The man with the magic black stick
For once in Cambodia, the bus company “did what it said on the tin”. The Mekong Express VIP bus from Phnom Penh was indeed a VIP bus. Complete with spacious and comfortable leather seats, air-conditioning that worked and, somewhat bizarrely, a mirrored ceiling, it was a little like an 1980s London nightclub. Unlike most Cambodian buses, the blaring Cambodian pop music was completely absent. It was a very comfortable journey, even the driver lacked the usual psychopathic tendencies prevalent amongst Cambodia bus drivers. The 5 hour trip was actually quite enjoyable.
The legend of how Battambang came to be..
On the way into the city we are greeted by a giant statue of a man holding a black stick. His name? Ta Dumbong, As the legend goes, this is how the town was named:
He was a cow herd who found a magic black stick and used it to usurp the king. After the king was deposed his sons ran off into the woods and became monks.
When he became king, Ta Dumbong had a dream that a holy man on a white horse would one day defeat him. As a pre-emptive strike he rounded up all the holy men he could find and had them put them to death. The prince, who was by then a monk, heard that all holy men were required to go into town. A hermit came to him and presented him with a beautiful white horse. When the prince mounted the horse, he discovered it could fly, so he flew into the town.
When Ta Dumbong saw the prince flying towards him on the white horse, he realised his dream was coming true. In an attempt to kill the holy man on a white horse, he threw his magic stick, at the prince but it missed. On seeing this, the king fled and was never seen again. Neither was the magic stick.
The town is so pronounced as the translation from Khmer to french. Actual pronunciation of Battambang is Bat-dam-bong, named after Ta DumBong. Is there a moral to this story? Probably not, but to err on the side of caution, when arriving in Battambang, best not to do so on a white horse and definitely don’t carry a black stick – it may upset the locals!
Battambang, a sleepy city on the banks of the Sangkae river was where we had decided to rest up in for a week, just for a change of pace. It is a pleasant town and is worthy of a few days in its own right but many of the major sights are out in the countryside and are well worth a visit. We engaged the service of Chan. A tuk tuk driver during the week but at weekends he studies agriculture at university. He funds his education by renting a tuk tuk weekdays during the high season and taking visitors out and about the city and countryside. He spoke excellent english and was a great source of information as well as good company. $20 for the day was money well spent.
Our first stop for the day, this temple was built in 1027 and attempts to replicate Angkor Wat – it fails entirely! It was damaged during the carnage of the Pol Pot regime and again during the Vietnamese invasion that followed to and so is not in a great state of repair. Worth a look but definitely not worth the $3 entrance fee. In front of the old temple is a newer, replacement temple, again, not in a great state of repair. One wonders where all these $3 entrance fees are going?
On the way we pass through many villages each specialising in manufacture of one product or another. Several are producing the rice paper wraps used for spring rolls etc and ubiquitous in Cambodian cuisine. Stacks and stacks of these are drying on racks along the roadside. A true village industry feeding the demand of the many restaurants in the city.
Less than 4km from town is the train station, O-Dambong. It if from here that the “bamboo train” runs. The train is known as a norry, a 3m sq. metal and wood frame, covered with strips of bamboo. This rests on two axles with small train wheels attached looking a little like a bar-bell. The rear wheel is connected by a drive belt to a 6hp engine which propels it along at around15km/hour. It doesn’t sound fast but believe me when sitting on bamboo strips with your backside inches from a rickety old track, it feels plenty fast enough! They can transport up to 3 tonnes of rice at a time but today it is tourists that are being transported.
There is only a single track railway line. So, when faced with a norry coming in the opposite directionit is a question of hopping off, disassembling one norry so the other can pass. The rule is the one with fewer people is the one that has to wait next to the tracks, but those with a real cargo or motorbikes get preference. There were only the two of us on ours but were were lucky that there were a few other norries behind us so weight of numbers prevailed, we had right of way so we just sat and watched as everyone else had to hop off and on to let us through. All done with good humour – well mostly!
Trains travelling the same line in different directions would, in most countries, be a great source of concern. Here, no one bats an eyelid, the boys running the norries toot their horns, leap off whilst still moving and as soon as the other norry has stopped it is disassembled and then reassembled behind us and we move on. We repeated this process maybe five times each way.
