Saturday, August 13, 2011

Battambang and Siem Reap

From Phnom Penh we traveled by bus for six hours to Battambang, Cambodia's second largest city (that doesn't seem especially large at all).

Our first stop was an exciting ride on the bamboo train. The French built a train line through town ages ago, but it has since stopped running. Ingenious locals haven't let this prevent them from traveling by rail. They take a pair of axels and place them on the tracks. Next, a wood platform goes on top of the wheels. The final ingredient is a small engine. The resulting ride on the in need of repair tracks is not unlike going on a seatbelt-less, flat roller coaster. There's only one set of tracks, so if you meet up with another train you have to unload, disassemble the cart, and let the other group pass.

Our friendly tuk tuk driver next took us to see a popular bat nesting spot. It's near a Buddhist temple, so the bats are protected from slingshots.

battambang bat

Wat BananWe then hiked up the seemingly endless stairs to Wat Banan. Our driver gave us a tour of a nearby cave, which was also full of bats. He also bumped into a police officer who grew up in the same orphanage as he did and they had a chat about their childhoods. After that, he spotted some Cambodian milk fruit in a tree and he climbed it to fetch some for us. It wasn't quite ripe, though, so it had a weird, sticky after taste. Our last stop was the Killing Cave. We were feeling lazy after the hike to Wat Banan, so we took up the offer of a couple of local boys to cart us up the mountain on their motorbikes and give us a tour.

killing cave

The Khmer Rouge threw 10,000 prisoners down this hole into what was then a closed off cave. If the prisoner was lucky, he died immediately. If not, he probably suffered for weeks with broken bones surrounded by decaying bodies before finally starving to death. There are cases of bones within the cave, but I didn't feel comfortable photographing them. That's been a strange part of being a visitor in Cambodia. A lot of the tourism here revolves around the shocking actions of the Khmer Rouge, and it's a bit unsettling to have young drivers and guides gleefully inquire "You want to see killing fields?"

riverside house

The next day we were somehow convinced to take the "scenic route" to Siem Reap. It was a pricey, slow, uncomfortable boat ride that had pretty scenery that became increasingly difficult to enjoy as more and more parts of the boat broke down and more and more tree branches smacked me in the face. After eight hours we finally made it and took a tuk tuk to our hotel.

Siem Reap is much more touristy than Battambang, due to its status as the gateway city to Angkor Wat. On our first day we completed the "Grand Tour" of Angkor, visiting the outer temples by tuk tuk. We finished the day at Angkor Thom, which ended up being my favorite Angkor temple. Built in the late 12th century, the temple has more than 200 giant faces carved in its stone.

Bayor, Angkor Wat

The next day, we decided to take a break and relax in town. We ended up at Chamkar vegetarian restaurant, where we had the best meal of the trip, if not my life. The French chef operated restaurant is pricey by Cambodian standards (a whole $5 a plate!) but worth every penny.


The following day we rented some cheap bikes from a charity organization and peddled from town back to Angkor Wat. This time we completed the small loop, which is about 20km. It included Ta Phrom, where tourists like to stand in line for 20 minutes to get their picture taken in the "Tomb Raider" doorway. The funny thing is that there's a similar doorway at a much less crowded temple down the road.

door trapped in a tree

Me, drenched, with my Angkor chariotThen, unfortunately, came the rain. In days past the rain hadn't started until 3 o'clock so we had planned to be back in town long before then. Just our luck, the rain came down at 11:30, and it came down hard. We ended up peddling from overhang to overhang trying to wait it out because our ponchos weren't doing much good. Eventually we decided to head out anytime the rain downgraded from torrential to simply pouring. Thankfully, it started to clear up about the time we arrived at the main Angkor Wat temple. Scaffolding prevented us from getting any decent shots of the famous approach to the temple, but the overall scale and grandeur didn't fail to impress.

Greg at Angkor Wat

1 comment:

  1. Yes, rain and more rain. But that's why it's so lush!

    Wonderful account.