Departing 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Wandering 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
The 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?
Next 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!
Bouncing 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.
The 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.
The 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).
We 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.
As 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
There 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.