Category Archives: Cambodia

Battambang in Cambodia – Insects, Home Made Trains and Frenchness

The city of Battambang was recommended to us last time we were here but at that time the lure of Thai beaches was too much. But this time we had no excuse as it was en-route to the Thai beaches.

We paid the almighty sum of £4.50 each to travel the 4 hours from Siem Reap to Battambang. We got the hotel to book the ticket but had we arranged it ourselves we would no doubt have been promised a luxury modern air conditioned toilet toting bus. But we would have known that such a bus didn’t exist, unlike the British father and daughter we met at the bus station.

The daughter was mildly ranting at the bemused ticket checker (that’s him with the white cap) when we arrived. Her admittedly rather valid concern was the lack of toilet and the state of the bus.  I offered some calm words and defused the situation. Then I told her about one of our Bolivian bus journeys. Twenty hours on perilous roads with no toilet and children sleeping in the aisle is an experience that will remain with us forever I think. A trundle along the dusty roads of Cambodia is a cake walk by comparison.

This was a proper local bus with just a smattering of western travellers amongst Cambodians going about their daily busibess. A family of 5 sat in the two seats accross from us. The father had only one leg (land mine no doubt Cambodia is still littered with them) was sat with his wife and 3 daughters aged around 2, 4 and 6 I would guess. They were great fun and I exchanged a few funny faces with one of girls. Previous experience means we now carry sweets and lollies, so we handed some over which they loved.

Somewhere around half way to Battambang (pronounced Baddambong. I got blank looks until I realised this) we stopped for lunch. After a visit to the obligatory hideous squat toilets I considered trying a deep fried grasshopper. I bottled it though. I never even thought about munching on a battered and deep fried freshly hatched chick though.

After that things progressed smoothly and we arrived in Battambang by mid afternoon. We had booked a hotel through Booking.com but did no more than this, so we were surprised to see a guy within the waiting crowd waving a card with my name on it. We worked our way through the huge shouting clamour of tuk tuk and taxi drivers and eventually found him. He was the tuk tuk driver stationed at our hotel it transpired. The fact that he had my name seemed to ensure this wasn’t a clever ploy on the part of some cunning opportunist.

This situation demonstrates two things about Cambodians which endear them to us so much. Firstly, what a wonderful thing to do for somebody. Its 35c in an unfamiliar city and 30 drivers are competing loudly for our attention. In this situation it is very hard to know what to do as a traveller arriving in a strange place. Secondly Cambodians all seem so keen to work so hard to make money to better their lives. It is humbling. Sam, the tuk tuk driver, didn’t know when or where we were coming from or by what means. So he had made his way between bus station and boat port waving the card in the hope that he would find us. Amazing.

When we got to the hotel he didn’t even want any money. His hope, which was realised, was that we would book an all day tour with him for the almighty sum of US$20, plus what we always add on because we bluntly refuse to employ somebody for a whole day for so little money. I’m not tight enough to be a hardcore backpacker.

The city of Battambang is a funny place. The French, when they ruled Cambodia built lots of French looking buildings. But aside from that it is pure Cambodia.

The city itself doesn’t seem to have much to offer. The big attractions are out of town so the next day we arranged to set off at 8am with Sam on the standard tour circuit.

First stop was the Bamboo Railway. I have been mumbling about wanting to see this to various people in the UK for a while. I doubt any of them listened though. Most of my friends and colleagues glaze over when I talk travel.

In the French Colonial era the French built railway lines, including a route from the capital Phnom Pehn in the south to Battambang further north. Most of the line is now out of service but a group of localpeople have kept a short stretch open. On this stretch they run their own home made trains which consist of a small bamboo platform which sits on two axles and wheels. The train is powered by a scavenged petrol engine taken from a generator.

Whilst I am sure these services do serve the local people I suspect most of their trade comes from tourists. So much so that a Tourist Police Officer was manning the station when we arrived. We paid US$2 each for the short return trip and very quickly we were hacking along at 40kmh and becoming worried. The lengths of rail mostly don’t quite line up which doesn’t make for a smooth ride. But it is incredible fun nonetheless once you overcome the feeling of impending doom.

We soon arrived at a small settlement which looked to be on the site of an old station. We were ushered to a tiny shop and fed fruit and sold drinks. Four kids immediately came and sat with us and soon offered to show us around.

