Friday, February 4, 2011

11th Stop: Battambang

So, Battambang (or 'bottom bang' as it's pronounced) was, I have to admit, my pre-trip prediction for worst city. I don't know why, maybe the name, maybe because we weren't staying there for very long, either way, I'm an idiot. Battambang is awesome! Not so much the city itself, which is average at best, but the surrounding area, the countryside and the people are what makes it one of our favourite stops on the whole journey. Like Bagan, we've so many memorable pictures from here, I'll try to cram in as many as I can. Not bad for a town that we only really spent a day in!

We arrived in Battambang on the night of the 6th, after two bus journeys, first from Kampot and then Phnom Penh. Again, we made about 50 stops on each trip (Cambodians ay?! ). We didn't mind the travelling too much though. We were happy campers looking out the window, Ash was listening to music, while I was boning up on my Irish history. (Before we left Ireland, I thought I should really learn more about my own country's history, before we start learning about the history of others, so I downloaded a 240 part audiobook... Well, it was easier than actually reading!)

When we arrived at the bus stop, we were happily greeted by Happy, our tuk-tuk driver. We grabbed our bags from the luggage compartment, and as we did, a chicken jumped out, and ran across the road (Cambodia, the land where jokes come to life!). We thought this was hilarious, but were kinda afraid to laugh in case the locals took offence. Happy thought it was equally as hilarious, we liked him from the start. Seeing as we had been on a bus all day, we decided to head into the town centre to get some late dinner. We found a place that was highly recommended in the Lonely Planet called the Smokin' Pot. Well, the one thing I would say about the place is that it's certainly well named, in that the waiters must have been smokin' pot themselves, as it took them about half an hour to actually serve us! The food itself was mediocre, but it was cheap at least. We just retired to our room after dinner, to be ready for our action packed day ahead with Happy.

We met up with Happy at 10 o'clock the next morning outside the hotel, and he had a day full of activities planned for us! So off we went to our first stop, the bamboo train. This is one of the things we had previously read about, but didn't really know what to expect. In a nutshell, it's a bamboo frame with wheels and a go-kart engine, that runs up and down the old train line... and that's pretty much it!

What an experience though! It was like being on a magic carpet travelling over the railway tracks, except of course for the excessive vibrations on your behind. (I guess they call it 'bottom bang' for a reason!) Sometimes as well, you'd encounter another bamboo train coming towards you in the opposite direction, so one would have to dismantle and wait for the other to pass. It was really cool though, jetting along about 10 inches off the ground, especially over these abandoned and overgrown tracks.

At the end of the line was a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, with a little brick factory. It was just so different from your regular touristy trip. We got a guided tour around the place from a local boy of around 10 or 11, and we gave him a dollar for his troubles. He must make a killing as a part-time tour guide! The people here in the village were lovely too and Frankie was even making friends with the locals!

Next stop was the hill-top Phnom Sampaeu. It was a long hike up, but definitely worth the effort. Like Mt. Popa in Bagan, the crowning temple wasn't anything special, but the main draw here is most definitely the view. The land all around is pretty much completely flat, bar the odd little bump, making this rocky peak ridiculously out of place amongst the surrounding fields, ironed out as far as the horizon.

While we were up there too, we saw some monkeys playing with a balloon! Haha... monkeys!

On our way back down the hill though, poor Aisling's flip-flop broke. Disaster! She couldn't walk in them at all, and it was still pretty early on in the day, we didn't want to have to go back to the hotel. But fear not! Fresh from my laptop fixing, I swooped into action! Unfortunately in this scenario, there was nothing to take apart or blow on, but instead I outdid myself by fixing it with a hairband and a pair of tweezers! I felt like MacGuiver!

There was a few more temples and Buddha statues scattered around, but the peak on which Phnom Sampeau stands is probably most famous for the Khmer Rouge killing caves. There's now a staircase that leads down into the open chamber, although victims were thrown down here to their deaths through a natural skylight in the roof of the cave.

Wherever you go in the country, there seems to be scars from the Khmer Rouge. There's now a reclining Buddha statue in the cave itself, along with a memorial for the victims. There were also two monks down there who gave us red string bracelets.

When we reached the bottom, we hopped back in the tuk-tuk and went on a tour of the Cambodian countryside. What an incredible experience. It's definitely up there in the highlights of the entire trip, just for the palette of colours alone. From bright blue skies, to warm orange dirt tracks, with deep greens and yellows too!

