If Siem Reap is touristy, then Battambang is its antithesis. Cambodia’s second largest city (around 250,000 residents) is quiet, laid back, and has the feel of a small provincial town. The local economy is structured around rice, oranges and other food crops, and tourists are few and far between. People here definitely aren’t used to seeing many tourists, especially strange looking ones like Colin! Kids and teenage boys are very friendly and want to say hello, but many adults often forget their manners and openly stare! It’s amusing to be a minority for a change.
We’ve enjoyed being somewhere where you aren’t asked to buy something with every five steps – Battambang has definitely felt more like the real thing. Tourism is slowly developing though – our hotel owner said that one year ago there were only 20 tuk-tuk’s in the city; now there are 60. But for now, prices remain significantly less than Siem Reap – we could eat a full meal for around $6 US in Battambang (more like double that at a cheap place in Siem Reap).
Battambang is famous for its French colonial architecture, made all the more appealing by the varying states of decay. The French legacy continues somewhat – you can buy baguette on every corner. It’s a very pretty town, very green, with a river running through the middle. Unfortunately, there is lots of rubbish, mainly plastic. Occasionally you can see that someone has attempted to clean up by raking the rubbish into a large pile, but there in the pile it continues to sit…
After the intensity of Siem Reap, we enjoyed the relaxed vibe at Battambang. We did see a few of the local sights, including a crocodile farm (most crocs are destined to be handbags), and an incense factory. We also visited a local NGO (Komar Rikreay – “happy child”) that rehabilitates street kids, children who have been abused at home, and kids who have been trafficked (who are generally picked up in Thailand). Komar Rikreay provides counselling for the kids, schooling, and teaches them a range of life skills, including how to grow food and raise animals.
We also took a ride on a bamboo train, which is a good example of how poor people in developing countries use the little that they have at hand to improvise what they need. Cambodia doesn’t operate trains now, but it used to, and local people have constructed bamboo carts powered by motorbike engines to enable them to travel. The carts are quite light, and if you meet an oncoming cart, it can be disassembled and taken off the rails very quickly. At the end of the short trip we took (during which it rained and soaked us to the skin in about 30 seconds), we were met by a group of smiling kids who wanted to adorn us with bracelets they had woven from coconut palm leaves. One of them asked me to buy her a Coke, which I did, on the condition that she shared it with her friends. She instantly became the most popular girl, doling out mouthfuls by pushing the others’ heads back and pouring it directly into their mouths – she would not relinquish her grasp of the can!
The bamboo train was a great way to get a glimpse of rural Cambodia. Beautiful though it may be, it is hard work living off the land, especially in the absence of the kind of equipment farmers in New Zealand wouldn’t dream of doing without – including plowing fields using water buffalos. Rural Cambodians rely totally on their crops and are vulnerable to drought and flooding.
We spoilt ourselves in Battambang by staying in an environmentally friendly hotel run by a Franco-Cambodian couple. Au Cabaret Vert was lovely – we had our own little bungalow looking out onto a natural swimming pool which is filtered entirely by plants. Breakfast, included in the price of the room, was Khmer coffee (really, really nice), fresh fruit salad, baguette, and eggs cooked any way you liked.
We left Battambang today, bound for Phnom Penh. This time we choose a better quality bus with more comfortable seats and more leg room for Colin. This one did, nonetheless, have chickens stowed in the baggage compartment, including a rooster that started crowing every few seconds as we neared the city. There is always something to make you laugh here!