're pretty much covered.
Arriving late afternoon into Battambang, meant there was time to squeeze in a 'must-do' attraction. The Bamboo train of Battambang is a rail experience to be remembered. Forget your typical morning commute, the tracks that carry each 'Norry' (the bamboo train version of a carriage) begin almost 4km away from the Wat Kor Bridge and run 7km to O Sra Lav. The journey lasts about 20 minutes each way, and a return ticket for one is $10. If you can share the fare, for 2 people it's $5 each, so get into the hostel, and try to find someone who fancies a bit of adventure. There has been talk of the tracks being closed, and relocated to a different place within the province, but since when I visited when I was assured this was imminent, to now, the tracks have gone nowhere.
Hurtling through the Cambodian countryside on this platform of bamboo, balanced upon metal frames is personally, my new favourite way to commute. The track at parts is fairly hair-raising, with bridges over ravines that (I'm not going to sugar coat it) look fairly like they're on their last legs, but the views of miles and miles of unspoilt land just minutes away from town are worth the minute risk. Nothing beats though what has to happen when you meet oncoming traffic in the form of another 'norry' (oh yes, did I mention it was a single track for both directions of traffic?)
All passengers have to disembark the bamboo platform, whilst the drivers proceed to dismantle the 'norry'. They then take this frame off the tracks, wait for the opposing driver to move forward, and then replace their frame onto the tracks, and re-board all passengers. It's quite the experience of negotiation as to which driver is going to go through with this tedious procedure, and how they figure it out I'll never know. There didn't seem to be any hard and fast rules as to who has to give way!
By the time the experience was over the sun had set on the first day in Battambang, it was time to search for some dinner, so it came as a pleasant surprise that a group of us were invited to one of the local homes for a traditional Cambodian dinner. If there's one thing that sticks out from my entire time in this beautiful country, it is the kindness and humanity of the people. Eager to show you the finest of their land, the people will go out of their way to provide you with the best of their cuisine.
The centre-piece of the meal, was the meat. Thin slices of beef and chicken are placed onto the middle of what I can only describe as something that looks like an upside down, metal drainer, placed over a portable cooker. It's an incredibly fun, and social way of eating, where you only cook what you want to eat; simple but it's incredibly tasty. Many of the staples I'd come to expect in Cambodia were also included such as rice, various vegetables, and a rather special pepper sauce, of which the recipe I'm assured is secret and passed down generation to generation through the family (although they must have liked me as I managed to get my hands on the recipe).
Back into town via Tuk Tuk (honestly Uber has nothing on these guys, they just always seem to be there when you need them), and it's clear to see that Battambang comes alive at night. The sleepy vibe of the day, replaced with a vibrant, colourful buzz. It's worth checking out the markets, or even just taking a walk by the riverside with a cooling iced coffee, or juice. The shops remain open until late too, so if there's anything you need you can always pick up your essentials here.
The countryside surrounding Battambang is simply stunning, and so diverse with culture and tradition. If you fancy an adventure, I'd highly recommend joining a bike tour that will guide you around the local villages on a produce and culture tour. I did a half day (roughly about 4 hours) tour with a company called 'Soksabike', which cost $27, and was guided by a local student guide. Don't be thinking you need to be the next Chris Hoy, or anything crazy like that. The cycle is leisurely and the bikes are well serviced with helmets provided. To put it into perspective you'll be cycling along fairly flat and level service, covering a distance of approximately 25km in four hours.
On the tour, the guide taught us basic Cambodian language, so that we were able to greet hosts that welcomed us into their homes in the proper manner. We stopped at homes like the one pictured below, to learn from the families that live rurally, about their traditions, and livelihoods that truly are the heart and soul of the communities.
