I was up at dawn on the Monday, alarm going off at 5.45am I was ready and downstairs at reception in preparation for my 6 – 6.30am pick up , I was heading to Battambang on the boat.
The boat journey from Siem Reap to Battambang isn’t the fastest way of travelling between the two cities, it is however deemed to be the prettiest and clearest insight into local life possible on a boat in Cambodia. The journey was advertised to take 6 hours but having read reviews I was prepared for it to take nearer 8 – 10hours (the bus takes 3 -4!!).
6am came and went, 6.15am, 6.30am, 7am, 7.15am…. the boat was scheduled to leave at 7.30am – either that wasn’t going to be the case, or I wasn’t going to be on the boat. I asked the hostel to call at about 6.45am and the company indicated I was on the pick up round so I was to just hold tight…. This is definitely what is known as ‘Cambodian time’. Eventually I was picked up at 7.45am (I could definitely have done with that little bit extra sleep!). The pick up was a tuk tuk with 5 people already cozily inside…. Thinking I would be last one in we were definitely squashed…. Little did I know we had another two pick ups yet! We were all friends very quickly. A breakdown, a 45minute journey in which we felt like we were getting completely lost (mud tracks / chickens on the side / no evidence of any water anywhere) we turned a corner and we had suddenly arrived at a row of boats! Hastily ushered into one of the boats we sat patiently on the hard two people wide church pew like seats waiting to head off. We were quite pleased as it appeared only the 8 of us were going to be on our boat…. Again – we got that assumption wrong. Before we knew it the boat was full of a lot more people, fortunately I managed to keep my two seats to myself so I could keep my legs up and move about as I wished. 9.40am…. 2hrs and 10mins after our original scheduled kick off and we finally left the ‘harbour’.
Most of the people on the boat were lovely – I got chatting to an Australian lady in her 40s who was travelling for a month between contracts and slightly regretting signing up to her new contract as she was wishing she had more time away. A couple of Swedish girls (at a guess mid – late 20s) who were travelling together – I got the impression one of them out of heartbreak as she was initially meant to be going to New Zealand but had a sudden change of plans so they joined up on the other girls travel journey. An American guy, slightly older who had recently discovered how amazing the world is and so taking every opportunity to travel and this time also trying to work out whether the (quote unquote) manotonous relationship he had at home was really worth it…..along with many others. Most seemed very nice with the expception of one extremely infuriating girl – I couldn’t work out whether she was American or Canadian who stunted around, moving people’s bags to ‘make her space’ when she got on and then proceeded to move an older French man who was sitting minding his own business to sit next to (instead of behind) his wife so she could have her own seat as she was travelling along….I thought it was pretty out of line as other people were sharing. She then proceeded to put her huge Bose headphones on and sit with her head in her arms trying to sleep throughout the full journey…. I’m thinking it perhaps wasn’t her thing…
The best way to describe the journey was ‘an adventure’…luxury travellers would have hated it….the hard seats, the limited sun protection, the multiple stops because we got stuck in the shallow waters because it’s dry season. For those that enjoy adventure however, it was great…. Moving passed many floating villages, narrow waterways, children waving furiously at us as we passed. We witness extreme poverty of some Cambodian families as they live in shacks on the side of the river fishing each day to try and make ends meet. We saw the huge fishing contraptions built of bamboo in the middle of some of the wider waterways, levers raising the ginormous fishing nets up to see if they had caught anything. As we rode through some of the floating villages we saw teenage boats speeding boats along the water – I could only liken it to teenage boys who have just passed their driving test in the UK speeding along the roads. In other cases there were really young children driving the boats up and down the water too. I could obviously see that some of the villages – whilst all basic – were more well to do than the others – some had literally nothing whilst others had tv satellites hanging outside and nice boats parked outside….interesting how extremes of society exist in any situation.
The driver had a hard task ahead of him, trying to navigate the extremely shallow waters at some points to ensure the boat was able to pass. We hit the sides of the bank a couple of times and got stuck in shallow waters at least 4 times – at points other passengers had to get out to try and help shift the boat.
On one occasion the assistant driver went to one of the local families to borrow their boat and shift a few of us to the bank to try and free the boat….this was actually really fun as we climbed to the top of the bank and were faced with miles up miles of farmland and vegetation – it was absolutely beautiful.
Along with some of the poverty came a lot of rubbish on the sides of the river in parts, what was even sadder to this situation was seeing the children bathing in the water, adults washing clothes and others collecting water – I can only assume to drink / cook with. The children were so happy – smiling and blowing kisses at as we went passed, jumping up and down in the water excited to see us all on the boat.
As we finally (after about 8 hours) approached Battambang there was a noticeable shift in the type of houses – more brick, less shacks – things felt more maintained / well kept.
