Australia done, it’s time to begin the Asian leg of my adventure. In classic South East Asian backpacker style I’m doing the Cambodia – Vietnam – Thailand – Myanmar route and looking forward to all the eating I’m going to be doing. Stop one, for the first fortnight, is Cambodia and it also marks the beginning of 6 weeks solo travel before I meet Lorna in Bangkok. My experience with solo travel in Australia was ok, although definitely not a resounding success, so I was looking forward to seeing what backpacking in Asia had in store. And after two weeks my verdict on solo travel is that it’s… ok, but long term it’s not for me. Some people love travelling alone and can do it for months on end, but I think you need to be a specific type of person to be able to be on your own long term, constantly meeting new people. I mean, it’s fine, but I just found it exhausting meeting new people every few days and always having the same conversations. The type of people you meet is also very hit and miss, some love meeting other travellers, some are more than happy doing their own thing and some are already in groups, or are just not the kind of people you want to hang out with. So my final verdict on travelling solo? Fine, but not my preferred mode of travel. After a few days in Cambodia I pretty much decided it wasn’t for me and so signed up for a tour when I’m in Vietnam.
Now I’ve written an entire paragraph and haven’t even got onto Cambodia. There was pretty much only one reason why I actually wanted to visit Cambodia: the historian in me was itching to go to Angkor Wat. My route went: Bangkok -> Siem Reap -> Battambang -> Phnom Penh -> Sihanoukville. First of all I made the slightly odd decision to fly from Darwin to Bangkok and then get the bus over into Cambodia. Apart from the fact that getting the bus was cheaper I have no idea why I didn’t just fly directly into Cambodia, by the time I spent a night in Bangkok and a whole day on the bus I definitely didn’t save any time and I can’t imagine, at the end of it, that it was any cheaper doing it this way, but hey ho. So almost two days after leaving Darwin I finally arrived in Siem Reap, and was then too knackered to do anything for almost two days. Great start to my adventure!
When I’d finally recovered from my mammoth journey it was time to find some other people at my hostel to share a tuk tuk with and head over to Angkor. Now, it turns out that Angkor Wat is actually just one of many temples in the Angkor complex, and faced with so much to see we opted to buy the three day pass and spread our visit over two days, a decision that turned out to be a very good idea. First up was a lovely 4am start (why am I getting used to these?!) and a trip to see Angkor Wat at sunrise. I’ve seen a fair few sunrises on my trip, and while I was glad that I did it I don’t think it was the best one I’ve seen. Despite the fact that it was a bit hazy the experience was somewhat ruined by the scores of other people crammed in to watch, most with selfie sticks and very good elbowing skills. Needless to say that we escaped from the throng pretty quickly after the sun had started to rise and went off to explore inside the temple instead. The temples of Angkor are as amazing as you would expect: from the ancient grandeur of Angkor Wat to the 216 benignly smiling faces that cover the temple of Bayon in Angkor Thom and the beautiful ruin that is Ta Prohm I absolutely loved Angkor. Not wanting to do the whole thing by myself I found two guys at my hostel who also wanted to do the temples and over two days we visited 8 different temples, although the entire complex has dozens of them. We even did Ta Prohm (the temple made famous because of its use in the 2001 Tomb Raider film, although it seems more like the place where you would expect to find Indiana Jones) and Angkor Wat twice, the latter at sunrise and sunset.
It’s amazing that these temples, in a country beset with a very violent past, have survived so well and touring around them for two days was the highlight of my whole time in Cambodia. The only thing that ruined it just a little bit is the same thing that ruins every major site the world over: Chinese tourists. And oh my, they were everywhere in Angkor. They also seem to travel exclusively on tour buses so you never get just a couple, they only ever move in massive, loud packs. Luckily they do not move quickly, especially when every single member of the group wants to stop to take pictures every 5 feet, so it became a bit of a running joke that every time we saw Chinese tourists approaching we had to finish taking pictures as quickly as possible and run away before they could reach us, something that tended to happen about 10 minutes after we’d first spotted them. Despite the hordes of Chinese tourists, who also got in the way everywhere, and stopped us from seeing the sun set over Angkor Wat from a hilltop temple, I really enjoyed Angkor. I would like to say that I could’ve spent a week there, and maybe if I only did a few temples a day I could’ve, but it was so hot and that much culture is so exhausting that after two packed days I was more than ready to move on. It also probably didn’t help that after my 4am start I decided to fill my afternoon not with napping but with a Khmer cookery class. Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed cooking, and eating an authentic three-course meal but oh man was I exhausted by the end of my packed out two days.
