Spending a day on the back of a motorbike going around the villages and sites near Battambang is one of the best ways to take in Cambodia’s countryside while getting a bit of an adrenaline kick. This trip proved one of our personal travel hightlights in Southeast Asia.
We began our day with a dirt track on the way to Phnom Sampeau. Our motorbike drivers pointed out details we might normally miss – long beans growing on the left, pineapples on the right, crop of dry rice, chili bush ahead, wedding ceremony, children returning from school, new Buddhist temple.
A Chatty Monk
We asked to stop at a newly painted Buddhist temple that popped up out of the middle of nowhere. The money to rebuild had come from collections taken at a wedding, funeral and other blessings. We were amused at the Noah’s Ark design in the garden, wondering what ceramic giraffes and rabbits were doing in a Buddhist temple setting. A monk approached us as we were admiring the eclectic landscape design.
After a battery of standard questions including “where are you from?” he inquired about everything from George W. Bush to Iraq to children to religion. He seemed really happy to practice his English and have an opportunity to speak with someone from abroad and promised to pray for us to have children (this was common for us on our journey). Like many others in the region, he had spent 13 years in a refugee camp in Thailand. He became a monk when he returned to Cambodia.
Temples and Killing Caves
We ate lunch just outside of Phnom Sampeau at a roadside stall, an apparent favorite hangout for motorbike drivers. Tummies full, we climbed the steep hill to a temple once used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge Sitting in the shade of the temple, our driver explained the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) and told us about his experiences as a child under the Khmer Rouge and then in a refugee camp. He related his stories not for pity, but because we were truly interested in trying to comprehend his country’s history.
The next stop, the “killing caves”, where two large encasements of human skulls and bones are on display as a memorial to those whose remains were found here after the reign of the Khmer Rouge. We were the only foreign tourists, but many local visitors arrived by the truckload for the dedication of new Buddha statues nearby. It was hopeful to see sites once used for terror being reverted to their originally intended peaceful, spiritual means.
We also saw many older women with shaved heads. The driver explained that these women choose to give up worldly beauty in order to focus on their spirituality. Several of them approached Audrey and touched her on the arm or nodded in a sign of respect. It seemed as if they weren’t used to seeing foreigners and were trying to make a connection. After spending months in well-traveled areas, this was different – a uniquely touching experience.
Our next destination, Wat Banan, is an ancient temple. Angkor-lite, it was smaller, older, and virtually tourist-free. The 359 steps to the temple are steep and tiring, but the height provides worthwhile bird’s-eye views over the flatlands of Northwestern Cambodia. Because of the dry season, the landscape appeared scrubby and desert-like, with the occasional colorfully painted temple contrasted against against the brittle ground an thatched-roof huts.
Bats on Honeymoon
En route to the bamboo train, we stopped at a large tree full of fruit bats in a temple complex and learned random fact #29 on our countryside tour around Battambang:
Fruit bats call this tree at a local temple their home. The monks who live there must work hard to protect them, however, since the local villagers have taken a liking to bat meat. Apparently, it tastes better than chicken (not just *like* chicken, but *better* than chicken). Makes sense, since the bats feast on fruit (papaya’s their favorite) all day long. The sweet-tasting bats take a honeymoon each year to the coast for a couple of months, only to return pregnant. At least, that’s what our drivers told us.
Then, a miracle in the midst of the dry season – it rained! The dry and muted landscape became electric, giant puddles of water formed everywhere and the kids went nuts – giggling, sliding and making madness in the in puddles and hills of maroon and rust. We almost joined them.
But alas, we kept dry for a day-ending ride on the infamous bamboo train. The real, full-sized passenger train passes only once a day to Phnom Penh. To take advantage of the virtually empty track, the locals have devised an ingenious way to transport goods and people between villages. When we requested our ride, the “conductor” assembled the bamboo rods on a platform, attached the platform to the wheels, mounted and fired up the belt-driven engine and off we went! The railroad tracks apparently have not been repaired since the French left….in the early 1950s. The ride was a bit rough on the tush.
When we returned to Battambang, the town’s streets were flooded with water from the heavy downpours. As our motorbike drivers negotiated the streets turned rivers, we lifted our legs up to avoid soaking our feet, but to no avail. We returned to our hotel soaked and filthy, but on a high from an all-around satisfying day.
Practical Details – Organizing a Motorbike Tour in Battambang, Cambodia
Hiring a motorbike driver: You’ll find them hanging outside most hotels or on the street. Find someone with a relatively new motorbike, good English and an honest smile. Chaya hotel is a good place to start (although if you are staying at Royal, they won’t take you). Going rate is $6-$10/day for the standard tour. Our drivers were Mr. Leangodom and Mr. Samol. +855 12561708
Standard tour: Drive through villages on dirt roads to 1) Phnom Sampeau, the site of the “killing caves” and several temples; 2) Wat Banan, a small temple in the style of Angkor; 3) fruit bat tree and 4) bamboo train. If you want something different, just make arrangements with your driver. The standard tour can take, if you wish, up to 6-8 hours. Highly recommended.
How to get there: Boat or bus from Siem Reap. To go to Thailand from Battambang, get a share taxi for $6/person to Poipet and walk across the border. We used Kemara Taxi there is an office on the main street in Battambang. Friendly driver. Recommended.
Where to stay: Chhaya Hotel – not a luxury place – fan rooms are $5, A/C rooms are $10.
Where to eat: Smoking Pot Restaurant for Thai and Cambodian dishes, Sunrise Coffee House for bagels, tuna wraps and good coffee (a rarity in Cambodia). White Rose for endless combinations of fruit shakes.
What to do: Cooking course with Smoking Pot Restaurant, day on the back of a motorbike, eat bugs.