And most vibrant of all, the rich red of the chili farms we passed along the way!

Next stop was Phnom Banan which, despite not being that hyped up in the guidebooks, was one of our favourite temples from the entire trip. We had another steep climb to endure, with 358 steps to the top, but again, totally worth it. This time for the temple itself as much as for the view. It just had a different feel to the others, and there was a kind of Aztecy style to it too that we loved.

It also held the answer to a mystery that was plaguing us for the whole trip! When we think of Buddha, we think of the fat, jolly one, but all we've been seeing for the entire journey was the young, lean one! (And we've seen a lot of Buddhas...) We couldn't figure out where the change came, from slim to fat. Then we found the answer, caught in the act!

Too many jam sandwiches, that's the reason! Mystery solved!

Before we headed back to the hotel, we went around to a couple of other places, with Happy narrating along the way. We went to a shaky suspension bridge over the river, a couple of small country villages, and a big tree with hundreds of fruit bats in it. As it was the middle of the day, the bats were obviously all sleeping. You wouldn't even notice them at first, they just looked like leaves, dangling from the branches.

But Happy soon woke them out their slumber for us, and the tree just erupted with bats flying in all directions! They were huge! They just flew around up in the sky thankfully though, we didn't have to run for cover or anything.

One last point about our day in Battambang; driving through the country villages, it was like the circular train in Yangon all over again. We were like celebrities! Kids would wave and shout hello at us wherever we went and would even run up to the tuk-tuk to shake our hands. If you're suffering from low self-esteem, I'd definitely recommend a drive through the Cambodian countryside. They'd make you feel like the most important person in the world!

And that was that for our one and only day in Battambang! Happy dropped us back to the hostel, and since we were going to Siem Reap next, he gave us a number for his friend (probably Dopey or Bashful...) who is also a tuk-tuk driver in that part of the country. As he had been so good to us, we promised to give his buddy a call when we got to Siem Reap. And so, we said farewell to our friend Happy.

We got dinner (delicious dinner may I add) in the Gecko Cafe that evening, and also grabbed some snacks for our boat trip to Siem Reap the next morning.

Now, usually a journey from one city to another might get a paragraph, if even that, but I've got to say, this trip was one of, if not the highlight of the whole holiday! It was amazing! I could write a whole entry on it! If I could recommend one thing to do in the whole of South East Asia, the boat from Battambang to Siem Reap would be it! And that's saying something. There's no better way to see a walk of life so far removed from your own. And if we thought we were like celebrities driving through the countryside, well, this just took the biscuit! Our arms were sore by the end of the journey from waving so much! Every few seconds, all you'd hear is a tiny voice in the distance shouting "HELLLOOOOO!!!", and you'd have to search windows and doorways to actually see where the waving was coming from! It was like some bizarre shooting game! Kids were popping up everywhere and you had to wave back before the boat passed by.

Oh, I forgot to mention. All the villages we passed were floating villages. That's right. Houses, shops, temples, schools, all built on the water. We even saw a floating TV shop! How the hell could there be a TV shop?! Well, if you look again at the picture above, you'll see an aerial on the roof. Don't even ask me how it works! These people live in houses made of straw, completely built on the water and with no windows, yet they still probably curl up on the couch every night to watch an episode of Fair City (or whatever the Cambodian equivalent is...). We couldn't get our head around it. We even saw one with a satellite dish! (I wonder if they know that you can get 50 quid's worth of M&S vouchers if you recommend a friend...?)

It was great to experience though. Things that seem so alien to us are perfectly normal for them, playing on floating basketball courts, taking a bath on your doorstep, rowing to school, and they don't know any different. (Although, considering they have satellite TV, they probably do know different...!)

Along the way, our surroundings changed so much, which is pretty strange for a boat journey! We went from wide open lakes, to the narrowest waterways you've ever seen. (Some of the time you literally had to jump out of the way to avoid oncoming branches!)

From floating villages, to vast wetlands with trees growing out of the water!

All the while, balming out on the roof of the boat under the hot sun! I hate to say it, but Myanmar may have some competition for best country...

1 comment:

  1. wow, I love the blog Mark! great work! you could be a travel writer, no??? (pretty random for someone who dosn't read!). I think this may be the only way im gonna see Asia! least for the next year!xxxx