The settlement was based around a brick kiln and we were given a very thorough tour. The bricks are made from clay taken from the local fields. Rice husk is burned to heat the kiln and then the ash is used to fertilise the earth to grow more rice. All quite impressive.

The 4 kids were brilliant fun and their English was great. So much so we could have some pretty good conversations. The girl in fact even spoke a little Spanish so we practised together for a while.

As we walked they were making things from the local plant leaves. Like origami is the best way I can describe it. Grasshoppers and stars seemed to be their favourite. By chance I had bought some stars in Siem Reap made in exactly the same way but in bright coloured plastic.  I handed this over and they excitedly split them up between themselves.

After around 10 minutes one of the boys decided it was time to set out the terms of our tour. US$1 for each of our tour guides. A bargain which we doubled and then supplemented with some sweets. I am under no illusion that these kids were essentially doing their jobs, but they were great fun nonetheless.

One of the novel things about the bamboo train is that there is only one track, and thus trains moving in opposing directions have to decide who will get out of the way. On the return journey our train had to be dismantled and flung to the side to let another through.This took a matter of seconds, though the wheels did look very heavy!

After the bamboo train dropped us back at the station we tuk tuk’d cross country to a winery. In fact this was apparently Cambodia’s only winery. We had a quick stroll through the vineyard and then sampled some of their wine (not great), brandy (tasted like brandy), ginger cordial (excellent) and grape juice (delicious).

After this Sam took us to see the Wat Banan temple. This was much like some of the smaller temples we saw at Siem Reap, though at Siem Reap we didn’t have to climb up a small mountain! Sam sat at the bottom and relaxed whilst we struggled up the steps in the incredible heat. In all honesty, having come from Siem Reap it really wasn’t worth the climb though the view was impressive.

After this we pressed on to another temple on a large hill. Before climbing we had some delicious lunch in the form of Lok Lak Beef, and then negotiated a ride each on the back of a motorbike to get to the top.

This hill was a sobering experience. Atop the hill is a Buddhist temple and a deep cave known as “The Killing Cave”. During the Khmer Rouge years prisoners were brought to the temple and incarcerated. Their crime was nothing more than being educated or perceived as a thread to the Khmer Rouge. Their punishment was to be hit over the head with a big stick or the butt of a rifle and pushed over the edge and into the cave. A drop of around 25 metres. Most died from the fall. Those that survived died of starvation, unable to escape the cave.

I am sure we said similar in our last blog entries from Cambodia, but what happened to the wonderful people of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge is heartbreaking. It is estimated that a quarter of the population were killed or died from overwork, starvation or illness. Some even killed themselves to escape the terror. It is incredible that despite this being in living memory of so many Cambodians, the country is so amazingly friendly and welcoming. This visit completed our day and we wordlessly headed back to Battambang to jump in the pool and cool off.

That evening we attended the Circus. This comes highly recommended but I think we caught it on a bad night. The 6 performers were clearly very talented but whoever choreographed their performance is less worthy of praise.

The next morning we set off for Thailand. This was to be our most ambitious journey of the trip. We took a taxi to the border. This bit went well though we did wonder why we were the only people not holding reams of paperwork. It transpired that everybody else was on a visa run. They were crossing into Cambodia for the sole reason of getting a new visa as they returned to Thailand. Below is the exciting border at Pailin.

We then negotiated a taxi ride to the Thai town of Chantaburi. Our guide book told us that from here we could catch a minibus to Ban Phe. Sure enough our taxi dropped us off near the market and mini buses were waiting. However it seemed they would only drop us at the main road and we needed to get to Ban Phe pier. There was talk of motorbikes waiting for us which wasn’t appealing as Claire’s backpack weighs the same as a small adult. But we climbed in and went for it anyway.

When we were pretty much ejected from the minibus we could see no motorbikes, taxis or anything. I shouted to the driver and he pointed us down a road. So we started walking. At this point we didn’t realise that we had a good 3 miles to walk in blistering heat.

After a couple of minutes a tuk tuk drove past and Claire hailed him. We climbed in and set off. The driver was an old guy and whilst friendly he spoke no English. We don’t think he was actually on duty as he had to drop into his depot to grab his helmet. When we arrived at the pier he refused to accept any money and I even resorted to trying to chase him with some notes but he was having none of it. What an absolute gent.

