Bats! Bamboo! Booze! Yes, Battambang is bursting with balliteration. Pronounced bat-tam-bong, the beautiful town rests in the north-west of Bambodia, and is totally bace.
But first impressions are bad. When you pull into Battambang bus station, inconveniently built a few kilometres out of town, tuk-tuk drivers place their laminated adverts up against your window and then mob you as you disembark.
They’re not just in it to take you to the town, though – they’re after the much more lucrative commission of a provincial tour. So when you ask how much to the centre, they’ll outbid each other until they’re offering it for nothing. The chap we settled with, Ya-Ya, no longer bothers with a price – he just says: “Up to you.”
Anyway, he seemed a nice, enthusiastic and genuine fellow, so we paid him two bucks to get to our hotel and asked if he could drive us around the sights the following day.
Battambang for your buck
We were not disappointed. Apart from being ludicrously grateful for the business, Ya-Ya was accommodating, friendly and, we can only assume, fairly knowledgeable of his home province. He also went the extra mile by taking us to places we hadn’t mentioned, like the old French railway station.
Through broken but determined English, Ya-Ya explained why Cambodia no longer has an operating railway. Once again, we were confronted with the destructive legacy of the Khmer Rouge.
When the insurgency took place in 1975, many Cambodians hoped to flee the coming regime, many seeking to cross into Thailand. In the 70s, there were no buses, no tuk-tuks – just the French-operated trains. But the French had escaped the country, and the Khmer Rouge, intent on restricting the movement of the population, destroyed the rails or planted land mines over them.
Ya-Ya’s own parents attempted to trek from Battambang province 100km west to the Thai border. It took them a month because they had hardly any food and no energy to go more than three or four kilometres a day. It really was a shit and awful time.
It’s a kind of magic
Thankfully, our spirits were lifted with Ya-Ya’s subsequent tale, the legend of Battambang’s saviour, Ta Dom Bong, who lived and fought for the Khmer people. What follows is Ya-Ya’s version of that legend, as best as I can recall it:
“I tell you one time about this statue and the history of my people, and then you tell me something.
“Many, many years ago, the people of my country, the people of my provin’, always fighting. The Thailand come to kill the people of my county. And, about that time, the people of my provin’ very angry. You unnerstan’?
“Then this man come and kill the people who come to my provin’. He kill them with the stick, you see this stick? This magic stick. He throw stick, it kill dem, and stick come back. Many, many fighting, but this man lead the people of my country, the people of my provin’ and the king love him. Unnerstan’?
“This man called Ta Dom Bong – it mean Mr Stick, because at that time, he had magic stick, always come back.
“One day, about that time, he fighting, fighting, he throw the stick, stick not come back. Stick fly to forest, west of my provin’, but cannot find. Mr Stick go to find, he never come back.
“So I ask you then, what mean this word ‘Battambang’?”
Answers in the comments if you care to guess. When I ventured with “Man without a stick?” he glared at me and said, “I tell you story, now you know. But you no listen.” I think he was just playing, but I felt bad for obviously not paying enough attention.
I was a mite apprehensive about our next stop. I’d read some reviews online about the bamboo railway, many of which were critical of the village at the end of the line, where insistent and intimidating hawkers pestered passers-by for cash, or refused to let the trains return unless they bought something.
I’m not very good with this kind of tourist trap. I get agitated, impatient – guilty. And when Ya-Ya dropped us off at the start of the line, he told us not to buy things from the village children, as it encourages their parents to keep them out of school to sell more.
For a fee, tourists can experience the province’s oddest form of transport – a wooden platform on two axles driven by a small combustion engine, about the same as what you might find on an old gasoline lawnmower.
By the time the Khmer Rouge had been disposed, the villagers along the old railway line had been effectively cut off from the wider province. That was until someone in the 1980s had the idea to create the bamboo train. It was initially propelled by the losers of a Khmer equivalent of rock-paper-scissors, who would have to punt the vehicle along Venice-style with long bamboo poles (hence the name).
With the train, the far-flung farmers could cart their produce up the track like a mobile market.
The trains were upgraded with motors years later, particularly when tourists had been lured to the bizarre transportation system. Today, the trains rattle along at close to 30km/h, jolting and jarring over every imperfect join in the track.
If your train meets another coming the other way, priority is given to the cart carrying the most passengers and/or cargo, or for the longest train of carts.
