Battambang and Rural Cambodia
A lot of western travelers to Cambodia usually only end up seeing Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but with our extended time-frame we decided to add in a few more destinations off the beaten backpacker track. We’d heard great things about Battambang, Cambodia’s capital city about four hours southwest of Siem Reap. We arrived around mid-afternoon to a swarm of tuk tuk drivers and picked one that spoke English well, as we wanted to inquire about having him take us around the next day. We got really lucky as Peter was very friendly, a great driver and offered us a decent price for a tour that would hit up all the things on our wish list. After agreeing that he’d pick us up at 9:00am the next morning, we checked into our hotel and all it’s wood heavy interior, and discussed what we’d do that evening.
Battambang is right on the Mekong River and even though it’s the capital city it’s not very touristy at all, in fact we were the only white people we saw for at least the first hour of walking around. Battambang is also the first city we noticed that comes alive right at sunset. The riverfront area had a small playground for children as well as an outdoor gym with lots of different workout equipment for locals to use free of cost. We also saw a group aerobics class filled with lots of ladies in matching top and bottom pajama sets (a fashion favorite in both Cambodia and Vietnam). We settled on a little street cart restaurant for dinner and ate delicious noodles, pork bao, green onion pancakes and dumplings along with an iced coffee and iced tea all for $5! We knew that we’d be back the following evening!
The next morning Peter was there right on time to take us to our first destination of the day, the bamboo train! This is something I’d been looking forward to since I saw Anthony Bourdain ride it on an episode of No Reservations. The bamboo train is a 7 kilometer, 20-minute journey from one end to the other with a short stop at the village at the other end where some very entrepreneurial little girls will insist that you buy their bracelets. Instead of a regular train the bamboo train cars or (nori) consists of a long wooden frame, covered lengthwise with slats made of ultralight bamboo, that rest on two barbell-like wheels connected with a small engine. Oh and if two bamboo trains are coming at each other at the same time you better be ready to hop off and help the driver disassemble your car while the other people pass! Overall the bamboo train was a really fun experience, it definitely went faster than I than thought it would, we saw a bit of rural Cambodia and met some persistent, yet kind local people.
The next few stops on our tour was to see some of the ways locals make a living in rural Cambodia. Our guide Peter seemed to know everyone and we visited with a lady making bamboo sticky rice (delicious!), a family who made dried banana paper (a bit like fruit leather), another family who made rice paper and showed us how to make tasty homemade spring rolls as well as a man who was in the business of distilling super strong rice wine and fish fighting! We finished our day at the crocodile farm which was definitely unregulated as you just kind of climbed up along the gator balcony to view the crocs and hope you didn’t fall in. Peter our guide even provoked a mama gator for us to show us how strong her jaws were, I was relieved she didn’t clamp down on his stick and pull him in!
We opted for skipping the local fish paste factory as driving by was enough to make both of us nearly gag, no reason to stop for an extended period of time. We also passed three weddings happening! Something we learned in Cambodia is that it doesn’t matter the day of the week here, you can bet that someone somewhere is having a wedding. That evening we made our way back to our favorite little street stall to try a few new dishes and some of our favorites from the night before. The next day we’d be taking a bus to Cambodia’s busiest city Phnom Penh to learn more about the genocide that took place not so many years ago.