Phnom Sampeou towers over the flat countryside about 12km southwest of Battambang. The name means ‘Ship Mountain’ because the shape of the hill looks a bit like a ship. Although this mountain has a Buddhist temple built on it, it’s recent history is dark. Thousands of people were executed by the Khmer Rouge here. Many were thrown through the roof of one of the caves, now known as the Killing Cave, and left to die in the cold and dark.
We didn’t have time to see the Killing Cave as we were delayed at the bamboo train (see my last post) and didn’t get to the mountain till dusk. However, we were just in time to see the emergence of countless Asian wrinkle-lipped bats (Chaeraphon plicatus) from a cave high up on the north side of the cliff face. We watched as thousands, maybe even millions, of bats poured out of the mouth of the cave. It was a mesmerising exhibition; you can watch a short video of it here.
The sky around the cave was black as they flew out and took their place in a long column of bats streaming across the countryside. After a while our driver took us back to the main road so we could watch them making formations in the sky, similar to starling murmurations.
Starling murmurations are also aerial displays that can be seen at dusk. Murmurations can be made up of a few hundred to tens of thousands of birds who flock together and seem to move as one. It has recently been discovered that starlings in murmurations co-ordinate their movements with the seven starlings nearest them to create the synchronized movements. When one bird changes speed or direction, all the other birds in the vicinity do the same almost simultaneously. In this way, information spreads across the flock rapidly in an amazing example of collective behavior.
The spectacle at the bat cave lasted over 40 minutes so you can imagine how many bats there were. Our tuk tuk driver told us that they fly to Siem Reap each night eating insects along the way and return to their roost in Phnom Sampeou at dawn. Apparently, you can see the display in reverse at dawn … if you’re up at that hour!
Just south of Battambang in Cambodia is a train service with a difference. Here, a bamboo train operates between O Dambong to O Sra Lav, along 7km of old, warped railway tracks left by the French. The train line actually goes all the way to the capital, Phnom Penh, but most of it has been abandoned and fallen into disrepair.
Each bamboo train is called a ‘norry’ and consists of a three metre long frame covered lengthways with bamboo slats. The frame rests on barbell-like ‘bogies’ placed at the front and back, and the back bogie is connected by a fanbelt to a six horse power engine. Passengers sit on mats and cushions on top of the bamboo and are propelled along the train lines. The train is said to travel at speeds of up to 40km an hour, but the usual speed is about 15km an hour. Even this feels quite fast on the noisy, rickety rails with the wind in your face.
Cambodian people devised these simple, makeshift trains to transport people, livestock, motorbikes, produce – anything really – around the countryside after the Khmer Rouge destroyed the trains in Cambodia, and they’re still in use today. They mainly operate as a tourist attraction, but apparently locals use them too.
There is only one set of tracks so if you meet another bamboo train coming the other way, one of you has to give way. This entails all the passengers getting off and the driver dismantling the train. Then, once the other train has passed, the driver reassembles the norry and continues. Real trains also use the tracks but the bamboo train drivers know their schedules and can hear their horns in plenty of time to clear the norrys off the tracks.
We didn’t meet many other bamboo trains on the outward journey, but on the return trip we met a lot. We didn’t have to get off once and wondered what the etiquette was. We later found out that passengers on the norry with the least number of people should disembark. There were only two of us on our train so that didn’t happen in our case. I think it was due to our driver’s youthful arrogance and the fact that he was travelling in tandem with another train, driven by another unfriendly young man, so between them they managed to get away with not giving way.
At O Sra Lav, where the train stops and turns around, there are stalls selling cold drinks, clothes and trinkets. Be warned though that the stop may be for more than the promised ‘five minutes’ … we were left there for half an hour. Even after buying a soft drink each and a bracelet we were still hassled by the stall holders. Eventually, our driver resurfaced and took us back to O Dambong where our tuk tuk was waiting, but it meant that I didn’t have time to go to see the nearby Killing Caves.
A return trip on the bamboo train costs US$5 a person for two or more people or $10 for a single person and takes about 20 minutes each way. It operates between 7am and dusk, but there is no shade on the route so I’d avoid doing this ride in the middle of the day in the hot season. We went about 4pm in early March and it was still very hot.
