The Beauty of Battambang - Part 2
Like a palm tree, Battambang doesn't seem to have much at first, but then you look up and discover a world of riches. In Part 2 we find trains, temples, and lots of bats
A city full of surprises, it emerges Battambang has not one, but two bamboo trains. While the original trundles down the once-abandoned mainline to Phnom Penh and once had a practical function, the newer version rolls around the foot of a mountain, and serves only to propel tourists from one end to the other. While Mk2 doesn’t have the same raw appeal (and element of danger), it nevertheless makes for a fun diversion.
Embarking from the theme park-style entrance, you hop onto the cart before drivers take you on a 10 minute journey to a garden area filled with oversized animal topiary and random IG photo ops (indeed, there seemed to be little other purpose to the area). After a stop for a much-needed ice-cream (by 10am the temperature must have already been in the high 30s), it was back around the hill, waving to the families passing by.
While an entertaining way to start the day, the real attraction of the area is Phnom Banam, the nearby hill that houses a temple once thought to predate Angkor Wat (sadly, this has now been discounted by experts). The path to the top lies up a steep set of 365 steps (trust me we counted - there’s one for every day of the year), but your reward is a serene set of ancient ruins, punctuated by five towers reaching for the heavens. While not as old as Angkor, they still date back to the 12th century, and the amazing countryside views of the plains below indicates just why this site was chosen. Its strategic location also explains why it was the scene of fierce fighting between Khmer Rouge and government forces, and until recently was strewn with landmines.
Having earmarked this day for countryside exploration, our wonderful tuk-tuk driver Mr Ol first sat us down under the trees for a lunch of vegetarian fried rice (be wary of eating meat at street side stalls anywhere in Cambodia) washed down with a fresh and electrolyte-rich coconut. From here it was off to a local village home to giant fruit bats. Pointing them out hanging in the trees, where they resembled giant seed pods, he remarked that people used to catch and eat them, but because these trees were close to the temple where the killing of animals was forbidden, the bats could rest in peace.
As we admired these flying mammals, reassuring my daughter that ‘no, these are not the vampire kind’, the heavens opened and the rain begin to fall. And it kept coming. By the time we approached our final destination of the day Phnom Sampov, it was almost impossible to see the hill through the steam, though at least with the rain covers pulled down we were better off than poor Mr Ol, who braved the downpour with only a thin plastic raincoat for protection. Reaching the foot of the mountain, we hustled off the tuk-tuk and into a pickup for the short but steep journey to the top.
This huge limestone outcrop was once only traversable via footpaths and stairs, but the road now makes for a much easier option. The first stop is for a small temple, and the Killing Caves. Groups of barefoot children throng here, offering to be your ‘guide’ through the caves, though it’s better to think of it as a form of charity than informative experience. It was here in the late ‘70s that Khmer Rouge cadres disposed of enemies of the regime, forcing them through a small hole and onto the rocks below. A concrete staircase leads deeper into the caverns, past a platform where large Buddha statues, one sitting, one sleeping, gaze peacefully over a chapel filled with skulls and bones.
Further up the hill is a cluster of brightly painted temples, some old, some new, some pockmarked with bullet holes (although the Khmer Rouge were supposedly defeated in 1979, fighting continued here through to the mid-1990s), with views over lush green paddy fields as far as the eye can see. A troupe of trouble-making macaque monkeys also live around these here, the local stallholders keeping them at bay with catapults. However, it is the animals that inhabit the interior of the mountain that are the most famed, a bat colony of thousands that streams out into the countryside every evening.
Fast approaching the usual departure time of 5.30pm, we hurried down to get a good vantage point, and ended up spending an hour waiting for them to emerge. It gave us time to be dismayed at the giant Buddha statues being carved right outside the bats’ home (part of an unwanted tourist initiative by an unknown company, said a forlorn local). For what seemed like an eternity they swooped and swirled around the entrance, teasing the gathering crowds, before finally they made their move and set off for an evening of feeding. Like the bats, it was time for us to make our departure, and we set off back to Battambang, dark falling long before we finally made it back to the hotel.