Cambodia's second largest city has largely been ignored due to the culturally rich attractions of nearby Siem Reap. Now it's starting to open up. Words by Nick Ross

 

We’ve been blessed with glorious weather — after 14 hours of grueling bus travel split over two days it’s a relief. First there was the golden glow of the early morning sun spreading over the river. Then the clouds descended only for them to evaporate as we headed north towards the Angkorian era temple, Ek Phnom. Now as we detour by an abandoned Pepsi factory still sporting the iconic logo of old, the sky is blue, but with that welcome December chill in the tropical air.

 

This is Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city. Despite its size it has the aura of a provincial, colonial-built backwater. A decade ago, says Sopheara, a Siem Reap native, the streets still had the fading, timeless air of today but without all the shops. He points to the pre-1975 era shophouses lining the grid-like streets close to the market. “All the shutters were closed,” he says. “There was nothing to buy.”

He adds: “I remember going on the bamboo train. When the real train came along the tracks we had to get off and wait for it to pass.”

 

We haven’t done the bamboo train yet and Cambodia’s train system has since been dismantled. But we’ve earmarked our train journey somewhat lazily into our plans for the next day. Life moves slowly in this city, and like the ambience that surrounds us, we, too, have put the brakes on our breakneck, modern metropolis speed. This is a place where time has done its best to stand still. Now, as witnessed by the growing number of mobile phone and electronics stores, hair salons and tourist restaurants, it’s trying to limp forward. It’s moving, but not very fast.

 

Putting the Bong into the Bang

 

Ever since peace was finally declared in 1999, Cambodia has seen an exponential rise in international tourism. Setting Tomb Raider in Angkor Wat certainly helped, as have relatively cheap rents in the big cities, both colonial and post-colonial architecture and surprisingly relaxed business laws. But the boom has focused itself on Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. Kampot and Kep have also had a look in, but beyond that, the towns and cities of this reawakened nation have remained largely untouched. Battambang — pronounced Ba-tom-bong — due to its off-the-beaten-track location has fared badly. Until now.

 

Although requiring a detour from Siem Reap, a boat sporting to-die-for water vistas now transports passengers across the Tonle Sap to and from the temple complex of dreams. Like ourselves, most who make it to Battambang fall in love. Part of the reason is because of how unaffected this city still is. The service, as is typical of a place just opening its eyes to the outside world, is slow, and dishes ordered at the same time arrive out of sync. The western fare remains simple and dull, making the cheaper and tastier Khmer cuisine a welcome alternative. But that is only part of the charm. A few years will change all this, but for now it’s a pleasure to be able to eat a hearty meal for under 10,000 riel (VND50,000) instead of being bombarded with eating and drinking establishments reserved for tourists. Try the Thai-influenced Khmer version of hu tieu Nam Vang (Chinese pork noodle soup) next to White Rose restaurant in town. It’s a step up from the version you get in Vietnam.

Father But Not Christmas

 

In the Pepsi factory we’re allowed to wander. The caretaker, a toothless, uniformed old man who has probably witnessed more changes than he would care to count, let’s us in with a grudge. He’s not supposed to, as he tells us, and as we discover later many a tourist and tuk-tuk driver enter the complex without his leave. They depart the same way, he says, without even a thank you. A thank you means a tip in Cambodia, which is as important as tourism itself. Without the dollar here, dollar there culture, the whole industry would fall apart. It takes its toll on the daily budget, but the locals view it as requisite.

The factory itself is locked up, but there are enough windows, gated entrances and crannies for us to peak inside. Except for a few families who have built shacks within the grounds, the building has been deserted. For a while, we are told, it was converted into an ice factory — that was during Khmer Rouge times and in the conflict-created impasse that followed. But now, except for an outhouse used as a garage and a section converted into a kitchen by a woman we guess from the shacks beyond, the commercial symbol of the west stands prey to the elements.

 

As we are close to leaving, some kids materialise on bicycles. They’re intrigued by our cameras and one, pulling a silly face, decides to pose. Then a young woman appears out of the undergrowth wearing a sarong and a Diet Coke t-shirt. She’s unaware of the significance, of the incongruous nature of this moniker. There’s history here, but one that for the modern-day Khmer has little meaning.

 

Trainspotting

 

A few kilometres further on we have our second encounter with antiquity within a morning, but this time, one with a religious context. The complex of Ek Phnom will come as a let down for anyone swept off their tuk tuks by the grandeur of Angkor. But, as a temple in its own right it makes for a worthwhile trip. An enormous white-washed Buddha statue sits close to the entrance which is also flanked by the typical but forever eye-catching Khmer-style pagoda. Cloaked in gold-painted dragons, sky-blue elephants, scenes from the life of Buddha and flowery concrete detailing, this is one of the more flamboyant versions carpeting the whole country. While the Angkorian-style temple ruins sat behind mark the Cambodia of old, so this pagoda is the country of today. Both are endearing.

And yet as with all culturally significant tourist attractions in Cambodia, we are forced to pay for entrance while our Khmer friend goes in for free — local legs are good, foreign legs are better. On this occasion it’s only US$2 (VND42,000) to have the pleasure to wander around the site, and as we discover, our tickets are also valid for Phnom Sampov, the Killing Caves to the southeast of Battambang (we’re not actually give a ticket so we have to phone through to the guards to guarantee entrance). Regardless, it’s all part of a milking the festive calf process that can often leave an aftertaste, especially when the locals go for free. No matter how extensive the poverty in Cambodia, the discrimination is an unwelcome part of the trip, especially when the rich local elite also get their cultural kicks for free.

 

The bamboo train the next day is extortionate. On this occasion foreigners pay US$5 (VND105,000) per person to take a 14km train journey while locals also have to chip in — they get the trip for US$2 (VND42,000). Although we have to tip our driver, more dollars slipping through the tracks, it’s a worthwhile trip. This is, after all, the last train in Cambodia.

 

When we say train, let’s get something straight. The vehicle is essentially a bamboo platform seating six that is set on removable wheels with a motorbike engine. Imagine movies out of the Wild West where dodgy characters rig up a self-propelled vehicle to take advantage of the train tracks and you get the idea. Except in this case, it all comes with a motor.

I have done the full range of attractions in this region. I have waded out to sea to spend a drunken afternoon on a seafood farm, freewheeled 70km downhill, climbed mountains, potholed through bat-infested caves, swum above shipwrecks and scaled volcanoes. But this has to rank as the weirdest trip I have ever taken. It’s not that sitting on a hard bamboo platform under the glaring sun is particularly unpleasant. It’s just the lack of necessity of the whole venture, unless you want to act out a scene from the movie Brother, Wherefore Art Thou? Not even the countryside is particularly nice. And yet it’s fun, especially when competing trains try to pass from opposite directions. Whoever wins the give way battle stays on the line while the rival vehicle disassembles and moves off to the rails to the side. It’s a complex process.

 

Conversely, the million or so bats flying in tandem at sunset out of Phnom Sampov is one of the most awe-inspiring sights you will see in this region, as are the soaring views from the top of this limestone, karst-like mountain, that before The Mekong Delta silted up the land, would have been a Halong Bay-style island in the sea.

 

And this perhaps best defines Battambang. In places it is quite phenomenal, laced with intrigue and natural beauty. And at other times it seems to lack or act as a drain on the wallet. But as a new, fully open destination in Cambodia, this town should be a key part of your itinerary.

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