March 31, 2018
January 30, 2018
We came to Battambang attracted by the promise of our travel guide, the “Lonely Planet”, that it would give us a glimpse into the real Cambodia, away from the overly touristic Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
And indeed, Battambang turned out to be very different from Siem Reap. There are not many facilities for tourists: our hotel has the worst conditions we’ve had so far on this trip (no window in the room, no hot water in the shower on 2 out of 3 days), there are relatively few restaurants, it was hard to find a place that rented scooters. Other amenities that we take for granted are also (almost) missing: the city is only partially and badly lit up at night, some streets in the city center are not paved, traffic rules do not seem to exist. You see poverty even more than in Siem Reap.
But the locals are super friendly, even when they speak no English at all, replacing communication-through-words by communication-through-smiles. The children wave to you and shout “hello”. Some teenage girls took selfies with us.
The city of Battambang doesn’t have much to offer in terms of touristic points of interest, but there are some sights in the countryside within a range of 30 km or so from the city.
Just a bit south of Battambang is the only winery in Cambodia! Of course, leave it to me to find even a single winery in a country, if it exists :D It produces only one wine, which it sells for 15 $ / bottle. It also produces grape juice and ginger juice. You can taste the wine, grape juice and ginger juice for 4.5 $. Of course, we were curious to try them. The wine turned out to be ok-ish, the grape juice extremely sweet, and the ginger juice very spicy. Nevertheless, it was a fun experience, even more so since we had never expected to find a winery in Cambodia.
Banan is one of the most important temples around Battambang and it’s beautifully located up on a hill, at the top of some very steep steps, which discourages many visitors. So, if you do make it to the top, you’re rewarded with peace and quiet, a calm visit of the small temple, and views of the surrounding countryside, which you can enjoy almost alone.
Sadly, these caves are what their name says: the place where hundreds of people were killed, during the 3 years and 8 months when the Khmer Rouge regime was in power. I’ll go into more details on that in another post. For now, I’ll just mention with regards to these caves that, after the people were killed, their bodies were thrown into a cave here. Some of the bones and skulls that were found are now kept in a glass case in the cave. A small temple was built in the cave in the memory of those killed there. Close to the caves, on top of the hill, is a complex of temples, with beautiful views of the surroundings and cheeky monkeys who have been known to steal food right out of tourists’ hands.
Around 6 pm every day, millions of bats come flying out of a cave in the same hill where the Killing Caves are. We found a place to watch them very close to the small opening through which they come out. And it was indeed a unique experience to see them coming out of there, in a constant and very fast flow, flying in an organized formation over the surrounding landscape, farther and farther away, until they looked like smoke floating on top of the forest. We watched them for about half an hour and then decided to leave, so that we could hike off the hill while there was still some daylight. But they kept coming out of the cave when we left, so I don’t know for how much longer it lasted.
Nevertheless, I list this as a high, as it made me so happy to see that these young men could get their lives back on track, with the support of some generous people. Although their lives are still not easy (the artist who was there told me he sold 4-5 of his works per year, which brings him just enough money to live by), it shows that there is still a lot of good in the world and that people can be incredibly strong.
We’re now heading to the capital of Cambodia, which is a 5-hour bus ride away. Fingers crossed that this bus ride is better than the previous one. Phnom Penh is supposed to have some of the comforts of modern life that we’ve missed lately, so I’m looking forward to that. We plan to use the time in Phnom Penh to learn more about what the Khmer Rouge did to this country, although it will certainly not be easy. I’m doing my best to prepare myself psychologically for the probably pretty horrible things we’re about to find out.