After an awesome start to Cambodia in Siem Reap, I headed to Battambang next. Battambang is like Siem Reap’s little sister – still a city, but much less touristy and know for its colonial buildings, artsy scene, and humble surrounding villages. Many tourists don’t make it here on their Cambodia itinerary, so there was definitely a more local feel as one of the few tourists in town.
Day 6: festive bus ride + settling into Battambang
I took a morning bus from Siem Reap to Battambang which took 3 hours. Cambodian buses are an interesting scene – everyone brings SO much stuff and the aisles are filled with everyone’s life belongings. Also, people don’t use headphones so there’s music/tv shows blasting from everyone’s devices. It was quite the party. 🙂
I made it to Battambang for lunch and used the rest of the day to settle in and get a feel for the city. My first instinct was that Battambang was more urban than I imagined! Lots of traffic and honestly around the same city-feel of Siem Reap (if not more).
There were a lot of cafes/restaurants in Battambang that felt modern/artsy.
Of course, there were also cheap, local spots as well. My favorites were these spots where a family prepares all the food beforehand and places it on a big table in front of the restaurant, and you go up and pick 1-2 side dishes to eat with rice. And when the food is gone, they close, so it’s good to get there early. I ate at these places every day for lunch for ~$2 per meal.
I stayed at The Place Hostel in a dorm room ($5 USD). Overall I recommend it – it was very clean and the tours were fantastic! For my experience though, I think this would have been more fun if more people were here. The vibe was super empty, and unlike Siem Reap where it was a relief to have more space, in Battambang it was kind of sad that no one else was around. But I knew this was a possibility being in the first wave of tourists in Cambodia, and so I tried to keep an open mind.
Luckily, I befriended a nice German girl from my hostel and we went to dinner that night, so it was good to have some company. 🙂
Day 7: countryside tour + learning Cambodia’s dark history + prahok factory + rice wine and bamboo stick rice
The next day, I took a countryside tour through my hostel where we visited different villages and saw some key sites of Battambang. Along with a nice French couple, we rode in a tuk tuk which was a great way to pass through all the different villages.
First, we stopped at a street stand that made sticky rice with coconut cooked over a fire inside bamboo. I’m a sucker for sticky rice and I devoured my stick. 🙂
Next, we visited a temple (Wat Samrong Knong) and the killing fields right next door, where we learned about Cambodia’s very dark recent history. There was a brutal communist reign over Cambodia in the 1970s and the subsequent genocide of 25% of their population. I read First They Killed My Father beforehand (the book that everyone reads in Cambodia which I loved), where I first learned about this history. But hearing our tour guide (who was on the older side) recount his experience living through this – the starvation/torture of his family and death of his brother – I choked back tears. I admired him for sharing his story. It was very valuable to see this site and meditate on the stories I had heard/read, and it definitely gave me a better appreciation for the humble, forgiving Cambodian people who worked so hard to rebuild their country.
Afterwards, we headed to a factory where they made prahok – a salted, fermented fish paste. It smelled exactly how it sounds. 😉 This is one of Cambodia’s signature local ingredients and I’m definitely on the hunt to try some while I’m here!
We drove to another village and visited a family making rice wine. Unlike the fish factory, it smelled heavenly. I’ve had rice wine since I was a kid and it’s one of my favorite things. We got to sample a few different kinds which was definitely a highlight of the tour.
We even saw the family’s backyard where they dried and processed all the rice.
The last stop was a beautiful temple with gold finishings and colorful artwork on the walls/ceiling. It was nice to see a newer temple in contrast to the old ruins of Angkor Wat.
Day 8: Bamboo train + hiking Phnom Sampov + killing caves + bat caves at sunset
The next day, I went on another tour with the hostel that was a continuation from yesterday. First, we headed to the famous bamboo train of Battambang. The bamboo train rides on an abandoned train track that Cambodians repurposed for a tourist ride in the rural countryside. The train itself was a small-framed cart with a bamboo mat placed on top, powered by old generator of questionable quality – we actually saw the locals assembling/disassembling it in like 30 seconds. I was a little hesitant of the sturdiness of this “train”, but nevertheless I climbed aboard!
The ride itself was more fun than I imagined. It went pretty fast and felt like a rollercoaster at some parts. The views were spectacular and definitely an interesting way to tour Cambodia’s countryside.
Then we drove to our next site, and along the way, we saw several stands selling grilled rats.
Then we made it to Phnom Sampov, a mountain we hiked with more attractions along the way. It felt good to get my heart pumping! The mountain was pretty steep, but there were several Buddhist statues/structures along the way that made it more interesting.
We saw many of these monkeys, so cute.
The mountain overlooked rural Battambang and was spectacular. There was a peaceful vibe as it was golden hour and you could hear the chimes playing from the temple.
We walked a little farther and made it to the killing caves, which is exactly what it sounds like. During the Cambodian genocide, the Khmer Rouge (communists) pushed an estimated 10,000 people off a ledge into a cave where they passed away. It was very heavy imagining all the atrocities that took place there, but once again it gave me more appreciation for the entire generation that lived through this.
After the killing caves, we climbed a little further and reached the very top of the mountain, where there was a big, golden temple. The views were heavenly.
Then, we climbed down the mountain just in time for the bat caves – at sunset, 4 million bats migrate out of the cave and begin their night of hunting in the rice fields. The bats swarmed the skies in a neat group – there were so many, the migration lasted 30 minutes. It was a sight I had never seen before and truly a cool act of nature.
Day 9: relaxing day
After two days of tours, I decided to spend the next day relaxing at the hostel, catching up on my computer and planning the next chapter of my trip. With this extended trip, it’s a never-ending tug-of-war with staying present and planning ahead. 🙂
After 4 days in Battambang, I felt I saw everything I wanted to see, so I decided to book a night bus out tonight. I’m slowly realizing that Cambodia is less a place where you see tons of attractions, but rather it’s more about picking the city you want to relax in and enjoy the vibes. In the end, Battambang was more urban than I imagined and it’s been hard to truly relax (especially since my hostel is in a chaotic part of the city). Also it’s 2 weeks into this trip, and between Singapore and Cambodia, I’ve spent the entire time in big cities, and now I’m craving chiller vibes. I feel content with my journey in Cambodia’s north, so next up, I’m heading to the south where the towns should be more relaxed, have more natural scenery, and hopefully have more backpackers on the trail.