Battambang, Cambodia’s second city, would only be a fleeting visit on this trip. We had been really excited to take the boat from Siem Reap but having seen mixed reviews, we were not sure what we were letting ourselves in for. Indeed, the 16 person minibus filled with 22 people and luggage taking us there was an interesting start….. However, our fears were assuaged very quickly. Yes, it was a small boat to spend seven hours on, but we spread out on the rooftop of the boat in the sun and watched the waterways of the Tonle Sap unfold before us as we passed through the floating villages and narrow passages between islands of vegetation (and rubbish). We had lunch in the floating village, the boat got stuck in a tree, all three of us got sunburn and we saw a dead pig. All before two in the afternoon! But, we loved every second!
In Battambang, our first action was to rescue an Austrian girl from the hordes of enthusiastic Tuk Tuk touts and then take her to the dodgy, low quality guest house we had managed to book. She may have preferred her chances with the Tuk Tuk drivers. Sorry, Raphaela!
The four of us made straight for the waterfront. We had, accidentally but excitingly, arrived in the middle of a local festival, featuring loudly cheered on boat races, street food (including fried grasshopper, cricket and grubs. Best not to think about and they taste OK!) and Cambodian line dancing, for want of a better description. It was all topped off with a fireworks display and lanterns lifting off to fly across the night sky. Always great to turn up at an accidental street party!
Another part of our evening was spent at the Phare circus. A fantastic acrobatics show, it is performed by the students of the free performing arts university in Battambang, an effort by the Cambodians to regain some of the skills eradicated by the Khmer Rouge regime. They have over 1000 students learning a multitude of skills, and those that we saw were incredibly talented young acrobats.
As we only had the morning of the next day, the other big draw of Battambang was the rickety rocket – the one and, we would imagine, only Bamboo train. Flying along a warped, aged French railway on four wheels, a bamboo panel and an outboard motor is a bizarre but enjoyable way to spend a morning. Meet one coming the other way? The drivers pick the train up, take it off the tracks and move it past the other. London Underground, start thinking outside the box! At the end of the line, we even managed an awkward conversation with a couple of Cambodian kids (hoping and succeeding to sell us bracelets) about when we were getting married. They even made us some coconut leaf wedding rings! Not sure it’s a legally binding ceremony though…..!
Anyway, we left Raphaela to find a nicer guesthouse and got on our next bus. Onwards, to Phnom Penh!