Battambang to Kampong Chhnang (Cambodia)


We sit at the bus station watching the goings on. Our bus is scheduled for 9:30am but it’s already 11am. We’ve watched as the bus to Siem Riep was loaded equally with rice and passengers. Yes, you read that correctly, the bus was loaded with heavy bags of rice. Probably a few hundred kilos of the stuff.

Almost an hour later our single backpack is loaded into the hold of the bus bound for Phnom Penh (Kampong Chhnang is on the same bus route). Then it is unloaded to make way for our bus’s load of rice. There’s so much that some passengers have to take their luggage on board (we are lucky that our backpack fit underneath). Bags of rice are even loaded into the door well at the front of the bus. It makes a good seat for the passengers whose seats have been taken up by the piles of mattresses wrapped in plastic being transported in the back few rows of the bus.

It’s midday when we pull out of the bus station. We pass some time making up stories to go with the karaoke videos playing at the front of the bus. There’s the usual woman slapping man scene all too common in Cambodian karaoke, the love lorn man, the parents whose son is going off to work in the city, and the dutiful son who returns home with cash earned on a construction site. Hours pass as the rural landscape slips by. My reading of a novel seems to fascinate the woman in front of us who keeps looking and giggling nervously. Her children stare wide-eyed at us.

At first Kampong Chhnang doesn’t seem like much. It’s dusty and quiet. We walk past a prison on our way to our guesthouse. Hmm. But the guesthouse is lovely with friendly staff. Our room set in a garden with a bench out the front and cold aircon inside.

Right on dusk we head out to explore the town and find some food. The hour out of the heat has given us a second wind (the bus had aircon but it was old and ineffective).

We eat diner at a Chinese restaurant where two meals and drinks cost us $US5.50 (everything is cheaper once you leave Phnom Penh and Siem Riep). We are charged in Cambodian Riel for the first time in this trip and the staff don’t look happy to be handed dollars (the unofficial official currency of Cambodia). We haven’t needed Riel until now so have given our small money as donations at temples along the way. It’s okay though because we will collect a few dollars worth here in town.

We sit in a big park eating coconut cake for desert watching people. There’s teenagers kicking a small soccer ball around. A group of men play hackey sack. Some children let off fire crackers. Groups of young people hang out on the grass talking or playing guitar. Children run around. Families eat picnic dinners on colourful straw mats. And we are asked whether we can be in peoples’ photos (or they just snap a shot if they think we’re not looking).


What we don’t know yet is that we’ve arrived in the middle of a big festival. On our way home we come across it and stop off.  We will later learn it’s a Cambodia-Thailand friendship festival. It lasts a full week. We wander the stalls.

I play a side show game (and lose). We try a sausage that ends up being randomly filled with some sort of mince and rice noodle mix that tastes awesome.

And we watch the concert. People walk past us gawking as though we are aliens. Street urchins beg for money (no we do not cave in even when they stand batting their eyes at us for half an hour).


It’s funny how we always seem to find festivals when we travel. And always in the places where we least expect it.

Kampong Chhnang is so local. The contrast with foreign-owned Siem Riep is vast, even this evening. I think I will like this town a lot.

The small Battambang circuit (Cambodia)

We have asked Tony to pick us up at 9:30am so that we can sleep in. We are on a holiday after all. We get into the tuk tuk with little idea of where we will end up – that’s part of the fun of traveling.
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We travel along the river following small roads. This is how the other half lives and it’s important to realise that while we haggle over every dollar many people living here would love to just earn even a dollar for their labours. Today we will learn more about how hard the Khmer people have to work just to earn their meagre wages.
 photo IMG_9073_zpsev6hyhps.jpgut first a sobering stop at the Well of Shadows. This is the place where over 10,008 Khmer people were killed during the Pol Pot regime. The memorial tells the story of those unimaginable years. A period of history that many Khmer people today still remember. I am struck by the kindness of Khmer people despite the trauma of war and torture. They could have chosen to be angry and bitter like some other cultural groups who have suffered but they haven’t. Rather, this is a peaceful country where people are friendly and helpful.
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We stop at a small shed. A machine that could have come out of the ark is pulverising rice and then smoothing it. This is the first stage in making rice noodles. The second is totake the pulverised and moistened rice flour and pushing it through a big metal noodle maker and boiling the noodles. Wood is expensive so rice husks are burned to boil the water. It’s labour intensive, hot and dirty work.