So, after all that you can imagine that I was pretty excited to take a slow and leisurely boat along Tonlé Sap Lake and down the river to Battambang. The journey across the lake, and through the many floating villages that fill it, was lovely and something I definitely recommend to anyone. The part where the water in the river was too low for the boat to continue, forcing around 60 people to get off the boat and cram ourselves and our bags into the back of three pick-up trucks for the hour and a half of the journey that remained (almost entirely along dirt roads and through fields, mind) not so much. I mean, it was definitely an experience, and I was very, very glad to be alive at the end of it, but I’m not sure I would have chosen that part if I’d have known about it in advance. Still, it’s made a good anecdote! After surviving a journey that went from one of the most peaceful to one of the most terrifying journeys of my life I was very pleased to arrive in Battambang.
A sleepy little city Battambang isn’t one that you hear about that often from travellers, but its calm nature won me over pretty quickly. Much of the countryside surrounding the city is still littered with landmines, so it’s not a good idea to strike out into the unknown by yourself, but hiring a tuk tuk for the day to take you around the major sites is a pretty solid investment. I again managed to find some other travellers in my hostel who wanted to spend a day exploring Battambang, so bright and early on the morning we set off – first stop bamboo train. The bamboo train is probably the most famous sight in Battambang and is literally a length of train track a few kilometres long with a number of bamboo flatbed engines that run up and down it. It can get up to 40km/h which is pretty impressive when you’re literally sitting on a board made of bamboo with a flimsy barrier at the front and a man operating the very old looking engine behind you. I would have been fairly impressed if the bamboo train was just travelling up the track and back down, but the experience was made all the weirder by the fact that there is only one track, so every time an engine (or 10) comes the other way all the drivers going in your direction have to quickly get off, chivvy everyone else off, dismantle the trains and remove them from the track, just in time for the other engines to come past. It’s also a strange experience to have your driver suddenly hop off the back of your train, while you’re hurtling along, to help another driver reassemble his before nimbly resuming his place again. I tell you, Cambodia is a wild country.
As well as the Bamboo train Battambang also boasts Phnom Banan, a hilltop temple only accessible after climbing (what felt like) 1000 very steep steps, and Phnom Sampeau. Phnom Banan dates from the 11th century and its layout reflects that of Angkor Wat, except it’s much quieter with hardly any tourists visiting, which was a really nice change after the madness of Angkor. Phnom Sampeau is a hilltop temple made famous by the Khmer Rouge, near the summit there’s a cave, known as the killing cave, where Khmer Rouge cadres bludgeoned enemies of the regime to death before pushing their bodies down into a cave. The killing cave itself is actually a bit of an anti-climax, it took us forever to find because apparently Phnom Sampeau is allergic to signposts, and when you get there there isn’t really anything to see, which is even more annoying after you’ve climbed down through the smallest gap ever to get into the cave. Much more impressive was the nature cave on Phnom Sampeau, a valley like cut in the mountain accessed by (again) a lot of steps and used mainly as a site of worship by locals. My day in Battambang really was a day of caves, because the last thing to do at Phnom Sampeau was to wait patiently, and, it turned out, for a very long time, for the famous Battambang bats. The bat cave is famous for the fact that, every evening, thousands of bats pour out in formation to find food. It’s a spectacle that can last up to an hour and is a truly amazing sight. You can get to the bat cave (sort of, it’s just around the corner, but closer than being on the ground) but this involves climbing up two of the most rickety looking ladders I have ever seen, precariously screwed into the side of the mountain (but only in places, mostly they’re just left hanging). We did climb up, but then pretty quickly climbed back down because it was a terrifying journey and not one I would ever want to do in the dark.
With the outpouring of bats from the bat cave my time in Battambang was over. As a place I liked it, and its laid-back feel, much more than I thought I would, and I would’ve quite happily stayed a few more days if I’d had the time. But I only gave myself two weeks in Cambodia, so it was time to head off to Phnom Penh courtesy of a painful 8 hour bus journey. But you’re going to have to wait for part 2 to read all about that.
Leah Out X