Disappearing Stick Town

We started our second morning in Siem Reap by packing up and enjoying our tasty free breakfast.  Our tuk-tuk was arriving shortly to take us to the bus station to catch a ride to Battambang.  Battambang is a less touristy town, famous for its bamboo train.  Before we even stepped off the bus, we knew we were going to have to field a lot of Cambodian tuk-tuk drivers and hotel marketers trying to make a dollar or two in the off season.  Why did we know this?  Well, as we were still driving into the station, a man spotted us, two white people amongst a bus full of Cambodians.  He started running alongside the bus with a huge smile on his face, waving a sign at us with pictures of a nearby hotel.  He was shouting at us and asking if we wanted to stay there.  We smiled at him and said no thanks and he proceeded to run along, just in case we changed our minds.  As soon as we stepped off, we were approached by several tuk-tuk drivers offering to take us to our hotel.  We knew the hotel was only a 2 minute walk, so we tried to say no and walk away.  Two of the drivers started following us, competing for our business.  We kept telling them we were fine (although we honestly didn’t know which way to go because we were trying to find a quiet place to check out the map, and being followed and shouted at while walking doesn’t really qualify as a quiet place).  We were able to get one of them to go away by taking his number, just in case we needed him the next day.  Once he was gone, the other man continued to follow us.  He asked where we were staying and we told him the Shang Hai Guesthouse.  He said we were going the wrong way, but we figured he was just saying that to try to give us a ride.  He then started saying “why you no believe me?!”  This was then followed up with an offer to take us for free.  I told him that nothing in life is free and he explained that he would take us for free and give us his number in case we wanted a tour of the city the next day.  At that time, we were thinking of renting bicycles the following day, so we told him we may not need his help.  He assured us this was ok and we took the quick, free ride.  He gave us a run down of everything there is to see in Battambang and what it would be like if he drove us around.  He spoke English really well and he was actually super friendly.  He explained it was low season so the tuk-tuk drivers had to compete the way they did and they are happy to offer a free ride if they might be able to make some money the next day.  A tuk-tuk business investment.  We both admired his persistence and understood that this is his livelihood.  He told us his name was Kim and we took down his number in the event we may change our minds about the bicycles.

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We checked in and headed to the Gecko (a restaurant recommended by an Expat we met on the way to town) for some dinner.  We ate soup, some awesome fruit shakes, and Cambodian wontons while discussing the convincing argument Kim gave us about the tour of town.  We did some research and realized there was no way we would be able to see all the Battambang sights in one day on a bicycle.  The next morning, we called Kim.  Just to see how long the tour of town would take.  He told us we could take as much or as little time as we wanted but 7 hours is pretty common.  We told him we would call him back if we decided to do the tour.  Around the same time, our friend Alex (the one we met upon our entry into Cambodia) messaged us to let us know he took an early bus and would be arriving in a Battambang that same day.  We decided we should do the tuk-tuk tour and we could try to meet up with him mid day.  John called Kim back to tell him we would do the tour and he said, “I’m at Shang Hai!”  So funny, he must have sped over there the minute we called.  We met him downstairs and discussed our day plans and asked him to take us to get the yummy shakes at Gecko and to a coffee shop John had read about.  It was a nice, leisurely morning.  After that, Kim took us on a tour of the city where he showed us the French colonial buildings by the river and several statues in town.  When the war ended, all the guns were burned and the Cambodians celebrated.  The metal from the guns was then used to create a peace monument in town.  The second main monument was the “meaning of Battambang”, which was a man with a magic stick kneeling.  In summary, the story is basically about a man with a magic stick who became king.  He had a recurring dream that he lost his power and eventually ended up doing just that in real life.  He had an altercation with another magic king who stole his power.  The king with the magic stick lost the stick in the city of Battambang and it has never been found.  As a result, the town is called Battambang, which translates to “disappearing stick town”.  Kim said to John, “so if you find the stick, they will change name.  It will be called ‘John found disappearing stick town'”.