Our next stop is a guava vendor. She sits on a wooden platform with her fruit piled neatly in front of her. The guava is tasty so I buy a kilo. It’s all grown locally along this road, harvested and sold right here. This is hand to mouth living without any guarantee of income. I feel grateful to have been born in the West. The lottery of birth is something that travel makes clear.

The rice wine making shed is next but, not being drinkers, we don’t stay to taste it. The fermentation process takes place in buckets that serve as vats. Fruit, snake, scorpion and spices make up the brew that is said to make men very powerful (if you know what I mean).

Not much farther along is a row of rice paper shops. I made a video because the process is so simple yet effective. These ladies make 3,000 rice paper sheets every day during the dry season. During the wet work has to stop because there’s no sun to dry the papers. I buy some fresh spring rolls, which taste good.

I wonder what it would feel like to have tourists observing your work on a daily basis. To know people who earn more in a day than you might in a year are photographing you out of curiosity. Is it ethical or responsible? Does our purchase of food and drink at their store justify our gawking? Without us this family might remain in greater poverty but our money might make it possible for families to make headway. I know what I’d do for my family if it came to it. I’d let tourists take photos if it were the difference between a subsistence future or having food in our bellies.
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Wat Ek Phnom suddenly appears before our tuk tuk. The giant Buddha is impossible to ignore. It dominates the landscape. Behind it lie the 11th Century ruins of Wat Ek Phnom. There’s no steps to climb – just a rocky ruin to scramble over.
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An old lady and a young man’s without use of his legs ply their trade here. They try to encourage tourists to follow them then ask for 1,000 riel ($US0.25). The man crawls. The lady hobbles. For all our complaints about the social security system in Australia, at least this isn’t the lot of our elderly and disabled populations. At home this man would have a lightweight wheelchair, a disability pension, access to education and workplace training, and the protection of anti-discrimination legislation that requires potential employers to make reasonable adjustments to allow him access to employment and workplaces. Our system is not perfect but at least we have something in place.
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This is the end of the small tour and we are taken back to Battambong. We eat lunch, have a massage at the seeing hand massage and take a tuk tuk to our guesthouse.
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We have plans to go to the full moon festival at a temple but are delayed. We order chicken amok (Khmer curry) and don’t realise it has to be made from scratch. An hour and a half later our meals finally arrive. The taste is amazing and worth the wait. I just wish I’d known.
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We end up lazing by the pool (well, I sit in it) playing on social media and blogging. The super moon is bright above. At $US12 a night this place sure is great value.

Tomorrow we will take a bus to Kampong Chnneng. No doubt that will be an experience of its own merits.

The big Battambang circuit (Cambodia)

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We board our chariot at 8:30am. We are trusting Tony, our driver, to arrange a good day out because tuk tuk countryside rides are what you do is in Battambang. We will not be disappointed.
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Our journey through the history of Cambodia starts with the railway station. Built by the French in the 1930s or 1940s, the railway station was once part of the connection between Phnom Penh and Thailand. However, after running into disrepair and experiencing a number of derailments, the railway was abandoned in 2009. Now only the ghosts of the railway days remain.
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Tony was educated at Wat Damrey Sar as a teenager. Here he learned English in an outdoor veranda style classroom sitting at a row of wooden desks. His English is a credit to his hard work and teachers. At forty years of age he must have seen a lot in his life and I cannot help but wonder how much his old school has changed or remained the same. Young monks go about their daily chores. At the pagoda Paul is followed by four children asking for “one dollar please”. We smile and politely say “no” each time without aggression for that is not going to help these enterprising youngsters. Better to kindly refuse than to create anger in them.

A carving on the exterior temple wall tells of the battle between the Thai and the French. I cannot help but wonder whether the dark figure represent the local Khmer people caught in the middle.
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We return to the French colonial era. The Battambang Provincial Hallnis another French structure with Italian engineering. An old bridge spans the river. It was used in colonial days but is now closed to vehicle traffic to preserve it from damage and to prevent accidents.