The Bamboo Train will cease operating as soon as the railway line renovation is complete as trains will be travelling the line at 80km per hour. The station in Battambang has been renovated and work has started on the lines already. It remains to be seen how long these rides will be continue to be available. Being Cambodia, I suppose there is every chance it will be for years yet!
Bamboo Train Tips
A tuk tuk to the Bamboo Train cost is $4, less by moto. But it is far better go here as part of a day out sightseeing. Private NORRY is $5 per person, return trip. Takes 20 minutes each direction with a 20 minute stop at the village that has a brick factory and kiln (worth a look) and villagers trying to make a dollar from selling tee shirts, food and drink sales to tourists.
Alternatively, incorporate the visit into a half days tuk tuk rental and cover a few other sites as well. Should cost $15-20 depending on where you choose to go. The drivers all seemed very honest. Few, if any, scams were in evidence.
Temples and Caves
Another days sightseeing and, being a weekend, another tuk tuk driver. Sadly Chan is not available so we find another one on the street and get him to pick us up the next day at our hotel. Seems like a nice guy, and started off ok, but as the day progresses he turns out to more than a little weird ! We kept having to remind him that we wanted to know about the places we were visiting and not hearing endlessly about how much of a bitch his wife was! Apparently he must have been very bad in a previous life to have such a bad wife inflicted upon him this time around! He said that he was trying to be a much better person in this life in the hope of getting a better deal next time around!
Reaching the the temple, which is perched on top of the only hill for miles around, involves climbing 358 steps. We were relieved by now that our guide decided to stay at the bottom! As we ascend we really begin to wish we had started off in the cool of the early morning instead of mid afternoon! It is hot, really hot! I would say at least 35c.
At the base of the monument there are a number of blind and disabled musicians playing their traditional instruments in the hope of spare change. A stark reminder that Cambodia is still a developing country. Sadly it seems to be developing not very fast, if at all for the very poorest levels of Cambodian society!
The steps up are lined with children armed with fans who want to provide some mobile air conditioning for visitors as they climb the stairway. Again, hoping for, rather than expecting, a tip for their labours.
After a hot sweaty climb we finally reach the top. The view across the plains to the mountains in the distance is pretty spectacular. Looking down, we get a great view of the 100 x 200 metre lake, built to provide water for the monks in the mountaintop temple. Sadly, as is so often the case these days, the views are marred somewhat by the widespread smoke pollution which seems to cover the whole of SE Asia these days.
Henri Mouhot, the man who has been (wrongly) credited for discovering Angkor Wat described this place in 1858 as “being full of Buddha statues inside the temple, along with other deities”, He also tells of a large statue, a guardian with a black iron stick at the entrance. However all the statues have since been looted, no doubt now gracing the lobbies of hotels and the houses of collectors across Asia and elsewhere.
Only one of the four access stairways up to the temple remains. The handrail is a Naga (serpent) inscribed with the names of donors who made the renovation, such as it is, possible.
The five temples at the top are in a state of disrepair, but built in 1057 from dolomite and sandstone, that is hardly surprising! Massive looting took place in the 1980s, with statues removed and carvings chipped off when the temple was used as a military base during the Vietnamese occupation. Chatting to many Cambodians we have found that although they were liberated by the Vietnamese from the horrors of the Pol Pot reign of terror, they don’t seem to like the Vietnamese very much. Apparently there was more than a little looting and pillaging etc. during the Vietnamese occupation.
On the way back from Banan, we stopped briefly at the ” Killing Cave” another Pol Pot execution site on the top of a hill where mostly children were killed by being thrown to there death in a cave! Defies belief really!
We arrive at the bat cave at dusk to witness the exodus of the millions of bats leaving their cave for their evening meal. Quite a sight! The drone of the bats flying around inside the cave gradually building to a crescendo until they finally leave en masse flying into the evening sky.
The experience was marred somewhat by some idiot Frenchman who decided to fly his drone into the cave entrance presumably to get better photos. He managed to kill at least one bat that we saw and managed to piss off everyone else there who were all expecting a peaceful experience. Sadly the dead bat didn’t land on his head!
Battambang is a pleasant town with a lot to see and is definitely worth a few days. The main reason for many coming here seems to be to get the boat along the Tonle Sap to Siem Reap. It is however, very much worth a few days in its own right.