Lonely Planet has dubbed the bamboo train ‘one of the world’s all-time classic rail journeys’. I certainly wouldn’t make a special trip to do it, but it’s a fun thing to do if you happen to be in Battambang. Mind you, there are rumours that the bamboo trains won’t be running much longer, as the railway line to Phnom Penh is going to be upgraded (eventually). So, if this is on your bucket list I’d do it soon.
We were just about ‘templed out’ by the time we got to Cambodia, having travelled through India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos, but felt we should go and see the ancient city of Angkor.
Tickets to the temple complex are reasonably priced, with a choice of tickets giving access for one day, three days (valid for a week) or seven days (valid for a month) for US$20, $40 and $60 respectively. All tickets have your photo printed on them so are not transferable. We got a one day ticket but bought it the day before around 5pm for no extra cost, which allowed us to see the temples at sunset.
We decided to visit a temple called Pre Rup for sunset. It was crowded on top of the temple and from there we couldn’t see the sun set behind the temple, so we climbed down and took some photos at ground level. We didn’t realise that the crowds on top of Pre Rup were ushered out of another gate after sunset and somehow we got left behind in the temple after everyone else had gone. It was pretty special having the whole temple to ourselves at twilight, but the security guards weren’t very happy with us!
The next day we were up at sparrow’s fart ready for our tuk tuk driver, Mr Solee, to pick us up at 5am. We’d hired him through our guest house to take us on a ten hour tour of the temples for a very reasonable US$28. It was early March and we knew the heat would be unbearable by noon, but our host had recommended that we include a visit to Banteay Srei, which adds a couple of hours to the tour.
When Mr Solee dropped us off near Angkor Wat it was still dark but there were hundreds of people milling around. We got a coffee and chocolate croissant from a stall doing a roaring trade then followed the masses to the pond in front of Angkor Wat. This is the spot where everyone waits to see the sun rise behind the temple. Some people were eagerly scanning the horizon for early signs of the sunrise, others were taking selfies or photos of the barely discernable outline of Angkor Wat, most were talking, but all were jostling to get into better position for when the magical moment arrived.
When the sky started to lighten at around 6am it didn’t look as though the sunrise was going to be too spectacular.
I nudged Ian and said, “Let’s go into Angkor Wat now, while it’s empty.”
He agreed and we escaped the crowd and skirted around the pond to the temple. It was still pretty dark but I’d brought a torch and it was getting lighter by the minute. When we got there we had the world’s largest religious building virtually to ourselves. We spent a couple of hours wandering around Angkor Wat looking at the carved friezes then returned to the tuk tuk.
Our next stop was Banteay Srei (Citadel of the Women), which is made of pink sandstone and said to have the best carvings of all the temples. However, we hadn’t realised how far away it was – it’s about 27km from the main temple complex and took about 45 minutes by tuk tuk. We stopped for lunch on the way at a little café where we were the only guests. I expected such a remote site to be empty, but when we arrived at Banteay Srei at about 10.30am we discovered it was very commercial with stalls, toilets and a visitors’ centre. Also, a few coachloads of Chinese tourists had just arrived. As well as being crowded, it was hot and there was little shade so we didn’t stay long. In hindsight, it would have been better not to have included Banteay Srei in the itinerary so we had more time at the main temple complex and could have finished the tour earlier.
Although Angkor Wat is the iconic Angkor temple, my favourite was Ta Prohm where we went next. This is the temple featured in ‘Tomb Raider’, with the massive trees growing over and out of it. It’s a great illustration of the power of nature. Many of the walls have fallen down and you have to climb over rubble to get to some sections. I laughed when I saw a small area of man-made stone blocks cordoned off and labelled as ‘unsafe’. Why someone thought that area deserved a sign when the whole place was like a building site escapes me! I’m often amazed by the things you are allowed to do on public sites in third world countries. There is obviously no fear of litigation that has led to first world countries stifling their children and the closure of many activities, such as horse riding stables, parades, because of the exorbitant cost of public liability insurance.