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That pretty much concluded the tour of the town and we moved on to the countryside.  We went through several villages and marveled at the farms lining the river.  We were there in dry season, so the river was very low and the farmers were growing tons of peppers and other veggies.  During the rainy season, the river swells enormously and all the crops are washed away.  As a result, the farmers have to start from scratch and replant every year.  One of the coolest parts of the countryside was our visit to a family who grows mushrooms.  They start with plastic bags of soil and limestone, plant the seeds on top, and cover it with a piece of paper.  The bag goes through several stages of growth until white mushrooms eventually pop out of the paper.  The house was full of mushrooms.  They let us walk around to see them and Kim explained how the process works.

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When we were satisfied with our mushroom farm experience, Kim took us down the road a bit further to visit Cambodia’s only winery.  We sampled their one red wine, a Cambodian bourbon, and some fresh, non-alcoholic ginger juice.  All three were surprisingly fantastic.

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We got back into the tuk-tuk and went back to town to try to find Alex.  We stopped by his hotel and couldn’t find him, so we continued on the tour to the bamboo train.  Kim wanted to help us find him so badly, do he was on the lookout during the journey.  A few minutes after we left town, Kim shouts.  We look and there goes Alex on a motorbike, right by us.  “That’s him!”, we shout.  I guess with the lack of tourists in this city, any white guy on a motorbike is easy to spot.  We later learned that the hotel Alex was staying at was not the one we expected, so that is why we couldn’t find him.  Lucky we found him, because he was headed toward the bamboo train in the complete opposite direction.  Alex turned around and followed us on his motorbike until we arrived at the bamboo train.  The experience was overall pretty cool, but we were surprised that the train is the main Battambang attraction.  The trip is $5 a person on a sketchy, old railroad to a small village.  Tourists are dropped off here for about 10 minutes to purchase items to support the village.  The coolest part was watching another train come toward us and the drivers got off, disassembled the train, and placed it on the other side of ours so that it could keep going.  We also thought it was neat to experience this piece of Cambodian history, because the bamboo train is supposed to be shut down next year due to construction on the main railway system.

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Once the bamboo train had been experienced, we were off to learn a bit more about Cambodia’s dark history.  Kim took us to the killing cave outside of Battambang, one of the many places across the country that was used to murder Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge era.  He told us some history of the genocide and pointed us in the right direction to get there.  He couldn’t take the tuk-tuk up the hill, so we hopped on the back of Alex’s motorbike and the 3 of us slowly ascended to the top.  As we got to the top, a large clap of thunder filled our ears.  The wind started to blow and we could tell we needed to seek cover.  This was the first threat of rain we had seen since we had been in Asia.  A little boy trying to make some money took us into the cave and told us some history.  We stood down there feeling sick and sad as the storm outside intensified.  The wind was howling, the rain was pouring, and the 4 of us were alone in a killing cave. Talk about timing.  We started to see some small rocks falling closely, so we made sure to stand in a safe place.  The little boy was shivering and told us he was cold and scared.  We waited the storm out for a few minutes until it passed and we headed for our scooter.  We gave the boy some Cambodian riel for giving us a mini tour and hanging with us in that ominous situation.  His buddies were waiting for him at the top soaked and dancing around in the rain.  The three of us got back on the scooter and went down the hill to our last stop on the Battambang tour – the bat cave.

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I think the coolest thing we saw that day was the bat cave.  Each day at dusk, millions of bats fly out of a cave near the killing caves, National Geographic style.  They come out in a steady stream and don’t stop for about 30-40 minutes.  We didn’t believe that was possible until we saw it.  It was such an amazing experience.  The bats came out as expected around 6:10 and they just poooooured out.  It’s hard to even explain, just look at the pictures!  We stared at this sight for at least 30 minutes until it was almost dark.  Alex had to get his motorbike back and we needed to say goodbye to Kim so he could get back to his family.  We got back to town, thanked Kim for an amazing day, and gave him a little extra money to help with the low season lull.  We would highly recommend him as a driver and tour guide for anyone visiting Battambang – 012654427.  He is helpful, friendly, and funny.  He even had some jokes.  Kim: How do you put an elephant in a refrigerator?  Us: I don’t know Kim, how?  Kim: Easy, you open the door, put the elephant in, and you shut the door. Ha!

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We had some delicious amok in Battambang before bidding the town adieu and boarding our very first night bus to Phnom Penh!

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