The Battambang Battlers
Things to see around Battambang, Cambodia
Arriving in the Cambodian city of Battambang, the men crowd around the bus door as it opens. Holding signs for nearby hotels, they push each other slightly trying to get a better line of sight to the foreign tourists getting off. Each of them has a sales pitch – each of them is basically the same. They can take you in their tuk tuk to a good hotel, or a cheap hotel, or one where you’ve already got a reservation. They don’t really mind where you stay – they just want to give you a ride. And not because they want your money for the trip (it will be pretty short here in Battambang). In fact, many are offering to take you to a hotel for free, even one that won’t give them a commission. They see this as an investment because they know where the bigger prize lies.
“You come with me”, one of the young men half-instructs, half-pleads with me. “I saw you first. I can take you to good hotel.” He is sweating slightly after running from the other side of the block when he saw the bus pulling up.
I consider my options while I wait for my bag to be unloaded from the bottom of the bus and in the end I go with the guy who claims to have seen me first. After a bit of a chat with him, I sense that he speaks good English and is friendly enough. Those traits shouldn’t matter for a five minute trip to a hotel but I also know what the bigger prize is.
When I’ve found somewhere to stay, the real pitch (as expected) comes. My tuk tuk driver, whose name turns out to be Yaya, wants to take me on a tour the next day and show me the sights in the area just outside Battambang. This is Cambodia’s second-largest city and is quite a nice place, based along a river, but the most interesting tourist attractions are a decent drive out of the centre. This is why the tuk tuk trade is so fierce here.
I agree to go on a whole day trip with Yaya tomorrow, something I had already decided when I jumped in with him at the bus station. When I tell him, he does a little jump and hisses an ecstatic “yesss”. I get the feeling he may not have had much work recently.
I’ve found in many parts of Southeast Asia that this is one of the best ways to experience new locations. The tuk tuk or motorbike drivers know these places better than anyone and can explain everything for you. It’s also nice to reward the locals who work hard and make an effort to show you their region and leave you with a good impression.
To show you what I mean, I thought I would share some of the things I saw on my trip around Battambang. If you’re ever heading there yourself, it’s worth getting out of the city and visiting these places.
The Bamboo Train
This is one of the things Battambang is best known for. The small section of Cambodia’s famous Bamboo Train is still being run for tourists, although once it was a cheap and simple transportation system for the locals to move themselves and their goods across the country. You can read more about Battambang’s Bamboo Train here.
About 20 kilometres out of town, Banan Temple is a good example of the Khmer architecture that this region is well known for. It was built in the eleventh century and involves a long climb to the top up a steep staircase. It’s quite small at the top but has great views of the surrounding area.
Phnum Sampov Temple
This temple is much more modern than the one at Banan and is still an active place of worship. But it also involves a tough climb to the top, although the path isn’t as steep and there is a road which a motorbike taxi can take you up, if you prefer.
The Killing Cave
Not far from the Phnum Sampov is the gruesomely-name Killing Cave. The name is quite accurate, though, because this is where the Khmer Rouge dumped thousands of bodies during their murderous regime in the 1970s. The small hole in the cave were used for the bodies of children.
The Khmer Rouge generally brought people here alive and then bashed and hacked them to death before throwing their bodies in the caves. Today, there are shrines with some of the bones recovered from inside.
Ok, so this isn’t really a ‘sight’ as such but it was an interesting little addition to the tour. You’ll see a few vendors on the side of the road selling a strange-looking snack of grilled rat. After eating fried tarantulas in Phnom Penh, I wasn’t too keen to try another meal like that so I gave it a miss. I sort of regret that now, though, because I’m curious about how it would have tasted!