We arrived at the ‘pier’ (a set of very dubious looking metal steps) to be faced with a lot of tuk tuk driver vying for our business. Getting to the top I found one who agreed to take me for $2 – which I found out later was about right for the length of journey – it’s always good to discover that as I often find the first time I arrive somewhere I am overcharged and, not knowing an area, unaware of the fact.
I was completely shattered on arriving at the hostel, it was completely deserted and a little strange. I eventually found the owner though whose son showed me to my huge room, with private bathroom for a ridiculous price. I later discovered they had only just opened and were working through teething difficulties hence the lower price – it was absolutely fine though.
I didn’t let myself sit down, dropped my things and set out for something to eat as I knew if I sat down I wouldn’t move and I was hungry! I left the hostel at a good time as three Germans were just getting out of a tuk tuk at the end of a day tour and they were also on the prowl for some food. We set off to find something – being a little removed from town there wasn’t a huge amount around and unfortunately the streetfood places weren’t used to westerners at all so we got turned away from one (I think more from the fact they didn’t understand what we wanted than anything else), but we eventually found somewhere with good food and a much needed drink to end a good and fun day!
I woke leisurely on Tuesday and met one of the German girls for breakfast (the other two Germans were a couple who had left that morning to go to Siem Reap). Antonia was also travelling alone so we decided to get bikes for the day and explore the city a bit. Knowing I wouldn’t do the ‘main attractions’ in Battambang on this day as Antonia had done them the day before I booked another night at the hostel so I could do them the following day.
We headed the short journey into town and found a nice café to enjoy a fruit shake before having a wander around. It definitely wasn’t the prettiest of cities, but I had read that the reason you come to Battambang is to go outside of Battambang. I treated myself to a new ring before jumping on our bikes again to an tradition village just outside of the town. We explored a disused railway and enjoyed some lunch at a streetfood restaurant on the outskirts of town before making our way back to the hostel. It really was just so so hot – I think possibly some of the hottest I had experienced on the trip so far. We agreed to meet later on for dinner so I took myself and my laptop off to find a quiet place with some wifi (it was tricky but I managed it!) to try and get some of my journal entries uploaded. I managed to get four written entries uploaded with pictures etc (which often take as long as writing each entry!) so I was pleased with that…. Still behind though and still catching up now but I’m definitely getting there…. I’m totally going to treat myself to a glass of wine or a cocktail or two when I finally get myself up to date!
After a quick facetime with mum I popped back to the hostel to meet Antonia and we headed out to get some food. Back at the same place again as the food was so good and we had limited options locally I had a great local dish (which I can’t remember the name of now!) with fish, pineapple and tomatoes – it was so fresh and so tasty. A bit of cooing over the beautiful Khmer baby and we headed back to the hostel where I discovered the owner had been working on the wifi so I could finally get on whatsapp and so did a bit of catching with people from home.
On Wednesday I had planned to head out to some of the ‘attractions’ or ‘must sees’ in the area. The main reason for wanting to come to Battanmang was to go on the Bamboo railway…. A bit of a tourist attraction now but previously had been used to transport good / rice between two small towns near the city.
Hiring a bike from the hostel again I made my way over to the first station at O’Dambong.
It was just 10mins on the bike but it’s amazing how hard that can feel when you’re in 33degree heat. I knew that the cost of a ‘train carriage’ on its own was $10 but if there are more than one of you it is $5 each (irrespective of how many….. so when you have nearly 10Japanese tourists getting on one slat, the drivers are making a killing. I’m not entirely sure it’s all that safe though!) With that in mind I was on the look out for solo travellers when I arrived and met a lovely Chilean man who had the same thoughts. We agreed to travel together but have a few mins looking around before we set off on our 20minute journey. While I was wandering I bumped into Nyee, the Australian lady I met on the boat from Siem Reap – she hadn’t been particularly well on the boat and I had been pretty shattered when we arrived in Battanbang so had taken off quite quickly, regretting not getting her details it was great to bump into her again. She was out for the day with a British and Spanish girl and the three of them travelled on the carriage behind us.
We set off on our train adventure – bumping the 7km southeast to O Sra Lav along warped, misaligned rails and vertiginous bridges (left by the French). The journey took 20 minutes each way at which point we were ‘greeted’ by lots of people asking ‘you want to buy something’ at the other end – in O Sra Lav….. the normal tourist paraphernalia on sale (clothes, coconuts, friendship bracelets etc). After about 30mins we headed back on the sale trail again. The bamboo train itself consists of a 3m-long wooden frame, covered with slats made of bamboo, this then rests on two barbell-like bogies – the back one connected by fan belts to the little engine. With just a couple of people on it it went pretty fast! It was quite fun as, given it is a single track going in both directions it runs into the inevitable issue of two trains going in opposite directions meeting in the middle…. The trains are able to be quickly dismantled and put on the side so the other train can pass…. This happened a few times!