We learnt the process of making the rice paper, that encases the fresh spring rolls often found in this corner of the world. These are nothing like your supermarket party nibbles however. After making the rolls, we cooked them with our hosts and sat to enjoy them. I can't believe I've dedicated a whole paragraph so far to spring rolls but believe me when I say, they're just out of this world. We also learnt here how to hang and dry bananas, to make two different types of banana snack, one chewier and sweeter than the other due to extended drying in the sun.
The next stop on the tour was to go and see how rice wine was made. This involves almost a baking process, and some fermentation to make the strong tasting wine. The heat within the house was fairly unbearable, as the 'workshops' are underneath the main room of the house (where the stilts are that hold these wooden houses high in the sky). In Cambodia it's not uncommon to flavour the rice wine by putting plants or animals such as snakes into the bottle. I passed on this (being absolutely petrified of snakes) but I'm assured it's fairly tasty. Go easy on the wine though, it's strong stuff, and you do still need to be able to cycle in a straight line for a while longer yet!
The next stop was to see how sticky rice was made (I'm sensing a rice theme here are you?) The coconut rice is stuffed into tubes of bamboo along with beans, and then steamed. The black charred bamboo is then shaved off to leave the clean, pale wood, and then peeled back to reveal the formed cylinder of sticky rice! This is an amazing snack, and for $1 (there's that magic number again) you can buy your own tubes to take away (Which I definitely did as it keeps fresh for a couple of days, and makes a great snack for when on the road).
Lunch is included on the tour, and was provided by another family in one of the villages. I'll never forget the hospitality shown by these families during this time (also quick note, wear very light clothing on this day. I wore cotton shorts, cotton vest, and a linen shirt which I took off for eating, breaking the shoulders and knees covered at all times rule, but I took guidance from the tour leader who assured us that the families were accepting of such, as physical activity was included). An ice cold coconut and a cuddle with the children in this family truly did complete the lunch experience in style and was so very soothing for the soul (photo taken with permission).
To round off the tour we cycled back towards Battambang. This town has it's own tragic history with the Khmer Rouge, and so we stopped at a memorial just outside of the city. The tour leader spoke with such pride about the people of his hometown that had overcome such hardship, and he showed no malice despite the atrocities they had been through, not all that long ago. Next to this memorial, was another temple of worship, guarded by the gods. True beauty, next to pure horror. A strange juxtaposition to be faced with.
I genuinely felt as though I could have carried on with this experience all day (if this is you there are full day tours available), but it was time to hand back our bikes, and head back into town. There were plans in place to head out of town for another once-in-a-lifetime, must-see experience and so it was time to get ready, freshen up, and head on out of the town into the countryside.
The bat caves of Battambang offer a chance to see one of nature's greatest shows on earth. Around dusk every night (check out your weather apps to see what time the sun is setting that day, or ask one of the local Tuk Tuk drivers- honestly these guys know everything!). Ask to be dropped off at the bat caves and you'll be taken right to the centre of the action. The long street that runs by the bat cave is lined with tourists and locals alike, waiting to see this spectacular, with the whole experience being topped off by being able to buy a beer or two from the street vendors, and sit on the plastic chairs. It sounds so basic really: plastic chairs, $1 dollar beer, and some bats, but truly what more do you need?
It's hard to describe how it starts. It's almost as if you are waiting forever, and then you start to slowly see small shapes emerge from the cave. Before you know it, MILLIONS, and I mean, MILLIONS, of bats emerge from the cave, in what seems like choreographed formation, heading down for the nightly pilgrimage to Tonle Sap. It probably goes on for at least half an hour, without showing any signs of letting up. Some people leave before the end, but I personally feel that this one, is one worth waiting to the very last minute to leave for.
Battambang is a beautiful place, and to be honest, I could have (yet again), stayed to enjoy the sleepy vibe here just a little bit longer. However, a sensible path from here, is to head towards Siem Reap- the gateway to the temples of Angkor, via the floating villages of the Tonle Sap river. The long boats that carry you along the riverbank allow you to sit on the main deck, and just while away 7 hours of your life.... or you can do what I did, and climb onto the roof of the boat and proceed to sunbathe your way to Siem Reap (as you can see I was over the moon to be whizzing along the river, sat on the roof of a boat).
