When traveling you often have high hopes on your destinations. You conjure images of temples, great learning experiences for the kids, amazing views and activities… only to find out they aren’t all that great. Sometimes it rains so hard you really can’t enjoy the adventure or the build-up is so high that you are let down when you get there. This was not one of those trips.
In planning our trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, we realized we had a few extra days, so why not go to this little, out-of-the-way, French colonial town called Battambang? Not sure exactly what to expect, but figured a little down time would be good. So we boarded the bus and 500 Cambodian karaoke songs and 6 hours later, we pulled in. We had been “warned” that a pack of little kids would surround us when we got off the bus and attempt to pick pockets, but that was not the case. There were many tuk tuk drivers around and I made eye contact through the window with one driver who had a laminated piece of paper with the name of our hotel on it and cost to get there (2 dollars). I figured, “what the heck,” and waved him over and he helped us get our luggage in his cart and away we went. He gave us a brochure with some activities in the area that we might be interested in. We saw the bamboo train, coupled with a city tour, and few other things and another outing with something called the bat caves, a monastery, and the killing caves. We asked how much and he said we could get his services for a whole day for 20 dollars. He seemed nice enough, wasn’t pushy, and had good English so we said yes.
We met our driver, Yaya, the next morning promptly at 8:30 a.m. On the way to the bamboo train, he stopped at a large statue. He explained who it was, and why this town/province is called Battambang. Long story short… this man with a magic stick was a warrior and hero. He eventually got old, still tried to fight, but threw his stick and lost it, but was still revered as a hero. Battambang means lost stick. It was an interesting little stop. We also learned that Yaya was going to college, but it is very expensive. He does tours for a year and then goes back to school for a year. He looked to be about 30 and really wanted to earn a degree.
Next, we hit the bamboo train, which was all that was left of train tracks in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge had destroyed all the tracks, placed mines on roads, and taken all bicycles in the country back in the 70s to keep their population from leaving. In fact, these trains were only sets of axles with wheels and a bamboo platform on top. In the 80s, the “trains” were propelled with bamboo poles. In the late 80s, small engines were added and they now cruise down the tracks at 30 mph. It was so much fun! Kind of like a roller coaster ride as you watch the warped tracks in front of you and thoughts of derailment cross your mind. As we were moving along, we saw a lot of country side, crossed rickety bridges, and generally enjoyed the sights. This was a fun experience that the kids probably liked even more than me. Who would of thought this would of been so much fun!?!?
As we started to head back to the hotel, Yaya asked if wanted to see a crocodile farm. At 2 dollars per person it seemed an ok thing to do. We entered a neighborhood of small houses and shacks and went through a gate. Inside we were guided by an older lady to a black bucket with 7 little crocodiles. She took one out for us to hold. It wasn’t really moving much and the kids asked if it was dead. The guide agreed it was dead so she just placed it on a shelf and that part of the tour was over. At this point I was pretty confident that we were supporting inhumane crocodile framing practices. The guide then took us to the back where there were numerous crocodiles. In fact, the enclosures were loaded with them. They are jam packed in their enclosures. The guide asked if we wanted to put a live chicken in one of the pens. I really hope she was kidding. Don’t even get me started on how unsafe it was for us to be walking around these pens with knee-high rails as the only barrier between us and a 10-foot fall into the pens! We returned to our hotel for a 3 hour break during which we had lunch and cooled off in the cool pool (more rare than you might think).
At 3:30 p.m. Yaya returned, but his motorcycle was not working. He found another driver for us that was his friend, so we were off again. This tuk tuk was not so good: the side mirror no longer held a mirror of any kind, the interior light was missing, the speedometer and fuel gauges never moved and every other tuk tuk on the road passed us by. But hey, we were not in a rush. The driver told us he used to be a guide at the killing caves and was currently going to college learning about the history of Cambodia. We arrived at a hill that seemingly came out of nowhere in this expansive flat plain. Three spires of a Buddhist temple topped the peak. We switched to a Jeep that could get us to the top as there was a very steep grade. There were 1286 steps to the top which is why we opted for the Jeep route. After passing the many people drenched in sweat on the way up, we think we made the right choice.
Half way to the top we stopped and toured three killing caves. Our guide informed us theat the Khmer Rouge would take people to these caves and throw them in. Often they would decapitate them or they would stab them and push them into the cave. Some people survived the 60-foot plunge only to die from their injures or lack of food and water. The Khmer Rough also did terrible things to the babies. They would smash the babies heads against a large rock and then toss them down into the cave. This was extremely brutal. To stay alive at this time in Cambodian history you could work the fields for 16 hours a day and eat a tiny amount of rice at lunch only. The Khmer Rouge separated families and many times would make a person prove their loyalty by killing the rest of their own family. We knew about this genocide and had heard of Pol Pot, but never imagined anything this cruel. This was the worst of humanity. And not so long ago. We then went to the bottom of a cave where there is a collections of skulls and bones from the cave in a glass tomb to view.
After this sobering journey, we got back into the Jeep and went the rest of thew way to the Buddhist temple. The view was great and the monkeys numerous. They seemed only a little bit scared of humans as they would dart to and fro stealing from tourists’ backpacks if left unattended. I always worry they will steal my glasses, but that doesn’t stop me from getting just a little too close. Our guide took us to a rocky outcropping to watch the sunset and we went back down to the bottom and stopped at the bat caves. We waited with 100 or so other tourist on this small dusty road for the bats. At 5:45 the bats finally arrived and, when they did, it was amazing! We have no video or photo that adequately shows the millions of bats leaving the cave that evening. They flew out of the cave in a column always twisting and churning, but always together. They flew in this configuration for 10 kilometers before spreading out. We watched in amazement for 10 minutes and then our guide wanted to go to beat the crowd (although they all eventually passed us anyway), but the bats were still pouring out of the cave. As we rode back to our hotel, we could still see the stream of bats in the distance pouring out over the countryside.