After the journey I chatted with Nyree who said they were heading to some of the temples and to see the bats in the evening in a tuk tuk and offered me a place with them which was ideal as it meant I could explore with them and could see everything I wanted to without either having to pay for a full tuk tuk alone or cycle some serious distances on pretty hard terrain! We agreed to meet back at my hostel after they had visited the ancient village I have been to the day before.
We spent the afternoon exploring some of the other sights – two temples, a suspension bridge built with the assistance of the Japanese, fishing villages with locals watering their crops on the side of the water with a small engine activating water sprinklers to keep them wet during the dry season. The drive around the area was as much of an experience as the sights themselves – travelling through more local villages, dusty roads and seeing the old with the new(er), the poor with the rich – it continues to highlight the extremes of society even out of some of the bigger cities.
We ended our tour at a bat cave at sunset – the bats fly in their millions at dusk in search of their food – it’s a pretty incredible experience.
When we were done we headed back into the city – the girls invited me for dinner but I have agreed to meet with Antonia so said my goodbyes. Nyree was really lovely but I actually struggled quite a lot with the English girl – she was a bit younger (which is fine) but she was the sort of traveller who likes to travel to say she’s travelled rather than to actually see what a place is really about. I use the example of Cambodia and their history…. The recent history is really pivotal to how this country is now – the devastation of the Rogue period and its impact on people today is still evident. She had been to Phnom Penh but had decided not to go to S-21 or the Killing fields as she ‘didn’t think she could cope with it’ – I thought this was actually quite selfish and insular. Perhaps others would find that harsh but it was how I interpreted the situation.
Returning to the hostel unfortunately it turned out Antonia had picked up a bug and had been in bed all day so I was heading for dinner alone – not a problem at all, was quite nice to have a bit of solo time again! A quick eat and I headed back to the hostel to get myself ready for the next day.
My bus back to Phnom Penh the next day was scheduled to leave at 9am….. right on schedule the tuk tuk arrived to pick me up. A quick goodbye to Antonia and I set off on my way. First stop – the bus station….where I waited….and waited….and waited – on my own, which I didn’t think made loads of sense! Eventually, at 10.30am my 9am bus turned up. It was packed of locals which I thought was going to be a mix of interesting a bit of a squeeze as I swear, no matter where they’re going and for how long, locals just seen to take their entire houses with them on the journey. The 12 seater mini van was literally packed to the brim – I managed to squeeze on a seat, my rusksack put on top of a big pile of boxes by the door…. Hopefully there would be no reason to get off the bus quickly as we would struggle, we headed on our way.
We stopped at a local market for people to pick up supplies for the journey – bringing packed corn on the cob, packs of beetles and durian fruit (a fruit that tastes really nice but literally smalls like feet….not great on a small bus) and a lot of faffing for 20minutes, we finally were actually on our way.
My app had told me the journey should take about 5 hours – by this point it was 11am so I was fully expecting to arrive in Phnom Penh at about 5pm given we normally stop for a lunch break half way through. The driver however, had very different ideas…..I have never been in a bus like it….I’ve never been a nervous passenger but oh.my.god….. he drove like he was being chased by the police, it was beyond scary! I was holding on for dear life, really not enjoying myself at all! Hilariously, the locals slept through it, watched out the window and just generally looked unfazed… I guess this is normal! So with the squash, the speed and the delightful karaoke it definitely wasn’t what I would call a relaxing journey!
We stopped for lunch and, normally one to try everything, I really didn’t fancy what was there – partly I think because I was feeling less than well from the journey and partly because it just generally didn’t look all that appetising! So grabbing myself a bag of pineapple I sat protectively by my bag that had been thrown on the side of the road so that people could get out of the bus.
We arrived In Phnom Penh at 3pm…. Including the 30min lunch stop and what should have been a 5hour journey it kind of gives the idea of the speed we were travelling. I jumped in a tuk tuk and headed over to the hostel to drop my things before running to the train station to see if I could get a ticket for the next day. In Cambodia there is only one train line and it has only recently opened again for the public so I was keen to give it a go….unfortunately I arrived at the station just after 4pm when the ticket offices were closed and a nice security guard there indicated that all the tickets for the weekend had been sold as well, so I wouldn’t have been able get one unfortunately. Worth a try though.
I headed back to the hostel for a lazy evening – I didn’t feel the need to go and explore the city since Mum and I had been here previously so I grabbed some food (and enjoyed the tropical storm that made its way over for half an hour), chatted with Sarah for a bit and met up with Sok (our guide who took us to his family) to give him the books mum and I had bought for the school when we were in Siem Reap. I had eaten as I was so hungry when I arrived (as I hadn’t eaten at lunch) which is retrospect was a bit silly as Sok asked if I wanted to get some dinner. I regret not going but unable to change it now.
I headed for an early night as I was getting an early bus out to Kep on the coast the next morning.