The journey through the floating villages is something you'll never experience in the same way anywhere else in the world. It starts with you sailing along a river with wooden huts lining the banks, before you start to notice bizarre things such as houses floating randomly down the river (it brings a whole new meaning to the idea of 'moving house'). You then stumble across groups of these houses, which are all little villages in their own right despite having no firm roots. You can stop at these villages where there are the equivalent of corner shops, schools, and clothes shops, even some restaurants! One that I stopped off at involved women making household items such as bowls, plates, and bags out of the plants that grow in the river. I bought a few gifts for my family and friends back home from here, whilst the women showed me how they dried the plants out to be able to weave them into designs. These people are truly on the outskirts of civilian life, hours away from the nearest big city, and therefore it can't hurt to help keep their lives afloat (literally!)
As we continued to sail down the river, the windy narrow river turns suddenly into vast open water, where the nearest land appears to be miles away. The sheer space here and sight of no other people around you can make you really wonder where you've gone to, but if you've chosen to truly wander and get lost in the world, you've found the right place. This open space leads to a very narrow waterway, where you can almost touch the trees either side of the boat... actually forget almost, you most definitely can given I got hit in the head by a massive branch so you might want to head to the lower deck at this point!
Before you know it you'll be reaching the landing point for Siem Reap, and be disembarking to make your way into town. As you do, you will likely be surrounded by children from the area begging for money or food. This may be really off-putting, and to be fair isn't the best first impression for Siem Reap, however your boat guide/tour will explain that the approach the country is encouraging to this is to not give any money or food. The government believes that by giving donations to the children, it is delaying their need to return to school, as it is seen to be more important to earn money. Instead be really firm, and walk straight on. Try to stick with a group here as there is always safety in numbers.
Siem Reap truly is the jewel of Cambodia, and the kind of place that everybody will definitely visit whether you've got 3 days or 3 months in the country. As the life supply for the temples of Angkor, it's packed with bars, restaurants, nightlife, and lush but very reasonable hotels. I stayed at the Sonalong boutique hotel, which there was simply no words for. It was like being in a 4 star hotel somewhere, with a pool, cocktail bar, spa treatments, and beautiful grounds.
If you're anything like me, you'll be itching to head out into town to explore. Siem Reap is BUZZING with life. Put simply, it's a backpackers paradise. Trendy artisan markets sell hareem pants, backpacks, jewelry and artwork, cafe's and restaurants are all open late, and as you walk down the streets street vendors will try to sell you assorted bugs on kebab sticks. It's truly an eclectic world. I thoroughly enjoyed shopping, and trying my first 'Amok' in the restaurants here (Cambodia's most famous dish, think of it like a thick curry), despite the torrential downpour of rain that I experienced. This storm didn't last long, and the minute it went, it was like it never happened with everybody coming out of hiding once more to continue their nights. But even with this wide array of activity on offer, there's one place that everybody flocks towards, and that is Pub Street. Named aptly because that's where all the bars and pubs are!
Whether it's just a beer with mates, or you fancy something more upbeat like a bit of Karaoke (trust me I heard some tragic renditions of 'I wanna dance with somebody on this night') there's something for everyone, and it's remarkably safe. There's something so relaxing about having a night out without having to dress like you're going for a night out in Liverpool, with messy buns, no makeup, baggy shorts and flip flops the unspoken dress code.
Despite how exciting all of this was, early hours I headed back to the hotel, for in the morning it would be an early start to head towards the temples. It's a good idea to pre-book your temple passes (which come in either 1, 3 or 7 day formats but I'll discuss this in the next post). Considered as one of the greatest sights to see in this world by many, it's well worth getting a good night sleep before heading to the Kingdom of Angkor ...
To be continued in part 3 x