After wandering around Ta Prohm for a while, we went to Angkor Thom, the main complex. This was the site of an ancient city that had a population of up to 150,000 and serviced about a million people from the surrounding area. The main temple we saw here was Bayon, the one with the massive faces carved into the rock. By this time it was about 2pm and very hot. I’d had enough and so had my camera, which had run out of charge. Now we were definitely ‘templed out’!
Make sure your camera has plenty of charge and take a spare battery if possible.
Take a torch with you if you’re going to be there for sunrise or sunset.
Unless you’re a temple junkie a one day ticket should be enough, but I wouldn’t recommend including Banteay Srei in a one day itinerary.
Get your day ticket the day before around 5pm so you can see the temples at sunset.
‘If I die tomorrow, I will die happy,’ I thought, as I lay marinating in the clear, warm water.
Ian and I stumbled across this idyllic island by accident. After travelling for over ten months we were weary. Travelling had become a chore. We’d been in Battambang in Cambodia and couldn’t wait to get out of there, but we couldn’t move on until we’d decided where to go.
We wanted to spend the last week of our trip on an island and someone had suggested Phu Quoc in Vietnam. It could have been a contender, but it meant another border control, another visa and another currency. Could we be bothered?
While looking at Phu Quoc on the map, I noticed some small Cambodian islands nearby and we decided that Koh Rong Samloem fitted the bill. We immediately checked out of our hotel and booked an overnight hotel bus to Phnom Penh with an onward bus to Sihanoukville, on the south coast. From there we caught a fast boat to the island.
By 4pm the next day we had arrived in paradise. We hadn’t booked any accommodation but found somewhere as soon as we got off the boat. The aptly named Freedom Bungalows were simple but adequate. There was no hot water, air con or internet and electricity was only available from 6pm to 3am and at lunch time. However, the view of the ocean from our verandah, where we spent a lot of time listening to the waves lapping the rocks, more than made up for it.
Saracen Bay, known as the sunrise side, is the most developed part of the island, with about 15 resorts, each with their own restaurants. With so much choice you never have to wait long to get served, even in the high season (November-March).
The resorts hug a sweeping stretch of white talcum powder-like sand, looking out over the Gulf of Thailand’s turquoise water – water that is clean, shallow and as warm as a hot tub. There are also several resorts on the sunset side, which can be reached by walking trails through dense forest full of monkeys.
It was the perfect place to relax and recharge our batteries. By the end of the week, I had slept more than I thought was possible and finished a couple of books that I had carried around the world with me and not had time to read.
I didn’t want to leave so we extended our departure date by a day. This meant we only had one full day in Phnom Penh and had to whizz around the sights like mad things. But I wanted to squeeze every last drop of paradise out of Koh Rong Samloem to sustain me … just in case I didn’t die and had to go back to work.
When you are travelling around a country, the journeys from place to place can take up a lot of time and are an integral part of the holiday. Sometimes, these trips go without a hitch, and are easily forgotten. Sometimes they are more of an adventure, and you remember the experience – these trips usually make interesting stories. I wasn’t going to blog about journeys for a while, but I just had to write about my recent boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang in Cambodia.
The Lonely Planet book said the boat trip was stunning and took from 5 hours in the wet season to 9 or more hours at the height of the dry season, so we were expecting it to take all day. We bought our tickets at our guest house the night before. These were US$24 each for the boat trip and transport to the boat terminal. Pick up was at 6.30am and the boat was due to leave at 7am.
There were about half a dozen other people in the boat when we arrived. The boat was fairly small with two rows of seats facing inwards. The boat to Phnom Penh, next to us, was a bigger affair with double seats in two rows facing forwards. Maybe there weren’t enough passengers to Battambang to warrant a bigger boat? But the passengers kept coming. Soon we had about 30 people on board, all squashed up facing each other, and three crew members. Our luggage was put at the front of the boat and covered with a tarp.
Then another nine passengers arrived. They were ushered onto the top of the boat. The roof of the boat was plywood and obviously not meant to have people on top. Also, it gets very hot at this time of year and they would be exposed to the elements all day, and there was no barrier to stop them falling off. But there don’t appear to be any occupational health and safety regulations regarding transport here and the boat insisted on taking off. By this time it was after 8am.
