I’m so glad I got to see this beauty in my second trip to Cambodia. I actually think this alone would have make the 18 hours on busses up from Thailand and diversion from my planned route worth it.
I arrived in Battambang after a really long bus ride, since I had to go from Koh Kong to Phnom Penh and then get the bus from there, and as usual things didn’t run to time. It was about midnight when I arrived and I’d been travelling all day. The driver of the tuk-tuk I took from the bus to my hostel really didn’t seem to get the hints as to how tired I was though and drove incredibly slowly the entire way so he could turn round and talk to me. I’m usually all up for a chat but at this point I just really needed to sleep. As happens with a lot of places in Cambodia if you take a tuk-tuk in one location to your hostel they’ll ask about what else you want to see whilst you’re there and give you their contact details for when you want to do that so they can remain your driver for the rest of the trip.
The main reason I went to Battambang is to see the old disused Bamboo Train but my driver also explained in detail about a school he was the patron of which taught English to locals. As part of the our conversation about the school he of course didn’t fail to mention that they’re always looking for native English speakers to volunteer there even if it’s to teach one class, just in case I’d be interested.
I did volunteer in the end but first the Bamboo Train.
Battambang Bamboo Train
As soon as I woke up on my first morning in Battambang I asked reception about going to see the disused Bamboo Train in Battambang and they explained I could go any time during the day, just get a local tuk-tuk there, but that it’s more expensive if you go on your own than with others therefore you should pair up before arriving. What I had to do next is a really important lesson to learn if you’re travelling solo. If you want to do something, that’s not good to do alone, chances are there are others in the same boat who would also like someone to pair up with too. I’d been travelling for about 5 months by this point so any shyness I’d had on leaving England had mostly left me by then. I therefore decided to just stand up in the middle of the hostel common room and call out “Hey, anyone want to go on the Bamboo Train today?” If you’re introverted, which I am too, that may seem like a terrifying thing to do but what you realise after a while of traveling is that when you do things like that, no one is judging you because they no doubt have faced the same situation before, and two you are probably helping someone even more introverted than you out who has been sat there thinking I wish I could go do xxx but I don’t have anyone to do it with. A number of people in the hostel had already been that morning as I didn’t get up till late, having travelled all of the day before, but one other lone soul shoved his hand up enthusiastically and said “yes”. So we went together.
The train is brilliant. You are literally sat on a bamboo raft with wheels on hurtling down this railway track with bushes over grown either side. If you’ve ever been on one of those 3D virtual reality machines where you’re on a rickety cart they load onto a track it feels exactly like that crossed with a couple of the scenes from Jurassic Park when the jeeps crash through the trees!
The only bad bit about it is that when you get to the end before turning back to your original departure point you’re dropped off in what I guess what should be described as a railway station but is instead filled with little shops selling local wears. If you don’t want to buy anything it’s incredibly awkward and you can’t leave for about 15 minutes. As well as the shops there are little kids selling bracelets. I didn’t have enough money to buy a scarf out of guilt but a bracelet I could stretch too so bought a couple from the kids who just to warn you are much more pushy than the shop keepers! Although they will make you really quite impressive animals and the like out of plant leaves to convince you to chose them over anyone else.
Battambang Bat Caves
On our way back from the train my new travel buddy and I discussed how we’d both like to see the bat caves so arranged for my the tuk-tuk driver to pick us up a bit later to go. There’s a monastery by the bat caves which in and of itself wouldn’t be that impressive but it turns out my slow driving tuk-tuk friend used to be a monk so actually looking around was fascinating.
Back by the bat caves you can climb up a really steep ladder to go see a statue of a Buddha and there’s a pretty cool view up there.
The stairs are really steep though so if you’re scared of heights I wouldn’t recommend it.
Back down on the ground we sat and had a beer while waiting for the time at which the bats appear. We chatted to our tuk-tuk driver whilst we waited and the history and insight we gained into Cambodia in that conversation was more than I would ever have gained visiting a monument or museum. Always take the time to talk to and get to the know the locals you meet. They can completely transform the experience you have.
