Time to experience the real Cambodia: Phnom Penh to Battambang

One for the road!

Anyone would think I’m obsessed with buses

It came to no suprise that my three hour “express bus” took over six hours but it did have limited wifi (woohoo!) and I was able to get some rest. I gave in to the Tuk Tuk drivers who pounced on me at the capital’s bus station and took a ride to Mad Monkey’s Hostel recommended in my Lonely Planet. Although a little pricey the hostel was great and I enjoyed my first hot and very long shower in Cambodia.

The only westerner on my bus

I asked for a dorm in the building across the street away from the rooftop bar so I could get some sleep but I was feeling a little lonely after leaving my friends that morning so I made use of my free beer voucher and headed straight to the bar. I sat down next to some Canadian guys and piped up the usual backpacker conversation “where are you from?/how long are you travelling for?/which route are you taking?” which led to me joining them for dinner where I sampled Cha Traop Dot, a traditional Cambodian dish containing pork and aubergine. We partied until 6am and I woke at 7am after coming to realise that I didn’t know which dates I would like to arrive in Vietnam, so my plan kind of backfired and I decided to hop on the very next bus to Battambang.

If I had a pound for every time I got asked whether I want a Tuk Tuk…

After another seven hours on a bus, this time with Karaoke TV and me being the only westerner, I arrived in the French-colonial town of Battambang in North West Cambodia. Pestered by tuk tuk drivers yet again, I gave it my best shot to walk to the centre of town but my map was useless so I hopped on the back on a man’s moped. I’m rather impressed of my new found skill of carrying a 60 ltr backpack, a 20 ltr day pack, a beanbag and a carrier bag full of water and snacks on the back of a moped.

My first dinner in Battambang – good street food!

I checked into Chhaya Guesthouse that evening and walked along the river to the night market and picked up some delicious chicken noodle soup for $1. The next day I got up early and headed for a healthy breakfast at Cafe Eden, recommended to me by friends. Like many cafés in Cambodia, Cafe Eden is connected to a local organisation that is focused on investing into the futures of the Khmer people. If alone I make sure I always eat at somewhere contributing to a good cause or from local street food vendors off the beaten track.

Riding the famous bamboo train

Refreshed after a good nights sleep I hired a push bike and with the help of locals, found my way to the Bamboo Train which is supposedly no longer running (don’t listen to the guidebooks!) I was lucky enough to join up with a German family so paid $5 for the 20k round trip. It was a ten minute ride to the village in which we had to completely derail a couple of times after encountering trains heading in the opposite direction.

Encountering another train is a lengthy progress

We stopped in the village for nearly an hour of whenever the driver felt we had spent enough money. I had previously read up on the children pestering you to buy from them but told myself I wouldn’t give in to their crocodile tears. I did and I got a cute bracelet for $1 and even gave a toddler 500riel just for being adorable. Sucker.

My new found friends

I can see why people get frustrated but I enjoyed the experience as I saw a local family whose children spoke perfect English and learned about their daily routine and how school runs from 7am-11am and then 1pm-5pm. Children often start school at age six and leave between the ages of 12 and 16 depending on their family business. Family is a big deal in Cambodia and daily life is based around caring for and spending time with loved ones.

My bicycle was definitely faster than the bamboo train

The ride back took another ten minutes, stopping at various points to derail and then rebuild the train if met by another coming in the opposite direction. Astonishing to watch, it’s a pity it won’t be around for much longer with plans to upgrade the track to make room for new express trains running to and from Thailand. That evening I returned to the night market for a popular local cheap eat, a French baguette filled with butter, fish paste and three types of fatty processed pork.

Battambang Circus – amazing

I cycled to the circus, Phare Ponleu Selpak just out of town. Phare Ponleu Selpack is a non-profit Cambodian association working with vulnerable children, young adults and their families. I was lucky enough to catch one of their twice weekly performances which sent shivers down my spine. The talent was incredible and well worth the $10 which goes straight back to the arts school for young people of Cambodia. It was a bit of a mission finding my way back along the national highway in the dark on a lush bike with no lights, but I made it safe and sound.

Making dried banana

My last day in Battambang started early with a traditional livelihood cycling tour run by Butterfly Tours. Butterfly Tours has been set up by university students and offer an inexpensive way to see the real Cambodia. During the four or so hours, I learnt so much about the culture of Cambodia, the lives of local people and the country’s rich history. I also learnt how a number of local food and drink are produced with most families having a small production business which they run in their spare time to add to the income they receive from farming. The whole family chips in and work never stops.

Students from Butterfly Tours

There’s no need for a hearty breakfast before the tour, I got to sample some dried banana, rice wine (like paint stripper) fish paste noodles, sugar juice and bamboo cake (yum!) My bike ride with Butterfly Tours was a fantastic experience, possibly the highlight of my trip so far.

My first encounter of the history of the Khmer Rouge

The tour also gave me my first look at the devistation of Khmer Rouge which saw the mass genocide of millions of Cambodian’s just short of thirty years ago. The conditions and methods of murder used are beyond belief.

Beef Lok Lak from the Smoken’ Pot

That evening I went for dinner at the Smokin’ Pot with a girl on my tour called Rachel and her friend. I tried traditional beef Lok Lak with was lovely if a little peppery. I headed for my third early night in a row (go me!) but not before booking the boat to Siem Reap for the following day, which is said to be “an experience” of a lifetime.

Living life, loving travel,

H x

1 Comment

  1. […] I wanted some company so checked myself in to the Mad Monkey Hostel after staying there in Phnom Penh. As I walked in to my dorm’ Jez greeted me with “welcome to the party room” and […]

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