I left Siem Reap early on yet another hot, sunny morning and boarded a bus to Battambang, a town situated slightly Southwest of Siem Reap.
Many travellers elect to travel there by boat, which in theory sounds picturesque, chugging through riverside communities, banks fringed with lush, green foliage. However, the boat costs more, and the journey takes seven hours, sometimes nine if the water levels are low. Hmmn, diesel fumes for nine hours in the sun. By contrast the bus takes four hours, and that’s with a toilet/restaurant/shop stop. The bus also has air conditioning… I don’t need luxury in my life, but when it’s handed to me on a plate, I’m not fucking stupid.
I’ve just finished reading a book about Billy Connolly so there might be more bad language than usual in this post. Bits of it may also be best read in a Scottish accent.
Arriving in Battambang, the bus was swarmed by tuk-tuk drivers which is the usual scenario, but this time there was a guy with a sign from my hostel leaping up at the window to greet me with a massive smile and a thumbs up when he saw the excited look of recognition on my face. Here’s something I don’t often admit to people: travelling alone is lots of fun, people come up and talk to you all the time and I’m a chatty/nosey person so I usually like that, but oh it’s a lonely feeling to arrive at an airport and not have someone there to meet you. Even in countries where I don’t know a soul, and there’s zero chance of it happening, I still get this tiny little tight feeling in my chest accompanying an illogical hope that there might be someone there for me…preferably someone I know, but a stranger with my name on a card will do. Worse, when you’re arriving at a place where you do know people, then the nanosecond of inevitable disappointment when there is nobody there for you is a well aimed punch to the solar plexus.
So I was beaming like a lighthouse when there was a complete stranger, who didn’t know my name, waiting for me at the Battambang bus station.
The lovely hostel that had sent me a tuk-tuk driver, was a place called Here Be Dragons on the waterfront, just over the bridge from the central part of town. It’s a friendly establishment with plenty of nooks to hang out and do nothing, attracting a sociable, unpretentious crowd, and – for reasons that were never made clear to me – a group of foreign medic students taking the opportunity to do some work study in the local hospital. Although one chap did tell me he was housed at a nearby school, so I’m guessing this was one of the closest and cheapest bars.
Battambang is a former French Colonial town where the French influence is still strong as evidenced by the freshly made baguettes for sale everywhere, and the numerous bakeries offering a wide variety of pastries and sweet treats. One of my favourite days was spent between a fantastic art gallery tucked away on a little street known simply as Street 1.5 filled with room after room of superb art work from different artists, and a cafe called Choco L’Art run by a French/Cambodian couple who import all the chocolate to make their desserts, and their cheese and wine. That was a splendid day of gluttony.
After visiting the two airport and tourist hubs of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Battambang was markedly different in that it seemed like a city being run by Cambodians for Cambodians. That’s not to say there weren’t tourists, there are plenty, just not as many as in other places. The businesses are orientated to people living in the town full time, not just people passing through for a few days at a time. Prices are generally reasonable everywhere you go. It’s a good change.
Staying on the river front is delightful. It has a numerous exercise parks, early in the morning just after sunrise, and every evening at dusk the families of Battambang congregate in the parks to use the stationary machines, to stride power laps along the walking paths, to perform acrobatics manoeuvres on monkey bars, and to take part in the nightly line dancing and aerobics classes. Battambang, like most cities in this part of the world, is at its very best in the cooler part of the day when the sun goes down.
If you’re here for a while there’s a variety of ways to entertain yourself: take a tuk-tuk to see the bat caves at dusk when they’re having their feeding frenzy; pay $5 to ride the bamboo railway on a teeny tiny platform car that has to be dismantled and lifted off the track if you meet another one coming in the opposite direction. You can join aqua-aerobics classes at the local hotels; volunteer to teach English in school for a day; or watch a show by the local performing arts/circus academy which trains children in a profession as well as giving them an education. When they graduate the kids join the larger circus in Siem Reap, and carry out story lines and stunts that conjure up images of the early days of Cirque du Soleil.
After seeing the circus, a bunch of us barang went to a couple of Cambodian night clubs, an unexpected experience that has burned a permanent memory into my mind. The first club had a grand mirrored entrance that wouldn’t be out of place in Vegas, which led into a simple hall with canteen tables and chairs. A stage stretching across the far end of the hall was filled with a night club singer and his retinue of dancing girls. The music stopped every 20 minutes so that all the patrons could take a break from dancing, and drink more. The second club greeted us with a 15 foot tiger’s head above the door and an escort to our table. Whereas the first place had a sit down, family vibe to it, this club reminded me of the club’s I went to as student, super dark, lots of wasted people, thumping bass line and an obsession with strobe lighting. Being the only non-Cambodians in the club, we were quite the hit, and when I say we, I mean the two guys in our party. All the girls were ignored but the guys were treated like rock stars. Possibly it might have had a little to do with them looking like they come from another planet, both were a foot taller than everyone else in the club, glow in the dark white, one with a wide mop of curls down to his shoulders, and the other sporting a style best described as upside–down-tarantula-on-head.
Oh and don’t forget there’s a river running through the centre of Battambang, you can take a stroll along the paths there in the shade of the trees…don’t stare too closely at the river though, it starts to lose its picturesque quality once you figure out what all those floaty things are.