Tag 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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The Liebster Award

Liebster Award You may well be reading this and thinking “what the hell is a Liebster Award?” I certainly did when @pataschasworld on Twitter nominated me. I started thinking about my acceptance speech and where my black tie was, but then thought I best do a little research.

It turns out that the Liebster Award is a bit like a blogger’s chain letter. Though rather less annoying. A blogger nominates 10 other bloggers and sets them some questions to answer on their blog. They in turn nominate another ten bloggers and set some new questions.

The web gives endless other rules, one of which is that those that I nominate must have less then 200 followers. That’s the only rule I am sticking to (kind of) as the rest are just plain muddled. So below are the questions set by Patashcas World, as detailed here in their blog entry, along with my answers.

The fact that they nominated me is quite crazy actually. The beach at the top of their blog is the astoundingly beautiful Playa Conchal in Costa Rica. I got engaged on that beach in 2011. I love the crazy randomness of an unlikely coincidence. 

1. Do you prefer city trips or nature? Why? 

I go through stages of preferring one, and then the other. When I travelled around the world I got very bored of cities. In the end, coming so quickly one after another, they started to feel very similar. Particularly in South America. But then just when I thought I had had enough of cities for ever, a real gem would come along. Like Cusco in Peru. Or Wellington in New Zealand. Or the city I could never get bored of – New York City.

So my answer changes. At the moment I can’t wait to explore Istanbul next week and Seoul a couple of weeks later. I may be sick of cities again after that though. 

2. Where was your worst night spent and what happened? 

More than one night actually. In 2011 my girlfriend and I were in Mendoza in Argentina. We arrived during a big festival and hostel rooms were really hard to find. But we managed to get 7 nights booked at a highly regarded hostel.

When we got to the dorm we noticed bed bugs on the bunk. The hostel called in exterminators and washed all our clothes but that night my girlfriend got savaged by the bugs. We spent hours the next morning looking for somewhere else to stay but without any success.

In the meantime the exterminators were called in and the infestation was traced to the rucksack of an American girl – who seemed to have gone into hiding. In the end we stayed the whole seven nights in an eternal loop of bad sleep and extermination.

Eventually the hostel burnt the mattresses. I like to think I can sleep anywhere, but knowing that I will be attacked by bugs in the night was tough. 

3. Is a rental car a too expensive way for you to travel? If yes, which transportation do you prefer? 

I feel like I am a good person to ask this to actually. I have almost completely travelled by local transport and I love it. Local chicken buses are a real experience, and trains in far out places are nothing like westernised travel (I’m looking at you Vietnam!) and are a great way to see the countryside.

But I have hired a car twice whilst travelling. Once for 6 weeks in New Zealand and again for 6 days in Tenerife. As a result I feel like these are two places I know really well.

Having the car gives complete freedom to venture from the standard tourist routes and just check out what is down that dusty track. New Zealand really is a great place to get out and about in a car too. Every road seems to have some incredible sight to behold.

So yes, a rental car is expensive, but sometimes it is worth the expense. And what do I prefer? A tuk-tuk of course. Life is always good when you are in the back of a tuk-tuk. 

4. What is your favourite destination and why? 

Without a doubt my favourite destination is Cambodia. I’ve been twice now and long to return. My main obsession is the temples, which is why I first went. But I soon realised that the people are amazing and the food is pretty good too. I can’t wait to return and next time I want to explore the coast. 

5. What was the oddest food you’ve eaten? 

Probably Guinea Pig in Cusco. Which was nice, and like most unusual foods it actually tasted like chicken. I came close to trying tarantula and deep fried whole chicken embryo in Cambodia but bottled it at the moment of truth. 

6. What was the most dangerous situation you’ve ever been involved in? 

I work in the risk industry so I am really good at finding reasons to not put myself in danger.

But retrospectively I would say that endless bus journeys in the Andes throughout Bolivia and Peru was pretty dangerous. The mountain passes and perilous roads were both spectacular and terrifying. And the drivers have a reputation of driving whilst drunk and are exposed to long period of driving without rest.

I feel lucky that we had zero problems to be honest. Others are less lucky. 

