Eye-opening Cambodia

Battambang to Siem ReapDeparting Thailand and entering Cambodia was like stepping back 50 years in time. It’s a fascinating country full of charms but cloaked with melancholy. Among the smiling children, waving grannies, chatty vendors, meditating monks, you can’t help but feel a sadness. Cambodia lost 34% of its population to the Khmer Rouge genocide and with a brutal history as recent as the 1970s, everyone is directly connected to this loss of 2.4 million people and everyone has stories to tell. We are ashamed to admit that this violent chapter was left out of our history classes, but we were about to learn about it directly from the survivors and their children.

Our first destination over the border was Battambang, said to have the country’s best preserved French colonial architecture and more artists per capita than anywhere in Cambodia. It’s a vibrant region, albeit a bit rough around the edges, and a fascinating introduction into this complex country.

 

Battambang, Cambodia

cambodian french colonialThe town of Battambang has been settled since the 11th century but the French colonization in the early 1900s left its biggest mark on town’s style. Today classic European architecture, tree-lined boulevards, Art Nouveau lamp posts mix in with plywood road stalls and tarped markets for a quirky and beautiful mix.

 

cambodian monks collecting almsThe central market, a maze of stalls selling everything from blingy jewelry to fish heads, is the heart of town and pumps from early morning until late into the night. After a breakfast of rice porridge, we walked out from the stalls to see monks lined up to collect their daily alms of rice, vegetables, or whatever the vendors could spare in the name of Buddha.

 

battambang train track villageWandering the scenic river promenade and popping into funky artist studios, we got to the end of town and found the old train station. Battambang used to be a center of French Indochine trade with a rail system shuttling products to and from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Phen. The station has been shut for decades but it has seen new life with abandoned buildings turned to barns, the tracks as kid’s balance beams, and boxcars as laundry racks.

 

The Crazy Train in Battambang


Left with no working trains but a countryside full of tracks, the locals decided to get transport flowing again…Cambodian style. With leftover metal wheels, sheets of split bamboo, and a 6HP lawnmower engine, locals run their own renegade railway to transport their goods from town to town and the occasional tourist. Watch the video to see the countryside at 35mph and see what happens when two cars meet on a single track.

 

battambang templesThe next day we hired a tuk tuk driver for the entire day (for $15 USD) to take us around the countryside and to see some of the area’s historic sites. Driving 11km north of town, passing stilted bamboo houses, fishermen casting their nets, ladies tending their crops, and schoolkids riding their bicycles (usually with multiple passengers and on a bike twice their size), we reached Wat Aek Phnom. For an 11th century temple we expected a ticket taker to be at the front of the monument but there was no one to be found aside from a few kids scaling the fallen pediments and pillars. We obviously couldn’t help but join in and rock climbed this crumbling masterpiece for the next hour.

 

A Cambodian Winery?

cambodia's only wineryNext stop…Cambodia’s only winery! Battambang is not the model of a grape growing landscape but if the French were going to be stationed here 50 years, they needed some vin! Though the wines we tried were close cousins with Manashevitz and vinegar, the brandy we tasted was excellent!

 

local kids swimming in battambangBouncing along in our tuk tuk, our driver pulled over at his neighboring fishing village. We walked through the riverside farms to get to the water to find a gaggle of girls out for an after-school swim (yes all ladies swim and bathe in full dress). Having just come from English class, they were keen to practice with us. They peppered us with questions like what’s your favorite food, color, sport, animal, country, and more introductory q’s then said “Thanks! Bye!” and ran back into the water with their best airplane arms.

 

how to make rice paperThe eclectic nature of this tour continued with a stop at a rice paper “factory,” aka grandma’s house and her grandchild workforce cranking out hundreds of these little spring roll wrappers for the local shops. Rice water goo gets poured onto a skillet until it solidifies in about 10 seconds, scooped up and passed to the young girl via this bamboo lazy suzan which she transfers onto the mesh rack to dry. We were captivated by the process but could not imagine the monotony day in and day out. Respect.

 

Banan Temple

visit banan templeThe historic highlight of the area is definitely the Banan Temple. Pre-dating the famous Ankor Wat, these similarly beehive-like structures are claimed by Battambangers to be the UNESCO site’s original inspiration. Be it our first day of Cambodian temple hopping, we thought this series of temples had to be one of the most spectacular sites in the country…what we didn’t know was this was just the beginning. (Tip: if you come to Cambodia don’t start in Siem Reap, its temples will only make you jaded. Visit Battambang first for the chronological lead up).