When Tony collects us from the far side of the bridge he asks whether we wil agree to some other people joining our tuk tuk. We can still pay $15 he offers “kindly”. We laugh and tell him we will pay $10 and he can make a separate arrangement with his other passengers. He accepts and we agree he can pick up the two girls from Czech Republic who will be our traveling companions. I would never begrudge a person the opportunity to earn a fair day pay for a fair day work, nor the chance to save a few dollars myself. Some would say it was a ruse but all reports I have read are that a tuk tuk with a good English speaking guide costs $25 a day so our $10 arrangement is a bargain.
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Czech girls on board we head to the Bamboo Railway. $5 a person buys us a cart. Yes, you can get it for $10 a cart but meh – if it were just me and Paul it would cost $5 each for the cart anyway.

Tony gets us to the front for the queue, not taking no for an answer from the drivers. Others just have to wait. Our cart is loaded onto the track, the engine splutters to life and we are off. Slowly and genteelly at first then gathering speed until we are roaring along at about 40kph. Clickety clack clickety clack go the wheels over the rickety rails. Sometimes we tilt worryingly sideways where the tracks have become uneven over the years. This is not an experience for anyone concerned with health and safety. But it’s not as though hundreds of carts a day don’t make this journey either.
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When another cart approaches from ahead we stop. One cart is unloaded, the other moves past and the first is loaded back onto the tracks. We passengers just stand there in the jungle waiting to continue. It’s all quite fun.
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Back in the tuk tuk we bounce along the roads once more. Stopping every time Tony sees something that might interest us, like these fishermen and women catching small fish to make fish paste. Fish paste is an important export for Cambodia and also a critical ingredient in Khmer cuisine.
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As the midday sun burns down we contemplate the 358 steps that will lead us to Banon Hill Temple. Paul gets pointed looks from local Khmer people walking down towards us. This is Asia where subtlety is not always so easily exercised. But up the steps we go and at the top we enjoy the temple proper.
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Banon Hill Temple is a combination of Hindu and Buddhist temples. The complex was built in the 11th and 12the centuries and is contemporaneous to Angkor Wat. I continue our practice of giving some money to light some incense to respect local practice and contribute something to those whose lands we are passing through. Besides, I like the smell of incense and the calm feeling I get in places like these.
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Tony takes us to a local riverside restaurant for lunch. It’s clean and has a pleasant view. The hammock is also comfortable. Paul and I share lok lak (a sort of stir fry beef dish) with rice for $US4 while our Czech companions share tom yum soup for the same price. The food is tasty, the riverside hut is cool and it’s pleasant watching the people fishing. Much better than anyplace we wouldn’t have found on our own.
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Rather than race to the Killing Cave we roll along unsealed farm roads between the rice paddies.
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Lotus plants grow wild in the brooks along the road. Tony takes one and lets us taste the seeds. It’s bitter to my tongue but I’d eat the nutty seed if I was hungry enough. Tony makes us hats out of the leaves. They’d be quite effective at keeping my bald scalp safe in a pinch too.
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We stop to talk with a water buffalo farmer. The buffalo are slowly being replaced by tractors so most have been sold to Thai buyers. This farmer wants to keep his because the buffalo make the soil soft during ploughing while tractors compact the soil. It’s hard work though, walking for miles of ensure the buffalo are fed.
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Rice dries on the roadside. The harvest is just beginning here. Cambodia has two rice harvests. One for domestic consumption and one for export to Thailand and Vietnam. Some farms have turned to mechanised processes, which is affecting the job market greatly. A challenge for this fast developing country to overcome.

We reach the base of Mt Sampeu. Tony cannot take us further so we transfer to a jeep to drive us up the steep roads to the Killing Cave and Sampeu Temple. We bounce around the benches in the open back of the jeep as he revs his way up the ramshackle road.
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The Killing Cave is sobering. This is a place where the Khmer Rouge tortured thousands and threw their dead bodies into the cave. Today there’s a reclining golden Buddha in the cave along with a memorial. Outside there’s more golden Buddhas. I feel a little overwhelmed at the thought of what humans do to other humans. And, again, I feel sadness that this still happens in parts of the world today.
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The second peak of the mountain houses a beautiful golden temple. Perched on the edge of a cliff it’s a typically Buddhist place where Mother Nature is powerfully apparent. We walk into a cave and into a cave within the cave to see some shrines. It’s so peaceful and I can’t help but ponder this fact of Buddhist places. They are places to which I am strongly drawn and in which I feel quietly contemplative. I even want to walk up the steps to reach them because it feels somehow important. Something for me to ponder, I guess.
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The views are always magnificent too.