7. Did you ever needed medical treatment during a stay. If yes, in which country and what happened? 

I broke my ring finger 3 days after getting married. I braved a rope swing into the lake at Khao Sok National Park in Thailand. Sadly it seems that my fear of heights is more prominent in my left hand, which refused to let go of the rope. Once my full body weight had done it’s job the bone in my finger cracked in half kind of lengthwaysOuch!Luckily we had a nurse from the UK in the floating hut next to us. Once I had swum one handed to get back to the huts she helped me straighten my finger – which crunched loudly enough for everybody in the room to hear. I struggled through the next 2 weeks of honeymoon – Malaysia and then Cambodia – before seeking proper medical assistance back in the UK. 

8. Hostel or suite? 

A constant debate between my wife and I. Well into our 30’s now, we do rather stand out in hostels. Not that it bothers me. But in all honesty we are now hotel  people. But I still miss the conversations and weirdness of hostels and their dorms. 

9. Your best memory of a stay… 

Hmmm. That’s a tough one. So many memories.

In March 2011 we landed in Buenos Aires after nearly 2 months in New Zealand. Which was a real shock to the system. New Zealand has just over 4 million citizens. The province of Buenos Aires alone has over 15 million and when we arrived it seemed that a large chunk of them were bustling around the streets of San Telmo. We needed a bolt hole and we stumbled upon a newly opened estancia in Uruguay by the name of El Galope. 

Getting there was a challenge. We took a ferry across the Rio Plata to Colonia del Scaramento in Uruguay and then a bus. We had to disembark at a random spot in the middle of nowhere where the owner of El Galope, Miguel, was waiting for us.

At the time El Galope was fairly new and they didn’t have much in the way of online reviews and web presence. We were the only guests and as Miguel pulled into the estancia it dawned on us just how remote the place was. Rolling green countryside disappeared to the horizon in all directions.

Despite the fact that we don’t ride horses we had a wonderful three day stay. Miguel and his wife Monica were amazing hosts, and continue to be to this day. Their dog, Tupac, kept us company. We visited a local goat’s cheese farm on bikes. The food, cooked each evening by Migeul and Monica, was good and the local wine was brilliant. I even assisted Miguel (badly) with some building alterations to the guest quarters.

El Galope was nothing like we ever expected. It was the most relaxing 3 days in a truly special place, and it was the perfect preparation for our subsequent trip into the insanity of South America. 

10. What do you collect? (Because everyone collects something) 

Nothing that I can think of in a material sense. But as a traveller I collect memories. Weirdly I have a shocking memory at work or at home, yet my memories of travel are as clear as if they happened yesterday. 

11. Why do you travel? 

Because I only have one life and there is a hell of a lot to see.   

 

My Nominations 

I am a bit new to Twitter so my nominations are rather random. Here goes…

@goneabroad – who have quit their jobs to travel. Which makes them inspirational ! Good work. 

@karthiknomad  – likes travelling and skateboarding. Great combination.

@aflyingirishman – I’ve met loads of travelling Irish. Ireland must be rubbish. 

@krystianya – I love the photo atop her Twitter feed. Burma is it? 

@GAffairTravel – are helping women travel solo. Which is good as I have witnessed first hand the difficulties solo-female travellers face. 

@wheresdariel – by the looks of his Twitter feed he is at the top a rather big mountain!

@onenomadwoman – 40 countries since 2012! Impressive. But I won’t believe she can time travel unless she comes round my house yesterday to prove it. 

@WeMustDash – a man with a moustache and his other half, setting off on the trip of a lifetime. I’ve done that and it was great. My facial hair went a bit ginger though. 

@wtravelist – Let’s travel the world! So says the WorldTravelist. I’m game…let’s go! 

@ExplorerOnEarth – also wants to travel the world. They should hook up with the @WorldTravelist. They seem to be like-minded. 

@Adrian1707 – who travelled the length of Africa and wrote a superb blog. 

My Questions for you 1. Which country sits at the top of your travel bucket list and why?

2. Top bunk or bottom bunk?

3.  Do you ever wear those weird baggy and colourful backpacker trousers? If so, post a photo to make me chuckle.

4. What is the most relaxing place you had ever travelled and what is so great about it?

5. When you aren’t tweeting or blogging, what do you do with your days?

6. What is your best bit of travel advice?

7. Have you ever been the victim of a scam whilst travelling? Yes? You best tell us…

8.  Guide Book or just turn up and wing it?

9.  What is your favourite country? Tell us why and make us want to go there.

10. What is the weirdest place you have slept whilst travelling? And how did that happen?!