Monday, July 24, 2017

You can't take the bats out of Battambang

We hopped on a bus and travelled to Battambang (pronounced Battambong). The bus kindly deposited us in a mud field with a hoard of tuk tuks (remorks) waiting. Our hotel had sent us our own remork and we jumped in with our friendly driver for the trip into town. He offered to show us around the countryside on a personalised tour the next day, but we declined as we had not had a chance to see what was available. Once we had dinner and looked at the options at the hotel we thought that a day out with a tuk tuk driver, which had worked so well in Siem Reap, would work well here. A lot of the attractions were spread far and wide.

So in the morning we headed out to see if we could find someone and lo and behold waiting just outside the hotel was the very same driver looking for work for the day! We later found out his name is Dara and he used to work in a factory in Phnom Penh but it closed down and he's now trying to survive as a tuk tuk driver with a vehicle obtained for him by his brother. We negotiated an itinerary and a price and set off for our adventure of a lifetime!!!

First up was the bamboo train. Cambodia used to have trains but they're not going anymore and there are many disused tracks. So they made small flat carriages out of bamboo and take you for trips to a little village and back. Thing is it's a single track so if someone's coming back you have a problem. The way they've solved it is by getting the carriage with the least people to hop out; they lift the carriage off the wheels and the wheels off the track, the other carriage goes past and then they put it all together again and off you go. As there were only two of us we were the ones who had to hop off EVERY TIME (about 7 times), but you start joking with the people coming the other way and everybody has a good time. Once they get going it can be more like a fairground ride as the carriage whizzes along a fairly rickety track with overgrown bushes brushing past your shoulders and the occasional buffalo can bring it all to a sudden halt. You need windscreen wipers on your sunglasses for all the insects that land. And keep your mouth firmly closed.

After some small stops at a suspension bridge, fruit bat hangout and a Muslim fishing village, we arrived at the next major destination, Banon Hill Temple. The temple ruins were at the top of about 400 fairly steep steps. You saw from the red faces coming down that this was going to take some effort, especially in the characteristic heat and humidity of Cambodia. So off we went, on the way playing tag team with a couple of other visitors. We would stop for a break and they would pass us, then they would stop and we would pass them, and then...well, you get the idea. We ended up chatting and trading pictures with them on the way up. The top was worth it, not so much for the temples although they were nice, but for the fabulous views and atmosphere among the temple ruins.
Rest break

We next headed to Phnom Sampov, a small mountain that again required a considerable amount of uphill walking. Along the way we visited a cave with an opening in the top where Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed many people and threw them in. The cave's now a shrine containing victims' skulls, a reclining Buddha and a prayer section. At the top there were temples and many spectacular lookout areas as well as mischievous monkeys coming out to play.

Waiting for the bats

We had to head back to the bottom at double pace because this mountain was home to another famous landmark, the bat cave. Not the one with Batman and Robin but about a million actual bats, and every night around 6:30 they all head out to go feeding for the night. They hunt insects, including many agricultural pests, and it's estimated they prevent the loss of 2,000 tons of rice per year. Running about half an hour late the bats did indeed start streaming out from the cave for well over half an hour. It was longer and more impressive than I expected and fun to watch. I could not capture it well on film, one of those things where you did 'have to be there'.

Our trusty guide then told us he knew where there was a secret cave with twice as many bats so off we went again. It required some steep climbing to reach his 'secret cave' that appeared to be a fairly well known secret when we got there and found a crowd. Nevertheless it indeed had a constant stream of bats impressively streaking across the sunset for a night pillaging the insect population as far as 50km away.

It was a long day, but we had a fantastic adventure with another hardworking tuk tuk driver that will be a happy lingering memory and another friend made.

Roller coaster, Cambodian style