We had a 30 minute wait for our boat so we jumped into an Irish type bar for some food. Our first since breakfast 7 hours previous.


 

Have you been to Battambang? What did you think of it?

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My Ten Favourite Things About South East Asia

South East Asia is mad. It’s also very diverse. It can be ugly. It can be challenging. But I love it.  Here are my ten favourite things I have encountered whilst travelling around South East Asia. Have a read, and let me know yours.

Thai Minibuses of Doom

If you have ever travelled around Thailand in an economical fashion you have probably sat in one of these. You have also probably clenched your buttocks in fear and held on for dear life. And you have probably scratched your head in confusion as you were dumped at the road side and told to wait in the middle of nowhere for no clear reason.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, it is probably best that you can recognise these vehicles. They tend to look something like this. With varying amounts of chrome accessories.

Thai Minibus

I have no idea how the whole system of Thai minibuses work. Without doubt they are vital. They are used by backpacker and locals alike and they seem to ply every possible route. There is no evidence of a timetable and they seem to set off once they are full. And when I say full, I mean stuffed to the ceiling with people, bags and whatever goods the locals want to transport.

That’s me below with the ginger facial hair. And those two guys had never met until the point when they realised that they had to share a seat for an uncomfortable few hours. It was a big seat, stretching the width of the minibus. But, in Thailand the back seat is always used for storing rucksacks and boxes of mysterious Thai cargo. The driver excavated that little alcove for them to climb into.

Inside a typical Thai Minibus

You will find one of these things very easily. Somebody will happily tell you which bus is the one for you, and the owner, who will look and behave like an Automobile Pimp, will happily sell you a ticket.

Some time later, when you depart at the speed of light, you may well think your next stop will be your destination. But not necessarily.

During more than half of my Thai Minibus adventures I have been dropped off in some random dusty location and told to wait along with most of the other equally confused passengers. The parting shot of the driver is to slap a coloured sticker on the clothing of the passengers who are being ejected. Then he will speed off.

Everybody looks at each other and gradually they start to discuss the situation. Eventually somebody goes to ask the only person around, the man selling ice creams, and he says to wait. Because he knows how the system works.

At some point later, another minibus will appear and collect whoever is wearing a particular colour sticker. This minibus may well not really have enough room, which is what happened to the two guys up there.

The minibus drivers are clearly on a bonus of some sort to arrive on time.  I once had to counsel a Scottish chap who had sat in the front passenger seat of one of these things. His eyes were unblinkingly glued on the road, aside from frantic glances at the speedometer.

But despite all of this, I have always arrived safely and only a little shaken, dehydrated and hungry. And with hindsight each trip has been enjoyable in it’s own special way.

Pad Thai

Oh wow! I already loved Pad Thai, the national dish of Thailand, long before I first set foot in The Land of Smiles. But when I first tucked into a genuine Pad Thai, in 2010 in a dark and dingy Thai alleyway, I knew I had found my perfect food.

Chewy noodles, fish sauce, egg, crunchy crushed nuts, tofu, bean shoots, tamarind, garlic and few other ingredients come together in perfect union with a squeeze of lime. and some meat or prawns.  This one here is wrapped in a clever egg omelette net.

Pad Thai

It is cheap, incredibly satisfying and available absolutely everywhere in Thailand. Make sure you try it when you get there.

Temples in Cambodia

The Temples of Angkor, the only remaining remnant of a once great empire, is the very reason I first set foot in South East Asia. The awe inspiring photographs of Angkors Wat and Thom had been calling to me for many years.

To stand and behold the behemoth that is Angkor Wat is enough to make you question whether humans have actually moved forward in the past 900 years. Angkor Wat was and still is the largest religious building in the world.

Angkor Wat

When the French “rediscovered” Angkor in the mid 19th Century the French Explorer Henri Mouhot was taken to say…

 “At Ongcor, there are …ruins of such grandeur… that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?”

In fact they were so sure that the Cambodians of the 19th century could not be descended from the builders of this astonishing city that they toyed with the idea that the Egyptians must have been responsible. Which probably prompted a knowing Cambodian farmer to smugly mutter…

“Good work Frenchy!”

