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Cambodia: Battambang

sunny 37 °C
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Our journey from Sihanoukville to Battambang was not a smooth one, in any sense of the word. The first leg of the journey wasn't too bad; 5 hours on a comfortable mini bus to Phnom Penh. We were among another 8ish Western travellers and at one point, one young German woman leant over and told the driver to speed up. Considering most South East Asian bus drivers we've had so far have driven like maniacs we were quite satisfied with this driver's ability to follow speed limits and basic road rules. Evidently said German lady was a bit of a F1 enthusiast.
As we approached Phnom Penh the traffic came to a standstill as a result of ongoing roadworks but luckily, we still arrived in time for our connection.

As we waited in the Mekong Express terminal for our next minibus, Lauren started to feel very sick. This isn't an infrequent occurrence, what with the crazy heat and humidity and travelling around we often have bouts of feeling dodgy. We wrote it off as just one of those fleeting moments and boarded the next minibus bound for Battambang.
This bus wasn't full and the 4 seats at the back were free. We eyed them up for later in the journey when we fancied a nap and got on our way.

Unfortunately, Lauren's nausea didn't let up and after about an hour on the road I awoke from a little snooze to find Lauren vomiting in one of the metal dustbins. At first we thought it was the hot and spicy crisps she had eaten for 'breakfast' but she continued to be sick every 40 minutes or so, even after there was nothing left in her stomach. Needless to say the 7 hour bus journey wasn't pleasant for anyone on the bus, least not poor Lauren. It didn't help that this driver enjoyed winding in and out traffic at 100 k/h; shame the German lady had gotten off at Phnom Penh.

At our rest-stop we were confronted with a surreal plastic safari complete with zebras, giraffes, elephants, monkeys and rhinos, just stood there beside the block of toilets. Upon entering the toilets we then saw a live turkey just wandering around. At this point we were trying to remember if we HAD in fact eaten a Happy Pizza the night before and we were hallucinating.
Unlike Lauren, I was starving so I wolfed down an amazing plate of fried noodles and vegetables - the best I've ever had.

For the next 4 hours of the journey I watched excitedly out of the window at the lightening that was illuminating the sky. Weirdly though we didn't hear any thunder. Lauren continued to be ill and would throw up every sip of water she'd managed to swallow. Luckily our drop-off point was round the corner from our hostel so we hopped in a tuk tuk for $1 and checked-in.

BTB hostel (actually sign-posted Cambodia hostel) is, to be frank, a bit of a shit hole. When you walk through the front entrance of the hostel it feels like you're in an old function room; a very large, open-plan scruffy hall with little areas sectioned off by low brick walls. These sections were communal spaces with tatty rugs and cushions on the floor and a TV with a dusty PS2 attached. There is also a small bar and a café on one side. The floor was bare concrete and only 2 of the ceiling fans were working.
We were welcomed and 'checked-in' by a friendly but incompetent Swedish lady who struggled to answer any of our questions. We were walked to our dorm room off a large, dirty corridor and told that the rooms didn't have keys and didn't lock; anyone could just come in and out as they please. This posed an obvious security risk, especially considering the corridor the room was on opened onto the street; anyone wandering past could just walk though. So really the corridor was more like an alley; under cover but technically outside. To top it off, there were no lockers in the rooms and the few set of lockers available in 'reception' were tiny and all in use already.
As much as we were justifiably concerned that there was a good chance our belongings were going to get stolen, poor Lauren was desperate to just lie down so we accepted our fate and got into bed.

The beds were pretty hard (as are 99% of the beds we've had in SE Asia) but we both slept well; we clearly needed it. Lauren had managed to sleep through for a good 7 hours without vomiting but she was understandably weak and very dehydrated. I wasn't feeling entirely tip top either so we decided to stay in for the day. We figured the four young boys we were sharing a dorm with would be out all day so we'd have the room to ourselves to play on the internet and recuperate.
At lunch time I stepped out to get some plain food for us. I stumbled across a corner caf with sandwiches advertised on a chalkboard. I got some plain boiled rice for Loz and somehow managed to order myself an onion, egg ad potato baguette. In typical Lauren style as soon as I returned she shunned the rice and drooled enviously over my sandwich. She had a few bites and I forced her to eat a few spoonfuls of rice too but her appetite didn't last long. We had an early-ish night in the hopes that by the morning Lauren would feel refreshed and hungry ready for our tuk tuk tour.

We left at 8am for our tour. Lauren did feel better enough to have some BJ toast (butter and jam) but was still weak. Our first stop was the bamboo train; known as norry in Khmer, these warped old tracks with their flat bamboo 'carriages' and lawnmower engine take you on a windswept, rickety 50 k/h ride. There aren't any brakes or guard rails but there are plenty of spiky trees and plants to cut you along the way. We enjoyed the enlivening ride for half an hour with only a few minor skin injuries and got off at what looked like a small village with lots of cute naked children running around and a few clothes and drinks stalls. as we browsed and pulled faces at the unimpressed kids, we watched the railway men lift the 'mats on wheels' off the tracks to make way for other carriages to go past and to also re-orientate them to head back to where we got on. Here are some audiovisual accompaniments for you;

Our next stop was a winery. Yes, a Cambodian winery. The place was pretty underwhelming, we didn't have a tour as all we could see was essentially a bit of trellis with some trees on it (although in fairness we weren't shown the vineyard). Lauren and I were most interested in using the toilet shack and playing with the cute puppy. We decided not to spend any money on trying the wines; we're not exactly connoisseurs and it also wasn't the best way for Lauren to get over her bug. A nice French man who was visiting got a selection of everything and offered me sips of it all. As expected, most of the wine tasted like vinegar; not tasty at all. There was one ginger wine though that was 20-something percent proof that was actually pretty nice; I'd certainly enjoy a swig if I had a cold.
The winery was clearly just a bit of a sales trap; perhaps the tuk tuk driver knew the owners.

