Monday, October 29, 2012

To Battambang from Siem Reap by Boat.


We had a national holiday called Pchum Ben, from the 13th to the 17th of October which allowed me to travel to the 2nd biggest city in Cambodia, Battambang. Despite being the second biggest city in the country, after the capital (Phnom Penh), Battambang is often left off the tourist map. Indeed, when I travelled to Cambodia earlier in 2012, I didn't visit the rather enchanting city, despite spending three weeks in the country.

So how do you get there?

I took the boat from Siem Reap. I payed $21 for my one way ticket, others payed $20, $23, and some up to $25. So if you're on a budget shop around and find the best deal, bearing in mind that we probably payed one or two dollars extra because of the public holiday. The boat itself was pretty dodgy, over-crowded, hot, and noisy, but if you don't mind the sun get a seat on the roof and take in the view of the Tonle Sap (huge lake), floating villages, and the jungle atop the water.
Things to keep in mind when going by boat: 1. It can take a really long time, up to 10 hours. 2. You can't go all year round. In the dry season the river is too low. 3. It's hot, noisy, and often over-crowed (you've been warned) but in my opinion a must do!
You can take a bus from Siem Reap to Battambang for around $4, and it takes 3-4 hours. Bus tickets available from guesthouses and tour agents.

A Floating Village - an amazing way of life.

So what's Battambang like?

My first impression of the city was that it was rather relaxed and docile, this may have been partly because of the long public holiday, however I have heard similar reports form other visitor to the city. "It feels like the real Cambodia" my neighbour said to me. In Siem Reap, the locals make a big fuss if you can say a couple of words in their language. Not so in Battambang, if you say "hello" in Khmer (Cambodian) they think nothing of it and talk to you as though you're fluent!

So what is there to do?

There are a few main attractions in the city. Two mountains, Phnom Banan, and Phnom Sampeou. At the top of Phnom Banan is a temple that is said to be part of the inspiration for the famous Angkor Wat. Be warned, there is a steep set of stairs heading up towards the summit, nevertheless it is well worth the walk and the $2 entry fee.

Part of the ancient temple atop Phnom Banan.

That same $2 entry fee will get you into Phnom Sampeou, which is home to killing caves where around 10000 people were killed during the Khmer Rouge. You can visit inside the killing caves, there are human bones on display and a shrine. Far less intense that the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, but similarly accompanied by chilling stories of the victims of the Pol Pot Regime. Another fairly long walk but well worth it as the history is rich and the view from the top is absolutely spectacular.

There is also Wat Ek Phnom, which I didn't have time to visit but is included in your $2 entry fee. I've been told that the Temple itself is fairly poor condition but the trip there is beautiful. 

The final thing I did while in the city was take a ride on the Bamboo Train. Before I left Siem Reap everyone told me that I should visit this attraction. For $5 it didn't disappoint! Its a fairly uneventful trip, a straight line to a brick factory and back. But the system of literally picking up the train and taking it off the track to let another train pass is so simple that it's fascinating. It basically felt like a roller coaster without the heights and the first-world safety standards. Well worth it.

To get to and from these places you can expect to pay between $12 and $18 per day for a Tuk Tuk. I went with two other people to the two mountains on one day and the bamboo train the next for $6 each. If you set out early enough in the day you'd easily be able to do it in one day and maybe get the price down a little bit. Your Tuk Tuk drive can act as a tour guide giving you advice and information about the attractions, choosing a friendly driver with good English really enhances the experience. Our driver even walked up Phnom Sampeou with us!

I must mention the circus, although I was unable to go I have been told by several sources that it is fantastic! Operating on Monday and Thursday nights the circus trains underprivileged youths to perform various circus skills. I've also heard (unofficially) that two of the performers have been employed by Cirque Du Soleil, which I imagine would be a pretty big deal for underprivileged Cambodians.