After a glowing report on the boat from someone we met in Siem Reap we were feeling a lot more positive about the trip so we set off at the crack of dawn for a short bus ride down to the river (after oversleeping and being woken up by the hotel staff!). Set off through the floating village of Chhong Kneas on the Northern shore of the Tonle Sap and were soon out onto the huge lake, making our way through tons and tons of riverweed. The rickety old boat (which wobbled every time someone switched sides) was a little bit worrying, but the scenery was so good that we soon forgot about the possibility of drowning, especially once we had made our way across the top of the lake to the river which leads down to Battambang. The first part of the river trip passes through protected wetlands where there were loads of birds (not sure what type, but apparently some of them are quite rare – dread to think what all the boat traffic is doing to their homes!). The banks of the river, even in the protected wetlands, were literally lined with hundreds of floating villages which bobbed up and down in the wake of our speed boat. It was amazing to see so many people living on the water with completely normal houses (tvs, dogs, shops and even monks!) and seeing the locals going about their daily business fishing or trading or just swimming and waving to us as we went past. Eventually the river began to get very narrow and bendy towards Battambang and the boat began to have a few problems, it broke down at least three times (they used sellotape to fix the engine!!!) and with the narrow river and hairpin bends the longboat started to struggle, crashing through the overhanging branches several times, not ideal for us sat at the back of the boat! Eventually after 9 long hours we pulled into Battambang and got a tuk-tuk to a hotel only to be greeted by an enormous rainstorm which flooded the streets and put an end to the day!
The next morning we set off on a sightseeing trip around Battambang with a tuk-tuk driver we met at the Smokin Pot restaurant (highly recommended should you ever find yourself in Battambang!). First stop was the bamboo railway, probably the best mode of transport ever invented!!! It consists of two sets of wheels that look like weights with a bamboo tray over the top and a little engine sat over the back wheels. The trains are still used by the locals to go between markets and along the fields, but mainly now for tourists since more roads have been built around the area. They run along the old track that the French put in place many years ago, which would probably derail a real train, but the bamboo trains fly (almost literally at times when you hit a warped bit) along them at quite a high speed as far as a tiny little market village where you stop for a drink and to meet the locals before heading back the same way. On the way back we met some traffic coming the other way which meant we had to get off our train and take it apart to let the others through – very odd! Then a bit further along some locals popped out of a bush and jumped on the back of our train for a free ride down to another bush where they promptly disappeared again! Amazing experience, if it wasn’t so expensive I would have done it again and again!!! Unfortunately the bamboo railway is going to be shut down at the end of the year as Cambodia finally gets round to building a new railway line so real trains can operate again – not half as fun as a bamboo train though.
After that excitement we headed off to a nearby temple with some resident fruit bats living in the trees then onwards through amazingly green rice paddies to one of the many huge limestone outcrops in the area. We walked up to the top to some caves which had been used by the Khmer Rouge for throwing people in to kill them during the war – it seems everywhere you go has some kind of awful Khmer Rouge history, there are still machine gun emplacements outside the temples. The hilltop is now home to several temples with some very friendly monks and some incredible views over the flat landscape below with thousands of paddy fields stretching in every direction, we watched as some huge rainstorms passed across in front of us blocking out half the landscape – luckily we didn’t get too wet. Our final stop on the way back was another nearby temple on a smaller hill with some amazing murals painted inside, and yet more friendly monks who insisted we took photos of the murals!! In between driving around we spent a lot of time talking to our tuk-tuk driver, Saro, who spoke really good English which meant we could find out lots of interesting things about Cambodia and local life – always interesting to talk to local people to learn a bit more about the culture. After a really great day we headed back into Battambang to chill out for the evening and book our cooking course at the Smokin’ Pot for the next morning.
The next morning our cooking course started with a trip to the local market with the restaurant owner to pick up all the ingredients and to explain what everything in the market was and what it was used for – very interesting as a lot of what is on offer is completely different to what you’d find in any English supermarket!! Our first dish was a fish amok curry (Ellie’s favourite), which was a kind of late breakfast – although very very delicious! Next up was a spicy beef stir fry which was equally delicious although by this time (it was about 11am) we were pretty stuffed already and we still had one more course to go! Last was a sour chicken soup which was probably my favourite of the three – by this time we really were too stuffed to move anywhere. All throughout we had really close supervision and clear instructions on what to use, how to prepare or chop up the ingredients, what order to put everything in, how to cook it etc (they even let us loose with meat cleavers – not surprising when you see the amount of tiny children wandering around with them too!). At the end we even got a cook book with some favourite Cambodian and Thai recipes so if you’re nice, maybe we’ll cook some for you all when we get back!! Spent the rest of the afternoon feeling very fat wandering around Battambang and taking in the nice atmosphere of the town (trying not to get too over-excited about the impending start of the football season!). Definitely one of our favourite places so far on our travels, a really nice laid back town with super friendly people and lots of nice sights in the vicinity (and of course the bamboo train) – a good way to sign off on Cambodia as we make our way to Thailand tomorrow…