We moved on fairly quickly to Battambang's swing bridge that hangs above Sangker river. The bridge is known as the 'Indiana Jones bridge' but I can find no evidence that it was actually used in any of the films. The novelty is that when you walk along the bridge it, quite rightly, swings from side to side. Our group (of 14 white tourists) hopped, skipped and jumped excitedly across the bridge while frustrated locals on motorbikes and bicycles tried to manoeuvre past us.

On the other side of the bridge was a small village where there were rats being barbecued for dinner. I must say they looked pretty tasty. We travelled back over the bridge and tuk tuk'd to our next destination; Banan temple.

Wat Banan is a very old temple (built somewhere between the 10th and 12th centuries) that can only be reached by climbing 360 steep steps. It was once thought to be a prototype for Angkor Wat but I'm pretty sure this has now been discredited. It was now midday and the sun was blazing down on us. Lauren did try a few flights but just wasn't strong enough to do it all so she waited for me at the bottom. I huffed and puffed my way up and at one point, a young boy who was missing one of his lower legs started fanning me as I approached the summit.
I finally made it and stood still for a few seconds catching my breath and looking at the central tower. There were a number of buildings, all in a state of disrepair. The old stones looked as though they had just been precariously placed on top of each other, kind of like an old game of Jenga. Any minute I expected the temples to just cave in - crushing whoever was inside plus all of the bats that live in there. There were a few DANGER signs and some crude wooden reinforced doorways but not much else. As much as it's probably unsafe it was actually refreshing to see them in their more 'natural' sorry state, as opposed to a lot of the meticulously renovated sites we've seen.
There were some amazing stone carvings of intricate patterns, Buddhas and goddesses as well as a stunning view over rural Battambang.

Once we'd all made our way down we then head off to Koh 1000 (aka 1000 islands). The 30 min journey was a VERY bumpy ride in motorbike tuk tuk. We all felt a little battered and bruised by the time we'd arrived and then were confronted with a traumatised macaque monkey chained up to a tree. Our guide told us he gets chained up for the day so that he doesn't bite anyone and then he's freed in the evening. We obviously didn't believe a word of it.
We selfishy put the monkey situation to the back of our minds and climbed onto a narrow speedboat that took us to our very own little floating shack where we could hang out and get to know each other better. After gearing each other up we all jumped into the warm lake surrounding us - a little gutted the water wasn't colder. After an hour or so of frolicking a boat brought us beers and the hot food we'd ordered earlier. this was the life. The group was a good mix of people; ages between 18 and 35 and a mix of European nationalities (English, Scottish, Dutch and German). We all shared our travelling stories and tips and asked each other lots of questions. It was nice.

After eating and sufficiently drying off we moved onto the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau. The caves are on top of a mountain (Phnom Sampeau) and are pretty self explanatory. They acted as a mass murder site for the Khmer Rouge; people would be thrown through the 'skylight' at the top of one of the caves and then their bodies would be chucked into the connecting underground cave. Once such an awful place has now become rather beautiful; green vegetation flanks the caves and surrounding area along with golden Buddha statues.
As we waked down the steep slope back into the village to watch the nightly flight of the millions of fruit bats, we stopped and gazed across the panoramic Cambodian landscape.

At the bottom we sat and had a drink with our driver Rit as we watched the fruit bats head out to find food. Rit was a Cambodian refugee in California who moved over to the US with his family when he was a young boy. He was incredibly tall for a Cambodian and covered with tattoos. He also had a broad California accent when speaking English but spoke Khmer, which was an unusual thing to see and hear. He told us that his father was in the army and had been warned of the Khmer Rouge's uprising and so had enough time to flee with his family. He had lots of scars on his face and body and I had a feeling he'd been through some shit.

We had 5 minutes to freshen up back at the hostel before heading out again to the Phare Ponleu Selpak circus. The circus was started in 1986 as a non-for-profit organisation using the arts to help vulnerable young people. The circus was such fun, filled with amazing gymnastic and acrobatic talent along with traditional dance and costumes. There was also plenty of comedy and a great little band that provided all of the music.
We scoffed popcorn and watched in awe at these amazing teenagers.

It was a wonderful day; stuffed to the brim with unique experiences and sights. Lauren made it through, in spite of the heat, constant moving around and not a lot of food. We both slept very well that evening, contemplating our 5 hour bus ride to Siem Reap.

Posted by advensha 20:34 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia bamboo travelling mini_bus sickness battambang mekong_express tuk_tuk_tour phnom_sampeau vomit fruit_bats 13hr_journey killing_caves

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