Battambang – bamboo train, bats and Mr. Boren

21 Feb

Arriving in dusty and dingy Battambang, we started to long for the beaten track. By the time we had finished our small tour of the city at night, we were both thinking “what have we done?!”. But daylight came, we met Mr. Boren and Battambang turned out to be the highlight of our stay in Cambodia so far.

Mr. Boren – our tuktuk driver, guide and ex-monk

Taking us around a pagoda, our guide seemed exceptionally knowledgable. Honestly, it seemed like he was making it all up. It became less surprising that he knew the ins and outs of the monastery when he revealed that he used to be a monk. Coming from a poor family and “with no money for school, my father sent me to the monastery to become grateful.” Having learnt both English and Thai from his fellow monks, and thus able to work as a tour guide today, Mr. Boren said he is definitely grateful to his father.

It should have been his speech about the life lessons of humility, compassion and politeness that I remember the best in retrospect. But no. It’s rather how he showed us sleeping fruit bats, agreed they resembled obese fruit just hanging there in the trees, and thereupon placed a few firecrackers at the foot of the tree. (“Want to see them fly?!!”)

Oh, and also his monk anecdotes. For those of you who have not watched serious monks collect alms for their small vegetarian meal once a day (“I became very thin. Very little food”), this is how it goes down:

“You know, we walk barefoot”, Mr. Boren said, chuckling a bit as he pointed down at the pavement. “And the ground? Hot, hot, HOT! So you focus. And not smile. Smile internally to everyone”.

He also made both himself and us laugh when he summed up his life as a monk – sleeping, meditating, all in all not doing a whole lot. In his words: “REALLY BORING!!”

Battambang bamboo train

High speed fun on a bamboo shack on rails! The bamboo train will only exist for another three months; then it is replaced by a road.

Wine tasting at Cambodia´s only winery

A glass of locally produced red in Cambodia? Obviously we had to try that! Cambodia´s only winery came about when a Cambodian living in France sent his younger brother a guide on how to make wine. Grapes were imported from Australia, et voila, 2000 bottles are produced every year. That is probably enough.

Cambodia is the only Asian country that only produces one rice crop a year (hardly any of the land is irrigated), though the country´s wine producer has managed to put those statistics on their head. While French winemakers produce only one crop a year, the heat here enables the Cambodian winemaker to grow three.

Killing caves of Phnom Sampeu and killing fields

During its three and a half years in power (1975-1979), Pol Pot´s Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a giant concentration camp. One quarter of Cambodia´s population at the time – 2 million people – were killed.The Khmer Rouge horrors seem barely comprehensible when reading about them. Standing next to piles of cracked skulls and bones in a stupa makes the hellish crimes still difficult to fathom, but at least you get an idea of what a machete may do to a person´s head.

Perhaps because the brutal killings are hard to take in, what made me the quesiest was the story of how victims were transported to mass executions:

The bat cave

A sweaty and dusty 20 minute walk from the killing caves, about the time when you have a thick layer of grime on your face, you find one of the most spectacular nature sights in Cambodia. At sunset, over a million bats come streaming out of a cave through an opening in the cliff side to hunt for food.

They keep on coming out of the cave in a thick, seemingly choreographed, trail of black for 45 minutes. But, mind you, not too low. “They don´t fly too close to the ground. Because people toss spears. You may catch 20 in one throw. Or they put up nets between trees.”

And the obvious question that begged to be asked: Now, how do you eat a bat? “You steam. Then remove the skin.”

Fish market

Crocodile farm

Angkor Wat era temples / ruins

Wat Banan was my favourite, and I´ll readily admit it was all in the name. The temples around Battambang however resemble IKEA projects gone wrong. No, really – they do. I even checked it online afterwards and found this entertaining blog post by an archaeologist:


Oddly enough though, among an otherwise ruined landscape, full towers will rise, solid and looking almost as good as those at Angkor Wat. The different though, if you look closely, is that these ruins were not painstakingly rebuilt by history lovers and archaeologists looking to restore a bit of the past. No, these ruins were pieces back together by the hands of farmers and day laborers here in the countryside of Battambang.

Battambang is not a huge tourist destination but the locals know the value of the tourist dollar. And when your “must-see” site is a pile of rocks, the tourist don’t tend to stick around long. BUT, if you take that pile of rocks and stones and rebuild them, suddenly you have a “temple” that you can charge tourists to visit. “If you rebuild it, they will come.”

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