Airport Rating N/A
Reception of locals *****
Battambang is the gateway to Thailand from Cambodia, but more than this it is an important city in its own right. It's the capital of the Battambang province, the second largest city in Cambodia and the largest city in western half of the country
The city itself was founded in the Khmer Empire in the 11th century, although its proximity to Thailand means that at various times it has been ruled as part of the Thai kingdom. The city is located by the Sankae River, which adds to its picturesque image.
The French influence is felt strongly in this city, more so than other Cambodian cities. The French enlarged the town in the 19th century, building the city to Parisian standards in terms of the wide roads and well defined streets laid out in a grid pattern. It was only a three hour drive from Siem Reap to Battambang, half the distance from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap so it was a welcome change. Travelling by bus throughout the country is fantastic in that it gives you an insight into the rural life of the country, but after cross Cambodia, the fatigue was definitely settling in.
The first thing I noticed about the town was the large white French colonial buildings, springing up all around the city. Sometimes whole blocks are still standing in this French style. Along the Sangkae River, kids were playing a type of keep-upy football with a shuttlecock, everywhere I looked youngsters seemed to be playing this game and it looked fun so I decided to get a couple for back home.
We took a small guided tour of the countryside that stopped off at various small businesses, including one that made sticky rice and noodles and we also had a chance to explore rural Cambodian houses that pre-dated the arrival of the french.
The houses were quite large, with a ground floor that is used as veranda and then living quarters on the first floor. to be fair, it's a lot nicer than many of the houses back home. I was shown around the house and met some of the people of who lived there.
Battambang is famous for its bamboo train. A short 20 minute tuk tuk ride from the city took me to O Dambong, a small village that is centred around the 'train station'. It's one of the most unique transportation systems in the world. The trains themselves look like a wooden raft placed on top of two barbell type contraptions that act as wheels. The train seats four people, with no seats, no seat belts, no side bars, its literally 4 people sitting on a wooden raft going about 20 mph. Four of us jumped on the train with a driver at the back.
The train hurtles along a single track system. This is means that if a train is coming the other way, the train with the least passengers on board must stop. The whole cart is then disassembled. The passengers hop off, the wooden raft is removed and the barbell like axels and wheels are removed and the other train passes. This happened a few times on the 20 minute journey to O Sra Lav. When Iwe finally reached the destination we were almost immediately surrounded by youngsters trying to sell us bracelets. This was one of the most unexpected tourist traps I came across but it was a lot of fun. It was also one of the more touching moments of my travels.
I met an old Cambodian woman who saw me and smiled. She got her husband to come and communicate with me. He asked where I was from, I replied England, he asked about my parents and I said India. They were overjoyed, they kept pointing to my patka with happiness. Turns out the older woman had spent some time in Panjab when she was younger and had an amazing memory of Sikhs. I sat with her for a short while and she bought me some food to eat, some fresh mangos. As I was leaving she kept hugging me, it was great to see the joy on her face at seeing a Sikh after all these years. We had a quick tour of a brick making factory (a small shed) which was quite interesting as the guide talked us through the process.
We headed back the other way on the single track train. Sure its a tourist trap, but it's a lot of fun, going through the Cambodian countryside in an open air wooden raft, feeling every bump on the track, feeling like you could be thrown off. I would definitely recommend it.
Small city, big character
Back in the city, I visited the large Ta Dambang, Guardian of the City, Battambang Statue. The statue sits large, in the middle of the highway and its hard to miss. The story behind the statue is that there was once a cow herder called Ta Dambang found a magic disappearing stick that he used to defeat the King of the time. The king's son fled into the country and lived his life as a monk. After many years of ruling, Ta Dambang had re-occuring visions that a holy man on a white horse would come and usurp his power. In response, the new ruler had all the local holy men put to death. On hearing this the former prince, now a monk headed toward the city. On the way a hermit gave him a white horse to help him on his journey. On mounting the horse, the Prince found that it could fly, so he flew over the city gates. Seeing this sight, Ta Dambang realised his visions were coming true and so he fled the city, into the country, never to be seen again.
During my last night in Battambang, I met up with the group I had traveled from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap with and we had a traditional Cambodian meal in a Cambodian family home. They cooked some amazing food, which we then steamed on the table. We then had some karaoke, which is something I don't really understand, but whatever makes people happy I guess.
I met some amazing people on the road in Cambodia. Two of the American girls have since come to London to visit me, and I'll be heading to the States to visit them. I still stay in touch with a couple of Australians I met too. As I have mentioned in other blog entries, the people you meet when travelling alone are just as good as the sights you see. The good thing is, most of the people that I meet that aren't from the UK have never met a Sikh before, and are always a little curious to find out a little about me, which is always fun.
Battambang is a beautiful, sleepy city on the way to Thailand. The architecture and layout of the city give it a distinctive feel and it combines traditional Khmer and colonial French influences very well. The bamboo train was something that specifically sticks out, and it's well worth the visit if you are travelling to or from Thailand.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.