When we got to the end of the line, yes, we were greeted by hawkers, and their children, but they were so friendly and full of smiles it was hard to imagine a hostile atmosphere. The kids were relentless, to be fair, and it was difficult to refuse them, but they didn’t attempt guilt tactics as others might, and they were friendly to the last. Ya-Ya’s advice boosted our resolve.
I can see why people might think they got stuck there until they’d bought something, but I honestly think the drivers wait until there’s enough of them to return so that they can take precedence on the track. If there’s a jam, the driver must offload the carriage, disassemble it all and carry it to one side. They don’t hang around so you buy trinkets, but so they don’t have to do any unnecessary work. Proper Cambodians.
Upon our return, Ya-Ya greeted us with his big grin and more stories, before taking us to our next port of call, the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau, and the promise of seeing hordes of bats pouring from their home to feed on mosquitoes during the night.
Moving on up
Opting to walk up the mountain rather than pay kids on motorbikes to take us up, Ya-Ya marched up with us without complaint. Other guides heading back down on bikes jibed him, “Why you walking?” but he didn’t seem to mind.
On the way up, we came to a temple complex, the most striking of which has murals covering it inside and out, transcribed with the names of the temple’s benefactors. The building itself was used as a holding cell by the Khmer Rouge before prisoner executions could be carried out.
Prisoners were rounded up and marched up the mountain path to the skylight of the cave network. They were then either bludgeoned over the head or shoved from the precipice to land on jagged rocks metres below. Some survived the fall, but would soon die of their injuries. Bullets were rarely used, due to their expense.
You can visit the cave, see where the Khmer prisoners plummeted to their deaths, and place an offering at the alter of skulls. It’s pretty horrible all told, but that’s part of what makes this country so arresting– within minutes of horror, you’re confronted with astonishing beauty.
A joy forever
That beauty began with the tremendous view of the surrounding rice fields as you climb towards the Buddhist temple at the peak. Ominous rain clouds billowed over seemingly distant hills.
The temple itself is a serene, golden complex of stupas, shrines and statues, which smile over the land in all directions. Monkeys play overhead in branches as cats prowl nonchalantly over cliff-edge balustrades.
On our way down, those looming rainclouds loomed no more, and heaved buckets of water over us for about 45 minutes. Ya-Ya took us under a little old lady’s shop shelter and we sat, waiting for the rain to subside with three or four other tourists from China. Rivers of water began tumbling down the temple’s staircases, as the corrugated iron roof above us began to leak profusely.
When Ya-Ya realised we might miss the bats – which would have been unacceptable – he borrowed a giant garden umbrella from the shop owner and carried it down, with us cowering underneath. What a hero.
Thankfully it cleared up during our descent, so we saw the first sign of bat country fluttering over the tree tops in the distance. Like a Chinese dragon made of smoke, a black wisp undulates through the sky, never breaking, but folding and wafting like a ribbon in the wind.
I’m bat man…
We were rushed to the mouth of the bat cave – Ya-Ya seemed particularly proud of this spectacle – and we gawped in understanding awe. The sheer number of flying rodents erupting from their dank home in the mountain smacked our gobs. Ya-Ya insists three million bats leave the cave every day at the same time (5.30pm).
It was amazing – a natural phenomenon so beautiful in its scope and form that you couldn’t imagine something so incredible could be so predictable. Nature rarely acquiesces to tourist demand, but here the bats comply with unparalleled punctuality.
All told, the tour was great. Ya-Ya told us some lovely stories (like what that statue of the lady with a massive snake thing coming out of her head is all about) and was a right gentleman. I’ve included his number here, should you venture to Battambang – he’s a good bet for a tour and a lovely man to boot.
Meanwhile, Battambang town is quiet, but pretty, with a nascent “Pub Street” hoping to welcome more bars and restaurants to the centre (to some controversy, many locals hoping the place doesn’t lose its sleepy vibe), but there’s still some good spots to sip a G&T and watch the world go by.
But I’ll tell you who does watch the world go by: all these Cambodian women still in their pyjamas in the afternoon. They’re absolutely everywhere, even going to work in them.
Put some proper clothes on, lady, it’s not bed time yet.
<= Previous post – A feather in Cambodia’s Kep
Angkor blimey! – Next post =>