We have finally made it to Cambodia after a surprisingly easy border crossing through Eastern Thailand to our destination of Battambang. The name Battambang was initially the big attraction since it’s the name of our favorite Cambodian restaurant in Oakland, California. The small french colonial town has been a wonderful introduction to Cambodia. We are very happy we made the trip here as it gets missed by most travelers who head straight to Siem Reap. The Cambodian people are quite lovely and the children are incredibly adorable. Cambodia is surprisingly refreshing and we are enjoying it much more than we thought. The US dollar rules the street and you can use local “Riel” currency for small items if needed. $1 = 4,000 Riel
The long day journey from Bangkok began at 8am from the Ekkamai Eastern Bus Station. We traveled by bus ($5) for 3.5 hours to Chanthaburi, then caught a taxi ($20) 1.5 hours to the border at Ban Pakard (Thailand) Psar Pruhm (Cambodia). There are no minibuses or shares at Chanthaburi as the books say (except 6 am Casino minivan) so you have to go with the taxi option. The border crossing couldn’t have been easier with the entire process of exiting Thailand to obtaining a visa in Cambodia taking nearly 20 minutes. We decided to skip the popular Poipet crossing due to all the long lines, loiterers and scams. After reading so much about travelers’ experiences with scams and and money hounds, we were prepared for all scenarios. When we obtained the Cambodian visa the guard did try to charge us $30 each for a visa, but we were stern and handed him $20 saying “No, we are paying $20 per visa, that’s it!”. He also tried to get 800 baht ($28), then backed down immediately. That was the end of that. As we were the only ones crossing the border here (no lines!), we did get much attention from the group of taxi negotiators trying to sell us a ride to Battambang. Brett negotiated hard (e.g. we pretend speak Spanglish to each other) and got us a ride (1.5 hour) in a private taxi car for $25. While driving past Pailin, we picked up a Russian couple (doing research) heading back to town and split the cost. The couple told us how they got deported from Burma in January for traveling into a restricted area in the northern hill states. After a long day of travel we were excited to reach our hotel, Seng Hout, north of the central market in Battambang ($17/night).
Battambang Province is in northwest of Cambodia and is one of the most fertile areas of land in the country. It is also the most mined. When the Khmer Rouge finally retreated Phnom Penh they ran northwest with the invading Vietnamese army advancing….. they planted millions of mines to hold them off. In return, the Vietnamese armies planted land mines to stop the Khmer Rouge from returning. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined areas in the world. Some estimates say there is a land mine for every individual living in Cambodia, which would mean there could be as many as 11 million land mines waiting to explode. The country has one of the highest populations of amputee’s with over 40,000 people suffering due to mines. Cambodia struggles to build its economy when its most fertile land is a humongous mine field. Specialists say it might take another 30 to 50 years to de-mine the country. We did encounter amputees asking for donations while doing activities like playing music.
Battambang city is a quaint French colonial city situated along the Sangker river just southwest of the Ton Le Sap lake. It has a handful of nice hotels, guesthouses and traveler friendly restaurants. There are a few sites to see in Battambang, but the real charm lies in the surrounding countryside.
On our first day we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us around the southern countryside. Our first stop was the 11th century temple Phnom Banon (28 km south), where we climbed up 358 steep stone steps to the top of the temple with five towers. Many locals believe that Phonon Banon was the inspiration for Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. Once on top the views of the countryside are out of this world. After the climb back down we feasted on delicious fresh pineapple and then made our way to Prasat Phnon Banon Winery.
The winery produces a few thousands bottles per year. Our tuk-tuk driver pointed out that many Cambodian small businesses (like the winery) hang Chinese signage and decorations to show off their business acumen. They think it makes them look like good business people. We couldn’t pass up sampling some Cambodian wine, no matter what the outcome. They only offer four tastings for $2 of Shiraz/Cabernet, brandy, grape juice and ginger juice (believe that’s all they make). We didn’t have the desire to buy any bottles. The winery was no Napa, Sonoma or Stellenbosh, but it was certainly interesting to see their wine process and set up in Cambodia.
Next we headed southwest to Phnom Sampeau which is a complex of temples and shrines along the mountain side with three natural caves filled with beautiful greenish blue stalactities. We were in the mood for a workout so opted for the steep climb up the mountain side as oppose to the easier winding road. Sampeau Wat is the temple at the very top of the mountain with gorgeous Cambodian countryside views. We also ran into macaques (ancient monkeys) everywhere who were aggressively fighting with one another and running around swinging like maniacs. (happy we got the rabies vaccine at the hospital in Bangkok!)
We headed back down the roadside of the mountain and stopped to see “The Killing Caves” which were used by the Khmer Rouge to torture and massacre about 2,000 local Cambodians between 1975 – 1979. The climb down the steep staircase led us to a small Buddhist shrine. We also saw the old rusty cage memorial filled with bones and skulls that have washed up from the cave floor. Story has it that the Khmer soldiers would bring young 12-14 year old soldiers down to the caves and feed them human flesh. They’d let them go hungry for days, tell them they had been tricked into eating humans already. Finally, the soldiers would give the young boys a gun, forcing them to kill a person for food. Also during this time of rule, women would swallow their gold jewelry for safe keeping. The soldiers would hang the women and cut open their stomachs searching for the gold.
Our second day in Camdodia was one of our favorite days. We rented mountain bikes and rode north 13 km through roadside villages to Wat Ek Phnon. In the end we didn’t go in the Wat but instead visited a non-profit Cambodian Education Center that teaches English to children in the villages. We had the most amazing day playing with the Cambodian children who were all so sweet.
Brett played soccer with the boys and I talked with some of the girls who were all very shy at first. After watching them practice their last minutes of English, the school day was over and we headed across the river on our bikes along side a few of the little girls heading home. We passed through several small villages while children ran out, waving and saying “Hello, Hello”. They were all so sweet and adorable.
On the way back we stopped off at the old Pepsi factory that was abandoned in 1975. We explored the factory and found an old conveyor belt and line of 70’s bottles. There were families living in and around the factory and have even taken some rooms of the property. We met some of the children living there and Christie was taking pictures of them being all silly and showing them the photos on our camera. They were absolutely loving it and kept posing and wanting to see more photos of themselves.
Hanging out with the Cambodian children in the villages outside of Battambang was one of our most favorite days. You really get a sense for the local people and what their daily life is like. You just don’t get that same culture and education when you are visiting the Wats, Temples and other tourist sites.
We ended our Battambang visit with a great traditional Khmer meal at Khmer Delight restaurant. It was an early night as we had to get some rest for our 6am boat ride to Siem Reap.
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