We drove a short distance, but every time someone moved the boat rocked dangerously. We would capsize for sure if we attempted the journey in this inadequate boat. The people on the top and at the front of the boat told the driver forcefully it was unsafe and that he had to go back and take a bigger boat. He must have been worried because he complied. I later read on TripAdvisor that once the small boat had attempted to leave with 60 passengers. Thankfully, they had also returned for a bigger boat.
Back at the boat terminal we transferred to a bigger more sturdy boat, like the one that went to Phnom Penh, grabbing the few life jackets from the other boat. These were used mainly as seat cushions to protect our backsides from the hard wooden seats. Our luggage was transferred to the top of the boat and tied on and we set off again. By this time it was 9am. We were already two hours late.
We chugged off along the river and into a big lake. About 9.30am the propeller got stuck and needed to be cleared of fishing nets, wire and weed. One of the crew had to jump in and hit the prop with a hammer. Unfortunately, he dropped the hammer and had to dive into the water and find it. I don’t know how he managed it in the brown murky water, but he did and we set off again. I glanced over at the crew member as he got dressed. He didn’t look very happy. Maybe he knew what lay ahead of us.
We travelled along the top of the lake, past a floating village, and into another river. From here the journey got more interesting as we passed close to more floating villages. Many of the homes were ramshackle places with the walls cobbled together with tin and wood, and tin or thatch for the rooves. Children waved at us as we passed and we saw people bathing, cleaning clothes, playing, fishing, and growing water weed in the river. It was a fascinating glimpse of life in this Venice of the east.
We had one 10 minute stop for refreshments at 1.30pm at a floating café. We bought a plate of curried veg and rice and wolfed that down just in time to get back on board. A young English guy told me he’d heard it was another five hours from here.
From then on, things deteriorated. The next stretch of river was very shallow and twisty. The boat continually got stuck in the mud and the driver had to rev the engine to get it out. Half the males on board stripped down to their undies and helped to push the boat out numerous times. At one point the guy in front of us, who had a GPS gadget, told us it had taken 15 minutes to travel one kilometre. He estimated that we were 50 kilometres from Battambang – at that rate we had another 12 hours to go. The crew were looking harassed. They had very little English so no one knew what was happening.
Thankfully, after a while the river deepened and we were able to travel faster. Then the engine overheated and one of the hoses on the engine blew off and sprayed boiling water. This continued to happen and one of the crew members was assigned to the back of the boat to watch it. We were sat two seats from the back so it was rather too close for comfort.
Later, we found out that one of the crew had been drinking and kept falling asleep at the wheel. A Danish guy had to keep prodding him to wake him up. I think he was driving the boat when the accident happened.
Just as it was getting dusk, about 6.30pm, the boat drove too close to a fish trap and a sharp bamboo pole hit the side of the boat and then rebounded into the boat and hit the young English guy in the eye. I heard the bang and a cry and looked across to see him covering his eyes with his head in his girlfriend’s lap. There was blood on his hands.
Thankfully, two guys on the boat were medically trained. They got him onto the ground between the rows of seats and cleaned around the eye and examined it. Everyone on board contributed first aid equipment and torches for the procedure. The boat had to be stopped momentarily to allow the doctor and patient to speak to each other as the noise of the engine was deafening. Then it was full steam ahead again. The crew organised for a tuk tuk to meet the boat at the next available landing point 40 minutes away to take the patient to a clinic.
It was now dark and another problem emerged. The boat had no lights. One crew member stood on the side with a torch looking out for hazards. We narrowly missed a canoe with a couple of kids in it, I don’t think the driver even realised. The mood of the boat was tense. Would the young man lose his sight? Would we make it to Battambang tonight? Alive?
The boat landed at the town with the clinic and the young man and his girlfriend were helped ashore. One of the doctors went with them to the clinic. Then we sped off towards Battambang. Thirty minutes later, at 7.50pm, we docked. I have never been so glad to get off a boat!
Our tuk tuk driver told us we were lucky, sometimes the boat didn’t arrive until midnight. The manager of the hotel said that wasn’t true but I looked on TripAdvisor and found that it has happened. Our story was not unusual.
So, am I glad I did it? Yes, it was certainly an experience. Would I do it again? Not in the dry season!