A few months back my good Cambodian friend Sinan called me & told me he was doing a road trip on the alternative route from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, via the city of Battambang. As it had been a while since my last trip to Cambodia, and visiting that country is always an absolute pleasure, I decided to hop over & join him. So after the usual warm welcome in Phnom Penh, including a visit to Sinan’s orphanage/school and a lot of cold beer (a new brand, Cambodia Beer, was being launched that very week so we tested its qualities most rigorously), we set off early the next morning (well, 7.30 – that’s early for me…)
Our first stop is Cambodia’s former capital Oudong, where we have a tasty breakfast of grilled chicken & rice, before heading to Phnom Preah Reach Throap, one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the country. After stopping at the foot of the hill to buy sunglasses (as usual, I’d lost my previous pair) and a new krama scarf, we trek up the 900-odd steps, passing sunbathing monkeys as we go, to reach the spectacular temple at the top. It’s very colourful and offers fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. Going down is easier than going up, and the icebox of cold beers that we filled up in Oudong is a welcome sight when we get back to the car.
We then move on to Kompong Chnang, a bustling market town with crumbling colonial facades lining the riverfront. We hire a Vietnamese boat pilot and embark on a rowing tour of the floating village, and I have to say it turns out to be the nicest such village I have yet visited, a lot cosier & better maintained than those in Tonle Sap or Chau Doc, and with local inhabitants yet to be jaded by mass tourism – the locals smile, the kids wave & blow kisses as we pass.
During the boat ride Sinan gets a call from a friend who lives near Kompong Chnang inviting him to lunch, to celebrate his forthcoming wedding (his third!) So we pitch up at his friend’s house & are greeted with fresh fish, soup and the obligatory case of Angkor Beer, and a good time is had by all.
As usual I doze off in the car for an hour or so as we head along the flood-damaged road to Battambang, waking up on the outskirts of what is Cambodia’s second biggest city. You wouldn’t know it; it’s a fairly sleepy place, a scenic riverfront lined with beautifully preserved French colonial buildings, one of which has been converted into a lovely boutique hotel, La Villa, where we check in to catch up on some work before heading out for dinner to Mohasal Restaurant.
Now, regular readers of this blog will know that eating, particularly trying out the kind of weird stuff that would make even Andrew Zimmern think twice, is one of my biggest pleasures when I’m on my travels, but tonight I encounter a dish that beats me hands down. We kick off with wild boar stir-fried with chilli & basil, a classic Cambodian dish and a very tasty one. Then it’s some kind of lizard – a waste of a dish really, as despite the very tasty Thai curry-style sauce it’s served with, it’s virtually all bone & gristle. And then it arrives at our table. Steamed turtle. Boiled whole, shell intact. I’ve never tried turtle before so am licking my lips in anticipation when the shell comes off, and I have to stop myself from retching as a mass of brown-grey internal organs & flesh spills out, along with several eggs. It’s the most disgusting thing I’ve seen on a table since biology classes at school. I dig in & give it a try (the eggs are OK), but the appearance & odour are too much for me and I have to hold my hands up & admit defeat, while Sinan tucks in undaunted & is clearly enjoying having the whole turtle to himself.
The next day begins with a very nice breakfast by La Villa’s pool. Then we drive across the river & have a wander around Battambang itself. Its riverside is lined with charming colonial buildings (including one wholly intact colonial street one block back from the river), with oranged-robed monks roaming the streets collecting alms, and there’s also a busy and interesting market and the spectacular White Elephant temple where I spend a few minutes helping a friendly young monk practice his already impressive English. A very nice, under-explored town with a lot of tourism potential.
From Battambang we drive to Phnom Sampeau, another hill/temple combo but here the monks have built a road to the top meaning cars & motorbikes can drive up, which is a relief to Sinan who struggled with yesterday’s climb. Halfway up we stop at the grisly killing cave, where the Khmer Rouge would club victims over the head & then throw them into the cave below. The cave houses a large golden Buddha as well as hundreds of skeletons of Khmer Rouge victims, a real contrast with the flowers, trees & sunny weather outside.
On top of Phnom Sampeau we give a donation to an elderly monk to help with their road-building, and he performs a blessing for us by way of thanks, then we explore the hilltop temple, accompanied by a couple of local kids – they don’t ask us for money, they just seem to want to be entertained for a while.
From Phnom Sampeau it’s a bumpy drive along a dirt track to Phnom Banan, an Angkor-era hilltop temple consisting of five towers. It’s a hot, sweaty 500-step climb to the top, passing struggling elderly French tourists en route, but the summit is very quiet & peaceful, the crumbling old towers surrounded by flowers. I’ve finished my tour and am about to descend when a gasping Sinan finally makes it to the top.
A quick lunch of fried noodles and then we move onto a grape farm & winery. I wasn’t aware that wine was made in Cambodia, and whilst it won’t win any prizes it’s at least drinkable, and their brandy is really very good indeed. Thence back to Battambang to pick up the road to Siem Reap. We stop a couple of times en route, once for more food, and again to shoot some men fishing off a bridge, drinking cold beers from our icebox as we go, before journey’s end in Siem Reap.
As for Battambang, it’s well worth a visit and at least a night’s stay, with plenty to do & see for a couple of days – definitely a good stopover on the drive to Siem Reap and a far less touristy insight into the real Cambodia.
Tim Russell is Remote Lands' Director of Sales & Marketing for Asia-Pacific, based in our Bangkok office. He arrived in Thailand in September 2012 after a decade living & working in Vietnam.