When you think of traveling around Cambodia, the places that probably come to mind would be Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and the Koh Rong islands. Not many people would consider Battambang on their itinerary. It’s not spoken about much and is slightly off the beaten track. We spontaneously decided to go there for a couple days on our way to the islands to check it out!
Even though it’s Cambodia’s second largest city, it’s quite a sleepy, chilled-out place. Quite a contrast coming from the bustling, vibrant city of Siem Reap, which was always lively and always had something going on. Battambang is much quieter with a laidback vibe – there isn’t much of a nightlife there, so it was nice to relax after the craziness of Siem Reap.
Having said that, on our first night there was actually a massive Muay Thai boxing event, not something that happens a lot so we were lucky to be able to experience it. It was Thailand versus Cambodia, and it seemed like the entire population of Battambang had flooded in to watch. Our group (about ten of us by then) were some of the only Westerners there – we got some funny looks from the locals, especially as we were probably blocking their view! Other than that night, our time in Battambang was pretty chilled.
We took a coach to Battambang from Siem Reap, which took about five hours. It was surprisingly comfy and spacious compared to many of the cramped buses we’d taken before. After arriving in the town we got a tuk tuk from the bus stop to Lucky Hostel, a basic but decent and cheap hostel that felt more like a budget hotel. Although after staying in a 32-bed dorm in Siem Reap for ten days, this felt like luxury!
After the crazy Muay Thai event, we spent most of the next day chilling in the hostel – it had a weird indoor pool and a pool table to keep us entertained. We also explored the city, taking a look at the markets and walking along the Sangker River. Battambang has quite a few quaint cafes and restaurants; on the second night we all went to a nice outdoor restaurant by the river (which was also streaming some big football match that the boys were desperate to watch – typical).
The second day we decided to see more of what Battambang had to offer and do some more touristy things. One of the main things it’s known for is the bamboo train. I’d heard about this on Jack Whitehall’s Travels with my Father so I was keen to check it out. We got tuk tuks from the hostel to the start of the bamboo train, about a 15 minute drive away. The “trains” were literally just pieces of bamboo laid across a metal frame and rested loosely on some wheels, powered by a little motorcycle engine at the back. They’re designed so they can easily be taken apart and derailed when you have to move for oncoming traffic.
Bamboo trains were used back in the 1980’s, after the Khmer Rouge left the country in pieces, to transport goods from town to town. The track actually goes all the way to Phnom Penh, but most of it is derelict and only 7km of it is used nowadays mainly for tourism.
The trains can reach up to 40 kilometres per hour, which felt pretty fast when there’s nothing to really hold onto and you can literally feel the tracks beneath the rickety straw platform. It was exhilarating as we whizzed past Cambodian countryside, banana trees and kids waving, it all became a blur. Our particular driver was a bit wild and went faster and faster as we egged him on, we were loving it! He also appeared to be the boss of the train tracks, as anyone we approached he made them take apart their train so we could pass, what a legend.
When we reached a tiny village after about ten minutes, we got off and were immediately hounded by a swarm of Cambodian kids offering to sell us homemade bracelets and cans of fizzy drinks. Our driver ushered us into a little hut on the side of the train tracks, where a family lived. We feel obliged to buy some drinks from them and hung out with the kids for a bit, eventually they persuaded us to buy some bracelets. When we got too hot and overwhelmed we asked the driver if we could get back on the train and go back. It was a cool experience, definitely worth doing for the mere $5 if you’re in Battambang.
Another well-known tourist attraction is the bat caves and Phnom Sampeau mountain, which has a harrowing history, about a half an hour drive from the city centre. At the top are some stunning temples overlooking vast countryside… and also the killing caves. About 10,000 people were killed and thrown into these caves by the Khmer Rouge, just awful to think it didn’t even happen that long ago.
The walk to the top of the mountain wasn’t easy, especially in the sticky heat, but the views were so worth it. One thing to be wary of as you climb up is the monkeys – they literally blocked the stairs on the way up and intimidated us until we gave them our ice creams we’d just bought from a market stall. George (who has an ice cream obsession) was not pleased at all. Our worries about such a petty, first-world problem quickly vanished as we walked up to the killing caves. It gave me chills to imagine all the thousands of people who were brutally murdered right where we were standing not even 45 years ago.
We realised we were getting too carried away in the culture and history of Phnom Sampeau and the sun was about to set. We raced down the mountain just in time to grab a beer and a seat at the Bat House Pub, perfectly positioned to watch the spectacular sight of thousands of bats flying out of the cave at sunset. And it truly was spectacular – you would not believe just how many bats flew out of that cave. And they go so fast you can barely make out that they’re bats, swirling all around the sky above and into the distance. There must’ve been at least a million bats, as they kept streaming out for about 25 minutes. It was unreal – definitely took our minds off the horrific killing caves.
Battambang was full of so much history, and even though these dreadful tragedies took place here and all around the country, the people always seemed so joyous – their way of coping and moving on. But the lives of those who were killed are definitely not forgotten, with all the temples and shrines set up in the killing caves today. They help tourists like us learn about Cambodia’s recent past, which is a very important part of traveling – understanding other cultures and history that we might not have known about if we hadn’t visited these remarkable places.
I hope you’ve learnt a bit more about Cambodia and I’ve inspired you to visit one day!