Battambang: A glimpse into Cambodian rural life

Battambang river
Battambang's river

We tried to avoid the regular backpacker (read: Lonely Planet) guesthouses and found ourselves at Senghout Hotel. It was great! $12 for an air-con room with cable TV. Seng Hout has a surprisingly nice rooftop garden with panoramic views of the city, and a great group of tuk-tuk drivers who charge less than the going rate for day trips. We rented a tuk-tuk for $15, heading out at about 11AM and returning to the guesthouse at 7PM. Our driver was a nice young man who was eager to make us comfortable.

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nory bamboo train
Tourist police officer demanded to take this photo for us.
We visited the bamboo railroad ($10 per train) which is a makeshift bamboo train, called a norry, that runs on the disused rail tracks. The locals used to use it to transport goods and people, but now it is solely for the tourists and overseen by the Tourist Police. The train reaches speeds of 40 kph and must be disassembled and derailed when meeting a train coming in the opposite direction. The driver will take you 20 minutes down the tracks to a small village where you can buy a drink and chat with some locals. We spoke with a retired soldier who now runs a drink stall. He told us about how he pays ten train drivers to stop their trains outside of his establishment, at which point, his granddaughters don their winning smiles and coax the tourists in for a cold drink (about a $1 a drink). The entire train fleet seemed to be divided up among the 3 or 4 drink stalls.

Phnom Banan
This would be a good time to stay on the beaten path.

Our next stop was Phnom Banan (Banan hill). At the top of 358 steps lies Prasat Banan, an 11th century temple ruin, which the locals claim was the inspiration for Angkor Wat. The hillside area around the temple still contains mines so it’s best not to veer off the path. The views are beautiful and the ruins are majestic. Was it worth the 358 steps? I guess…

Phnom Banan steps
358 steps to the top

After the temple, we cooled off along the river at Honeycomb Restaurant where we ate a delicious fish curry ($4), and Sara lamented the fact that despite walking up 358 steps, she still managed to break a hammock.

Phnom Sampeau
Victims were thrown through this hole.

With our sweat fully dried, we were off to Phnom Sampeau to see the infamous Killing Caves. Our tuk-tuk driver passed us over to a couple of moto drivers ($2 each) who took us to the top of the hill and provided us with a bit of information about the site. In the 1970s the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed hundreds of people including babies and pregnant women. Their bodies were thrown, many still alive, into the deep, jagged cavern. The cave now contains a large reclining buddha and a memorial filled with the skulls and bones of some of the victims.

We headed back to the base of the limestone outcrop and spoke to a Cambodian university student while we waited for millions of bats to emerge from a cave. He was eager to practise his English and told us that he comes every night to speak to tourists while they wait. What initiative!

Bats at Phnom Sampeau
Mass exodus

Just as it got dark, the bats made their entrance (or exit) and we stared in awe and disbelief as the swarm snaked across the night sky. Hoping to beat the rush out, our driver hurried us back into the tuk-tuk and tore off. Karma caught up to him quickly as we got a flat tire within minutes. He passed us on to his “brother” who took us back to the guesthouse.

Battambang itself is a lovely little town. We walked the highlights of it: the market, the colonial buildings, the French shop houses, the disused railway station, a temple, and the river with its many bridges. The lowlight was a meal that tasted good going down, but had Sara in the bathroom most of the night bringing it back up. The next morning we were scheduled for a 7 hour boat ride at 7AM to Siem Reap.

Will the contents of Sara’s stomach make it to Siem Reap intact? Find out next blog post!! Same blog time, same blog channel!