The reason to go to the bat caves is because at a certain time every night all of the bats fly out at once. And it is spectacular. Hundreds, if not thousands, of bats zoom out of the cliff to embark on their night’s activities. There are so many of them but it’s so organised too. They aren’t all just flying everywhere. At all moments in time the bats are in prefect formation. It was mesmerising to watch.
I’d heard about the Battambang Circus and that is was amazing so we asked at the hostel if we could go see it the next night. Turns out the only opportunity to see them perform was that evening. So off we went again. Deciding literally 15 minutes before to do it. My new travel buddy, from the Bamboo Train and Bat Caves, was with me as was another guy who’d been in the hostel bar when we were talking about going to the circus and overhearing us asked if he could join too. We got to the circus just in time. I hadn’t realised before going that the circus is actually run to give teenagers and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to learn a new skill set.
I’ve been to Cirque de Soleil and some pretty spectacular circus performances before but they’ve always had big budgets to create the effects that they do. The Battambang circus somehow managed to be just as impressive whilst having created all of their effects and costumes with household items (mops were used as part of the costumes at one point). If you’re lucky enough to be in Battambang on one of the nights they’re performing don’t miss out on going to see the circus, for your sake and also to support what is a wonderful cause and idea.
Volunteering to teach English in Battambang
Since my new found travel buddy and I actually ended up seeing everything I wanted to see in Battambang in one day I had a whole other day I planned to be there with nothing in particular I needed or wanted to do. I therefore decided I would take my tuk-tuk driver up on his not so subtle hit of volunteering to teach an English class for him that day. He said I didn’t need to prepare anything but that just made me even more nervous so I pre-planned some games we could paly if needed, just in case. Good job too, as the main teacher’s plan for the class had just been to get the students to ask me questions so they could gain valuable experience from conversing with someone with a native accent. That unfortunately however doesn’t work so well when you have a group of students who are already incredibly shy and only get shyer when in front of a foreigner. The games really came in handy but I’m glad I did it. If you have time and there’s someone saying “You could help here, will you do it?” Just say “Yes”. Life’s a lot better when you give something back.
Pub Street in Battambang
Battambang has a street called pub street just like Siem Reap however it seems they may have just called it that in the hopes that it will make it magically become as busy and popular with tourists as the one in Siem Reap. As it stands however there is currently only one pub there. And when me and my 2 friends from the hostel went, there was only one other person in the pub. It was a cool bar, but pub street is dead. Our hostel was much better (If you stay at the same place as I did, don’t trust the bartenders when they say lets play shots forfeit Jenga, they will kick your ass).
Where to stay in Battambang
I stayed at Here Be Dragons, which is a great hostel. The staff are all really friendly and helpful and there’s a sociable bar area which beats any other bar I saw in the area and serves really good food. I stayed in a fan dorm room which was a slight error as it was a very sweaty experience sleeping there, but if you’re not as tight as me and would like a nicer night’s sleep they also have air con dorm rooms.
Getting from Battambang to Phonm Phen
To get to Phnom Penh it’s just a bus booked through your hostel. This bus ride, especially at the start was one of the bumpiest I’ve ever taken though so if you get travel sick be prepared and take some tablets in advance. The journey takes about 6 hours.
WORTH NOTING: The ATMS in Battambang are seriously unreliable. There are loads of them and yet it is still remarkably difficult to get money out. I carry a stupidly large amount of bank cards on me when I travel so that I can get around situations like this when they occur and yet even with all of those cards I still found myself having to run around the morning of my departure desperately trying to find somewhere that would give me cash so I could pay my hostel bill.
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I'm Chantell. I quit my job to travel in 2014 and it's one of the best decisions I've ever made. I know first hand how hard it can be to get everything in place in order to be able to travel, to know what to pack and where to go, let alone how best to go about your travels once on the road. Here I share everything I've learnt so far so you don't have to learn through as much "trial and error" as I did.
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