Siem Reap was nice enough but we just weren’t feeling it. Prices were high and we felt a bit hemmed in not having our own wheels. We almost decided to just head off back to Thailand early but we figured we should give Cambodia a proper chance. The tourist hordes of Siem Reap were likely far from the norm in most of the country, or so we hoped. The following day we found ourselves with tickets for an early morning bus bound for Battambang. Being the second largest city in the country it was hardly going to be rural Cambodia, but a change from Siem Reap’s crowds and prices nonetheless.
Things were not looking good on the morning of our journey. I’d spent the past week in Siem Reap dealing with a stomach bug, something that I’ve heard is none too uncommon when visiting Cambodia, and the night before our bus left I woke at 4am vomiting. Fun. Waiting for our minivan to take us to the bus depot I was feeling a bit ropey to say the least, and not exactly looking forward to a four hour bus ride. I maxed out on imodium, chewed some anti-travel sickness pills and slowly munched on some rice cakes. Luckily my nausea subsided and the four hour journey with Capitol Tours was uneventful. We left 15 minutes late and they played Khmer Karaoke videos the entire trip, but honestly the music was kind of relaxing. I closed my eyes and let the soporific effects of the medication drift me away.
We arrived in Battambang and checked into the Lux Guesthouse where I proceeded to situate myself on a bed for the rest of the afternoon and evening, leaving Alex to tend the kids. We took it slow for the next couple of days until I was feeling back to myself, but I found Battambang to be a pleasant place to while away a few days. Laid back it certainly was, but with some nice cafes, a pleasant promenade with a playground down by the river, and a few activities and excursions to keep you busy should you desire.
We enjoyed a family afternoon shopping at a local village market for a cooking class with the owner of the Smokin’ Pot Restaurant, while earlier that morning Chloe and I spent a little mother-daughter time doing something unusual (more on that later).
When I was feeling back to my self, we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us on a tour of the excursions outside of town. We set off about 11am for some ancient Khmer ruins, even older than Angkor Wat, called Wat Banan. On our way we stopped off for a visit to Cambodia’s only winery. It was…interesting. Apparently it has been in business for 10 years, but by looking at it, I’d say only just.
We had a sample tasting of the only wine they produce, a grape juice and a ginger & honey drink.
The juices were nice. The wine was not. I’m no connoisseur but it ranked as the worse wine I’ve ever tasted.
Refreshed, for lack of a better word, we were off once more towards the temple. Our driver dropped us at the bottom of a hill and after 358 steps, we reached the temple at the top. Phew!
I have to admit, after Angkor these ruins weren’t especially thrilling, but the kids enjoyed pootle-ing about looking for scrap metal, Alex did some sketching and I had a poke around with my camera. It was relaxing, and luckily none of the Cambodian children who followed other tourists up the steps and around the ruins, fanning them with pieces of cardboard in the hopes of a tip, attached themselves to us. After the temple we were back in the tuk-tuk and on our way to Phnom Sampeau, another hill to climb, but this one had The Bat Cave!
We drove through the Cambodian countryside on bumpy dirt roads, passing local life by, and it was one of the most enjoyable parts of the day. Our driver stopped occasionally to tell us about the farmers harvesting rice in the fields or to point out a motorbike loaded with frog traps, showing us how they were used to catch frogs in the shallows.
At about 4pm we arrived at the base of the mountain and we had two options for getting up to the top: walk for about an hour, or hop of the backs of some motorbike taxis which could wind us up the steep road. We chose the latter, obviously.
At the top of the hill we wandered past a Wat then found a rather macabre sight – a series of sculptures depicting people being killed and tortured in a variety of inventive and horrifying ways.
You see, a cave full of bats is not the only cave to be found on this outcrop of rock, nor what makes it so notorious in the area. During the 1970’s the Khmer Rouge murdered many men, women and children at these caves; bludgeoning them and letting their bodies fall to their deaths through natural skylights into the caverns below. Upon walking down a staircase into these Killing Caves you’ll see memorials containing skulls and bones of those killed displayed near a giant reclining Buddha sculpture. It is a chilling reminder of Cambodia’s recent bloodied past.
As dusk was approaching we were whisked down the hill by our motorbike drivers who deposited us at a restaurant table at the base of the cliff all the while assuring us that our tuk-tuk driver would know exactly where we were. We sat down, ordered some drinks and watched as more and more tourists were smoothly transferred from vehicle to roadside table – a slick business model if ever I saw one.
And the reason we were there? The aforementioned Bat Cave, of course. Come sunset, over one million Asian wrinkle lipped bats would exit the cave in the cliff-face we were conveniently situated in front of, setting off on the evening’s hunt. We waited for the sun to set and as darkness began enveloping the sky a few tentative bats flitted out of the cave mouth into the night. Then came a few more. We waited, eyes glued to the cave mouth. And then they came. Out they flew, a river of bats flowing into the night. A stream of bats snaking into the distance as far as the eye could see, while below them a stream of humans drifted after them along the road.
Darkness fell and we could no longer see the bats who still flew out of their daytime roost above us. It was time for us to take our leave from the cliff as well.