The jeep bounces us down the mountain and we meet back with Tony who has organised us prime seats at the cafe / restaurant. From here we can watch the bats leaving the cave. We each buy a drink (I have a fresh coconut for $US1 and Paul has a Coke for the same price; beer is $US1.50 a bottle) and sit in comfort for an hour waiting for the bats then watching as the millions of bats leave the cave in a zig zagging line. We also watch the other tourists – especially those who quite rudely try to sit on the chairs but refuse to buy a drink. I know we’re all on a budget but there’s a fine line between being budget conscious and being ignorant or rude. But then, that’s just me. I save money on airfares and accommodation so that I can have a little extra to pay locals for services if the price is fair (I would not have paid $2 for a coconut, for example).

Tony drops us in Battambang near the river. We eat at a small outdoor eatery before walking to the Seeing Hand Blind Massage that Tony showed us. $US6 buys us each a one hour foot massage with no threat of being offered a happy ending. The perfect way to end a long day. It’s 9:30pm when we walk back into our room.
If you are in Battambang and want a good driver who is friendly, knowledgeable and speaks excellent English, Tony can be contacted by phone on 012 213 541 or email at tonybattambang@gmail.com.

Siem Riep to Battambang (Cambodia)

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Today we got the true Cambodia experience: a bus ride that should have been three hours but turned into six. Not because there was traffic but because the bus company spent 2.5 hours trying to fill their bus with passengers by driving laps of Siem Riep before finally hitti g the highway. It was a farce and one that could have easily been avoided had we booked one of the tourist bus companies online instead of letting our guesthouse book for us. Actually, the tourist bus companies would have been cheaper too because they can fill a bus with tourists instead of the tourists on the local bus subsidising the local passengers’ fares.

The local bus driver was terrible compared with the Mekong Express bus driver we had the other day. The bus swayed and swerved, the driver constantly on the horn. The only good thing is that Paul as I go two sears each so I could lay down and sleep most of the trip.

It’s late afternoon when we arrive in Battambang. Tuk tuk drivers literally run after the bus as it pulls into the depot. They swarm like mosquitoes as the bus turns to park and block the exit. I am first at the door and get bombarded. “We will get our bags first” I say calmly. The drivers step back. A man in yellow shirt claims me as his and waits for Paul to collect our bag (yes, singular). “Where’s the rest of your bags?” the tuk tuk driver asks. Just this.
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He asks $US1 to our guesthouse but other drivers hold signs offering $US0.50 to any guesthouse in Battambang. Our driver, Tony, agrees to $US0.50. Sure, we could have haggled harder like some of the other groups seem to be doing but that seems petty and I think the agreed price is fair (tuk tuks generally cost tourists $US1-$US2 a trip in any city in Cambodia – though I’m sure some haggle harder).
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Our guesthouse is out of town. The gravel road is bumpy but I’m quite looking forward to being outside the city for a change. It’s peaceful, quiet and immediately rural even just this short 1km distance from the centre of town.

Tony offers to take us on a full day sightseeing trip of the surrounding countryside for $US15 tomorrow. I don’t want to commit so ask for his number. Later some internet research shows that most bloggers have paid $20-30 a day for a driver who speaks English so $US15 seems like a good price.
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We eat linner (lunch+dinner) at about 4pm. There was no food on the bus. The restaurant at our guesthouse has delicious and cheap food. Later we will discover they stole the menu from the White Rose restaurant in town. It’s literally a photo copy – haha.
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Battambang city had a pretty riverside centre. There’s waterfront food tents. Women take a aerobics classes in the parks. Lean muscular young men do chin ups and acrobatics on a set of monkey bars (the sort of acrobatics you see on Facebook from time to time). Children play soccer. Couples kick a hacky sack to each other. And old people sit on park benches taking it all in. It’s so pretty even the millions of bugs don’t bother me too much.