I headed northwest from Phnom Penh to the town of Battambang. The six hour ride on an unairconditioned but surprisingly spacious, rundown, old bus took me far away from the busyness and dazzle of the capital city, through the countryside and into a contrasting slow paced, mellow town.
I arrived early afternoon and went to explore the town. There’s not a whole lot to see in the town itself apart from some of the striking French colonial buildings such as the central market and abandoned railways. However by night, the town comes alive with numerous street stalls and more market vendors popping up along the river promenade. It felt like the whole town came out along the riverfront at night, with kids playing games and adults excercising and socialising amongst the numerous openings and apparatus on the promenade. It really had quite a warm vibe to it whilst maintaining its chilled out atmosphere that the town is known for.
A lot of the allure of Battambang lies outside the town however, so the next day I was up to my usual tricks and back on the scooters.
Within a radius of approximately 30km, there are plenty of old temples, caves and huge stretches of amazing countryside to see. I started off at Wat Banan, Banan being a small village to the south of Battambang. This temple lies at the top of a hill, but the effort of climbing over 350 (slightly old, disjointed and steep) steps is worth it. At the top you see the remains of five towers, which pre-date Angkor Wat.
I went off in search of the next temple complex, heading northwest. Riding through the countryside was amazing. You can see for miles and miles around you over the totally flat farm lands, however, every so often a large mound appears out of nowhere, these mounds being the homes to the temple sites. My map told me I was in the right place to see Wat Sampov, but after riding around for half an hour, doing circles around the same village surrounding what I assumed to be the right mount, I decided I was lost. Of course the locals didn’t understand a word of what I was saying, and didn’t seem to understand the map, but eventually I came across an opening that would lead me up the hill.
As I climbed the views over the flat plains where incredible, but I soon started to question whether or not I was in the right place, as the overgrown paths felt like they had not been trodden on for weeks, perhaps months. Soon though, I found steps, signs and ribbons indicating the way to the top. The higher I went, the more overgrown the path became, and when I finally reached a clearing at the top it was not what I expected at all. Not a temple, but a shrine, almost of a make-shift feel. But the feeling of being completely alone in this place was quite special. I still not sure (rather I highly doubt) I found Wat Sampov, but whatever I found was amazing, perhaps mainly for it being so unexpected.
My final stop was to a complex of caves, with Wat Sampeau lying right at the top of this, the largest mount I’d come across. I was glad I was riding a bike as I powered past hoards of people who’s tuk tuk drivers had made them walk around the complex!
I stopped off at the sobering killing caves. Another reminder of the brutality the Khmer Rouge brought on its own people (see Phnom Penh blog for more details). These caves were essentially large openings in the ground. Prisoners would be marched to the top, beaten and pushed over the edge. If they were lucky they would have died before being thrown in. There were three killing caves, one for children and babies, one for pregnant women and a final one for everyone else. In total the remains of over 20000 have been found here.
On the way home I was treated to a show of nature at its weirdest and most wonderful. In the side of this mount is a cave home to approximately 8 million bats. At around dusk, everyday, these bats flock out into the sky to their night habitat, leaving a trail of black stretching off into the distance in the sky, the show lasting almost half an hour. Of course, as the bats were about to come out it started pouring down with rain, but aside from getting completely drenched, I only had to wait another 30 minutes or so to see this fantastic show.
On my last night in Battambang, I went to see the Phare Ponleu Selpak – the Cambodian circus. This was born out of a multi-arts school (including theatre, sculpting, painting, music etc) for disadvantaged children in the province. It really was quite spectacular, and I left that night, and Battambang the next day, with a big smile on my face.