I took a 3 hour bus ride from Siem Reap to Battambang, Cambodia. I happened to sit next to a really cool chick from Australia and we ended up hanging out later during our stay in this town. When our bus arrived at the station, it was mobbed by tuk-tuk drivers, one of which secured eye contact with me through the window before I even stood up. He pounced on me and my bag as soon as I disembarked, introduced himself as Pete and spoke good English so I accepted his offer to drive me to my hostel for 50¢. Once there he attempted to up-sell me on a trip later to the Bamboo Train and the Bat Caves; the two things on every tourist's checklist here. I obliged since I was planning on seeing them anyways and he agreed to come back and pick me up at 1400.
I stayed at a hostel called Here Be Dragons which I'm told is somewhat Game of Thrones themed - but I'm not a fan so I was indifferent. I had my own private room with bathroom and balcony for $10/night. The catch was, it was hot as hell. Even at night when the temp dips down into the 20's (ºC), my room was still sweltering and I still sweat even with both fans on and directed at me. I opened my balcony door (but kept the curtains shut) for some fresh air, but then that lets in all the mosquitoes, noise and cigarette smoke from outside. The food and service downstairs was good - but not enough to compensate for my sauna-like suite.
Anyways, I met a bloke from the UK while eating lunch at the hostel so he joined me for the Afternoon adventures. We first went to the bamboo train, which is literally an IKEA-level assembly of two axles, a flat bamboo platform and an engine that was maybe from an old lawnmower or something. It cost $5 for the two of us and we raced down an old track through the jungle. It reminded of being on a roller coaster, albeit with zero safety requirements, or maybe like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, except with little to no impending doom. The ride lasted about 20 minutes before we were dropped off in a small village and immediately mobbed by little girls selling colorful, braided bracelets. This is the literal definition of a tourist trap, as we had no way out except the track on which we came, and our 'train' had already been taken off the track and disassembled.
There were also the usual clothing and beverage tents with women begging you to buy something as well. I bought two bracelets for a dollar from one girl and immediately a different one demanded that I buy bracelets from her as well. She even grabbed my finger and made me 'pinky promise.' I told her I didn't need anymore but she persisted because I think she was the only kid that didn't yet make a sale from this group of tourists. My friend eventually caved and bought a few bracelets off her and she stuck her tongue out at me "You no buy! He buy! He good! You bad!" So that happened.
After about 20 minutes, our transportation was re-assembled and we hightailed it back to where we started and where Pete was waiting to take us to the Caves. This was a ways out of town but worth the drive. First we met up with some other peeps from our hostel and hiked up the steep, paved road to one of the Killing Caves that Pol Pot's minions used to murder women and children in the 1970s. This was ironically located just behind a temple with a giant stone Buddha image presiding over it. It was creepy and some of the bones and skulls were still kept on display there. After that solemn sight, we headed back down the hill to wait for a colony of about 10 million bats to come streaming out of a different cave at sunset. I saw something like this in Thailand as well but it's still impressive to watch them as fly out in a continuous, undulating stream across the darkening sky.
The next day, I had a slow morning of yoga and breakfast followed by meeting up with my bus friend, Jayme for lunch. We then went to Seeing Hand which employs blind people to give massages. It was definitely not the best massage I've ever had but I was glad to pay and tip the girl who gave me mine. I assume working like this must be more fulfilling for her than begging on the streets, which I have seen so many other handicapped people do throughout the cities I've visited in Southeast Asia. On my way back to my hostel, I ran into a couple of the guys from my hostel and joined them for a sporadic tour around the city.
That night five of us piled into Pete's tuk-tuk and he drove us to the Phare Ponleu Selpak (The Brightness of the Arts) circus which cost $14 per ticket, but was worth every penny. The show was amazing - performed entirely by local music and performing arts students on par with an amateur Cirque du Soleil.. There were aerial displays, juggling, clowning, acrobatics, tumbling, balance and dance. I took a picture with them at the end and made an additional $10 donation because I know it will go directly to supporting this organization.
On my last full day in town, I rented a scooter and Jayme and I decided to try navigating the Cambodia countryside in search of a few Angkorian ruins. The first was Wat Ek Phnom which was north of the city and was comprised of a colorful, more modern Buddhist temple complete with a series of ceiling murals and the hodgepodge prayer flags that I love so much and a small pile of ancient ruins behind that. There was also a big old Buddha surrounded by a slew of other smaller Buddhas since this is Mahayana country. I think we actually spent longer drinking fresh coconuts outside the temple than actually exploring the temple itself. We hopped back on the bike and took a dusty road back to town for lunch and cash before heading south towards Wat Banan.
The road to these ruins was long and winding but we finally arrived around 16:00. We pulled into what seemed to be an abandoned Mahayana temple and meandered around for a few minutes before we were approached by a small group of Cambodian children. The oldest, an adorable girl in a pink Hello Kitty dress, directed us to the actual ruins which were hidden well off the main road. We found exponentially more locals visiting this site than your usual tourists.
First we came to some stairs and then once we climbed those, there were even more stairs. According to the internet, there are 360 uneven, stone steps leading to the best preserved ruins around Battambang. It has five towers, similar to Angkor Wat, but was believed to have been built later. I always wonder when it comes to these hill top temple, which came first: the temple itself or the stairs leading to it?
Anyways, after our trek up and down the stairway, Jayme and I had our second coconuts of the day and ended up chatting with a local Cambodian man named Kee. (Sadly I didn't get any pictures of him nor ask how to spell his name properly.) He had great English and even used colloquial American phrases like "No Sweat!" After identifying our accents, he said that he had helped the American and Australian armed forces prior to and during the fall of Saigon in 1975. He had several stories and gave us insight into their rocky relations with Vietnam and lamented the fact that they are not allowed free speech or to criticize the government of Cambodia. The thing that stuck with me most was when he said had he known then what he knows now, he would have left with the Americans 40 years ago. I can't say I blame him.
It was getting late so Jayme and I thanked Kee - who it turns out was the Hello Kitty girl's grandfather - and headed back to the scooter. The sun was setting so I tried to turn on the headlights - but to no avail. I clicked the light button near the left handle several times but nothing happened. Even some locals that I bought some petrol from to top up the tank could't get the lights working. Luckily, the blinkers still worked so I just left one flashing the whole time and used the limited light from other traffic and roadside shacks as much as I could to see the road. Eventually, I was able to draft behind a car that both blocked the majority of the bugs that had previously been bombarding my face and provided light and guidance for the rest of the way back to town. So now I know what its like to drive a scooter in the dark with no headlights, no roadsigns and no traffic laws.
BONUS! As small a town as it is, my sixth Street Art sense started tingling and I followed it to find some hidden in an alley. Enjoy!