The highlight of Battambang is the journey itself from Siem Reap. We’d been informed that there was a fast and a slow boat so we forked out $15 for the fast boat that we’d been informed would take 3 or 4 hours. We were collected at 6am at our hotel and taken in a packed little minibus to the port of Siem Reap where you’ll see some really poor conditions in the housing approaching the quay. We were most unimpressed at the vessel that awaited us. It had certainly seen better days and as more and more minibuses appeared they just packed everyone onboard until there wasn’t another space to be had. At least we arrived early and got a seat on the lower deck. The last arrivals were herded upstairs where they would spend the whole journey in direct sunshine without shade.
The boat left at 7am departing through the Flooded Forest and across the top of Lake Tonlé Sap. The scenery was stunning as was the birdlife all around us. It was only when another boat heading in the same direction cruised past us that we realised that we were on the slow boat to Battambang. With hindsight I preferred the slow option as the fast boat looked closed in with windows whereas we got some breeze thanks to the open seating area.
The fact is that neither boat was satisfactory in terms of comfort or safety but I’m sure we enjoyed a more fascinating journey than if we’d been locked inside the other boat. There are buses that do the same route but road conditions are very poor making for a similar journey time.
The whole journey was fascinating as we really got to see rural Cambodia and life on the river. We finally arrived in Battambang more than seven hours after we’d left Siem Reap and were collected by a minibus from the Royal Hotel which we’d pre-booked. The hotel might not be anything special but I’d highly recommend it. The owner is extremely friendly and helpful and the rooftop bar/restaurant is fantastic. We took the most expensive room at $20 which was plain, clean and comfortable. Some are available for as little as $10 a night. The Chhaya Hotel was another popular choice for backpackers.
The streets of the town are very dark at night and there are few people around in the evening making it a little uncomfortable as a place to wander around after dark. We decided to head off into the countryside rather than hang around town on our first full day there.
Day Excursions from Battambang
Outside the Royal Hotel there are motorbike riders who’ll take you around the main sights of the surrounding countryside for around $10. We met David and Sky at 8am and set off on what would prove to be one of the best days of the trip travelling through National Geographic scenery. Both riders were very careful which was an added bonus considering the poor state of the roads in many areas.
Our first stop was at Wat Phnom Sampeau where we walked with a guide (a local schoolboy) to this new Buddhist temple via a ‘Killing Cave’. This is the unfortunate name given to a cave where victims of Pol Pot’s regime had been pushed into the cave from high above where they were left to die. A cabinet still contains the sculls and bones of these poor souls. Wat Banan was our next stop where a group of schoolchildren walked us up the steep steps to this 11th century temple.
We continued through the beautiful green rice fields and stopped to take photos of bathing buffalos. At this point the bike I was on got a puncture so we pushed it for a few hundred metres before stopping at a shack where a local man was able to fix it. Whilst it was being fixed I watched his wife and daughter make deep fried bananas which they would sell to the local school. How is it that the poorest people have the biggest smiles?
In the next village there were trees full of fruit bats, we stopped at a family’s smallholding to see their garden and taste the best pineapple on the planet and saw the bamboo train which is a trolley with wheels from a tank which local people have made to sit on the train line providing them with an ingeneous form of transport from their village to Battambang market. We arrived back at the hotel by 3pm covered in dust.
An interesting anecdote … Sky was brought up in the countryside and told us it was common to eat rat. When Kirsty asked him whether it tasted like chicken he said “no, it’s more like dog!”.
Cambodian Cookery Classes
The night of the above excursion we dined at a restaurant called the Smokin Pot which was superb at hardly believable prices it was so cheap ($6.50 for a great meal for two including drinks). The White Rose on the other side of the same street was another good place to eat.
We noticed at the Smokin Pot that they offered Cambodian cookery classes so we signed up for the following morning.
We arrived at 9.30am along with seven other westerners to do the course which cost just $8 each. First of all we decided which dishes we’d like to cook then we wandered over to the market to buy the ingredients. With no fridges and swarms of flies around it’s a sight to make anyone turn vegetarian!
Back at the restaurant we used a mortar and pestle in the initial preparations then cooked on gas rings with woks inside. The dishes we made were chicken amok (in coconut sauce), beef lok lak (peppery stir fry) and chicken tom yam (spicy Thai soup). It was all very easy and fortunately contained little in the way of meat.
To Visit or not to Visit?
Battambang isn’t an attractive town. It’s a busy “lived in” city with remnants of French colonialism in the random buildings which overlook the river. In many cases these have been turned into mobile phone shops and moped garages which serve the needs of modern day Cambodia. It’s not absolutely essential that you include it in your itinerary (don’t you wish more travel guides would stick their necks out occasionally!). However, we had a good time there thanks to our day excursion on the motorbikes and thanks to the great day we spent at the Cambodia cookery class. And that’s not to mention the adventure of the boat trip from Siem Reap.