 

Phnom Sampeou killing cavesWe had been chatting with our tuk tuk driver throughout the day but it wasn’t until the Phnom Sampeou Killing Caves that he really opened up. There are 20,000 mass grave sites around the country where the Khmer Rouge would execute intellectuals, politicians, and any one showing any signs of dissent towards their plans of an extreme communist agrarian state (wearing glasses was enough reason for a death sentence). Standing in front of the cave where they used to bludgeon people and push them into the cavernous abyss, our driver told us about his childhood during the regime. Many children died during that time from starvation and disease but he credits his survival to his grandmother sneaking extra rice from the farm where she worked (a crime punishable by death) to help him grow. The flags in this photo are made from scraps of victims clothing found in the area.

 

Bats flying from Phnom SampeouAs night falls at the caves, the bats come out. That grey steak across the sky is actually comprised of thousands of bats streaming out in what seemed to be an endless flow of screeching little vampires. This apparently happens here every night for nearly an hour, but it was like nothing we’d ever seen.

 

The Boat from Battambang

River tour from Battambang to Siem ReapThere are plenty of reasons to come to Battambang but perhaps the main one is the boat ride to Siem Reap. Albeit an slower and slightly uncomfortable mode of transit, this 8-hour wooden boat ride (it can be 4-12 hours depending on the time of year and water level), it’s a captivating journey through tiny fishing villages where you pass floating houses, makeshift shacks, ladies doing river laundry, men working the massive cantilevered fishing nets, kids in canoes, and snapshots into a very different way of life.

 

So we are not exactly sure how this happened but in some amazing unknown setting on my camera, I managed to take a series of videos throughout the day and they were somehow combined together in this montage. At first glance it seems a little spastic but give it a minute and you will get one of the best looks into the daily hustle and bustle of Cambodia’s second largest city.

 

10 thoughts on “Eye-opening Cambodia

  • October 24, 2013 at 3:26 pm
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    “renegade railway” sounds like the name of a band or a movie! What a unique experience! I’ve heard from others as well that Cambodia is like going back in time.

    • October 27, 2013 at 11:38 pm
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      That is a good band name! We have no musical talent, so Renegade Railway is all yours if you’d like it! Outside of Angkor Wat, Cambodia is not a place made (or even really ready) for tourists and that is what’s so lovely about it. And considering its ancient temples, charming countryside, and lovely people, its a place all adventurers should go sooner than later!

  • October 24, 2013 at 5:16 pm
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    The field of carefully raked grains at the end of the second video- was that rice set out to dry, or some kind of amazing zen garden?

    • October 27, 2013 at 11:17 pm
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      Rice with their shells on drying in the sun : ) The concrete slab in front of the new temple gets the most direct sunlight so the the farmers take turns using it as a baking rack. @5a0d1aa2be89a55b9291e7388045b4cb:disqus I’m so glad you sat through our semi-spastic video…what did you think? We haven’t edited the rest of our Cambodia photos & videos, so we actually may have more footage like that…whether people want to see it or not is another question lol.

  • October 26, 2013 at 12:24 am
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    This post brought back fond memories that I thought I had lost. We spent a couple days in Battambang a fews years back and enjoyed its simplicity. You’re right, it is a little rough around the edges. We took a cooking class there that was fun… and then spent the rest of the time drinking fruit smoothies!

    • October 27, 2013 at 11:06 pm
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      So glad you guys got to go to Battambang and that our post you back! You are right about the simplicity..The 7-11s are traded for street stalls, horse and carts still go by, and the happiness is in the countryside. It’s a funny place but really endearing if you give it a minute, especially if you go beyond the center of town.

  • October 28, 2013 at 11:09 am
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    The saga continues. Thanks guys!

  • November 7, 2013 at 2:40 am
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    Hi guys
    Been so busy since I arrived on Samui but trying desperately to get back to my blog and reading yours again. Do let me know if you come back to Thailand – would be awesome to meet up.
    Loved this article, Cambodia is on my list (with a DOZEN other places) so it was nice to do a little reading first.
    Hope you’re both well.
    Colleen

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