We’d only been in Battambang for an hour before Campbell declared it “a shit hole”. True, it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing place we’ve seen on our travels, and we did have to walk past a few shady characters to get to our hotel, but I still thought he was being a touch harsh. I tried to stick up for Battambang and defend its honour, but even I had to admit defeat when, on our way to lunch, we walked past a man passed out on a park bench with a bottle of rum in one hand and his dick in the other. I know it’s an artsy kinda place, but there are certain forms of “performance art” that are best practised in private.
We were only in Battambang for two days, so Thursday was Battambang’s only real chance to redeem itself after an absolute howler of a first impression. I am pleased to report that Battambang pulled out all the stops, and we had an incredible day. We got picked up in the morning by Nicky Tuk Tuk, a local tuk tuk driver and tour guide, and headed straight out into the Cambodian countryside. Nicky took us to various villages and homes where we got to see rice paper, rice noodles, BBQ rat, and banana leather sweets being made. We also paid a visit to the local fish market where everybody was hard at work making fermented fish – a local delicacy and the form of protein eaten by most Cambodians. The smell was over-powering, and we weren’t even the ones sitting on the ground surrounded by fish guts.
We had lunch together in Battambang town, where Nicky arranged for us to sample the local spring rolls and a couple of traditional noodle dishes. Campbell tucked into the curried noodles, but I didn’t quite have the stomach for chowing down on the chicken feet, boiled blood and other identified meat bits floating around in the bowl. The day finished up with a visit to Battambang’s most famous tourist attraction – The Bamboo Railway, or Nori. The Railway was originally used for transporting rice from one village to another, but since roads have gone in it’s now purely a tourist attraction. It’s a bit of a hair-raising ride as you hurtle along at up to 50 km/h on your wee bamboo carriage, bumping along on the uneven track and going over large bridges. It had the potential to be naff, but it was actually really fun. When we weren’t getting whiplash, we were in hysterics.
In the evening we set off to one of Battambang’s other key attractions, Phare Ponleu Selpak, better known as the Cambodian circus. There’s a really cool feel-good vibe to the circus – it started off as an after school activity for underprivileged children to give them a place to channel their energy and stop them doing naughty things out of boredom. Since then, it has grown into an internationally acclaimed circus (some performers have gone on to Cirque du Soleil) and has expanded its programme to include art, theatre, music and dance classes. The show itself was incredible – what it lacked in sequins and special effects, it more than made up for with humour, enthusiasm and the raw talent of the performers. Some of the tricks they pulled off were incredible. Campbell even said he thought it was better than Cirque du Soleil (high praise indeed).
We also discovered in Battambang (after sifting through a fair amount of crap) some great art galleries (all local artists and all reasonably priced), amazing homeware stores with a mix of antiques and new things (quite similar to some of the stores in Greytown) and a food and coffee scene that punches way about its weight. So, on balance, Battambang wasn’t quite the shit hole we first predicted. There are definitely diamonds in the rough, you just have to get off the beaten track to find them.
Yesterday was a day in transit, as we made our way from Battambang to Phnom Penh. It was an incredibly long, rough, ride in the minivan, made worse by the fact that I had been struck down by either a particularly savage flu, or dengue fever the night before. The six hours spent in that minivan will go down on record as some of the most miserable of my life. It was worth getting to Phnom Penh though where I promptly crawled into bed (and plan to stay here for a couple of days) and Campbell sloped off to play golf – win win! Once I’m on my feet again we’ll get to exploring the attractions here and start thinking about where we’d like to be for Christmas.