Angkor Wat is the biggest single temple at Angkor, but for me it is in fact not the best. For starters it is intact, having actually remained in use over the centuries. I prefer my temples to be crumbled. But Angkor has many other temples, many of which were lost to the jungle for many centuries. Some retain this mysterious lost atmosphere, and for me there is not much I like more than clambering over the moss covered ruins of the temples Ta Prohm and Beng Mealea. Or gazing in wonder at the amazing detail of Banteay Samre.

Beng Mealea in Cambodia

It takes time to tour these astounding monuments Not least because the daytime heat in Cambodia is very draining. I would recommend 3 days if you are visiting. And prepare to be blown away.

Mango Lassi

Talking of the heat, nothing pleases me more when I am hot and tired than a cold, refreshing Mango Lassi.

Mango Lassi

Vietnamese Tourist Tax

Any well travelled person will agree that extracting lots of money from tourist is a trade that crosses all international borders. I’ve been ripped off and guilt tripped in most countries, but the worst and in turn most entertaining is Vietnam.

In the defence of Vietnam, when I visited I was pretty naive. But they knew it and tried to milk me dry. Just to be clear, you can find a list of some of the Vietnamese scams here.

Having read that I came off lightly actually . But I still paid for a first class train ticket and ended up in a really nasty bunk. And I paid for a wonderful tour from Ho Chi Minh City to Cambodia and got not much in return. And every single shop, which is a lot as every house seems to be a shop in Vietnam, does not show prices. You can almost see the shopkeeper’s eyes brighten as they think about what price they can get away with,

But I still loved Vietnam. I would go back, though a quick Google search suggests many don’t.

The Horn of Corn

“The what?” I hear you ask. Well, that is in fact the name I gave to a tasty Thai snack because I can’t read the packaging. They look like this.

The Horn of Corn

These crunchy corn snacks have seen me through many a tiring journey. They are so bloody morish that I have to eat a whole bag, and they only seem to come in big bags. Even better, I discovered that the Thai shop close to my home town in the UK imports them! Woohooooo!

Smiles

The people of South East Asia really do know how to smile. They don’t smile all the time of course. That would be weird, and probably annoying. But they just seem to have a happy outlook on life. Even these kids who live in the middle of nowhere in Cambodia at a brick kiln.

Battambang Kids

Dodgy Counterfeit Gear

It’s everywhere in South East Asia. Most notably, at least as far as I can tell, in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. And the shopkeeper will swear blind that the $5 pair of Oakley Sunglasses (negotiated down to 3$ of course) are completely genuine.

The whole situation left me in a bit of a quandary. If I was planning on bringing a load back to flog on eBay I would be a crook. But I just wanted a cheap rucksack, and the “North Face” offering seemed to tick all the boxes.

My North Face bag

And the “Ray Bans” were only cheap but they did a job. I’m not so sure about the “Tag Heur” watch though – it can’t always be 6.30!

Tuk Tuks

Yep. Those three wheeled things that are nothing but a novelty in the west – they seem to stitch the very fabric of the rest of the world together. I’ve ridden them in Asia, South America and I even saw one in Morocco.

They come in many guises, from the slow relaxing variant in Cambodia to the crazy, mental version that tears up the streets of Bangkok.

A typical Bangkok Tuk Tuk

They are most famous in Thailand I would say. Putting the terrible traffic congestion aside, a Tuk Tuk is a very quick way to get around Bangkok. The drivers can weave them in and out of traffic with great skill, and seem to take great delight in extracting screams and whoops of joy from their passengers.

The drivers also like to drive a hard bargain. They could teach the Vietnamese a thing or two, but I always seem to reach an agreeable price. Oh, and don’t forgot to tell them you are not interested in their brother’s suit store or their friend’s shop.

Beaches

I’ve saved the very best until last. South East Asia has lots of incredible beaches. Some of my most relaxing times have been spent on Ko Lanta in Thailand and on the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.

But finding a good beach that suits your requirements is not easy. I like a quiet sandy beach with good swimming, low key infrastructure and plenty of Mango Lassis.

A Beach on Ko Lanta

That up there is a great little beach on Ko Lanta in Thailand. Note the clean sand, calm waters, forest back drop, and of course the dodgy North Face bag. And when I was dropped off by boat at this beach on the Perhantian Islands in Malaysia I knew I had found my kind of beach.

Perhentian Islands in Malaysia

So, what about you?

This is my top ten, but you most certainly will disagree. So what do you love about South East Asia? Add a comment, or a Tweet, or even a Facebook comment and let me know.