Before heading to Ankgor Wat, I decide to head north to a small town named Battambang, while Dev chooses to go down south to the beaches of Sihanoukville. This is the first time I'm traveling alone since the start of the backpacking trip.
I arrive in Battambang after a eight hour bus ride. My guesthouse had sent a tuk tuk driver to pick me up from the bus station. I like to use this option when possible, otherwise tuk tuk drivers tend to be most aggressive around bus stops, and will overcharge you because where you want to go is naturally always “very far”, even if it's just a five minute walk. They tend to take advantage of your lack of knowledge and orientation in this scenario. Having the guesthouse send me a tuk tuk driver allows the interaction to be relaxed both ways, bypassing the negotiation process. I make small chit chat with him. His name is Kip. When we arrive at my guesthouse, Kip asks me if I want to do a tour tomorrow, $18. Normally I'm not impulsive, and I like to do research, but in the spirit of deviating from my usual pattern, I say yes, without even bargaining (in hindsight, I should have, always bargain because the initial price is always inflated).
The next day Kip picks me up and takes me to the first stop, the Bamboo train. The novelty of it is that there are trains running in both directions on a single railroad track. Now, this isn't as dangerous as it sounds when you actually see the trains and the speed they run at. Essentially it's just a wooden platform on barbells, with a small motor. It's super quick to disassemble and reassemble; so when two trains going in the opposite direction meet, one party takes his car off the track, and the other train resumes in its direction. The entire route is about 20 minutes when going nonstop. The bamboo train had been used by locals for their purposes, but now it is just a tourist attraction.
I meet two men from Malaysia, and we split the cost of a ride.
Riding a bamboo train versus a train is the same difference between riding a motorbike versus in a car – you're not boxed in from the environment. However being low speed, and on a railroad track, makes it feel like a Disneyland ride. It's a new kind of experience form everything else I've seen so far on my trip.
After this ride, Kip begins to drive me to a pre-Ankgorian temple. Along the way we stop for gas, but not at a gas station. Along the road are stalls, with many one liter glass soda bottles filled with a slightly yellow liquid: gas! Somehow the gas here is cheaper than gas stations. These stalls are naturally more abundant than proper gas stations since there isn't much infrastructure required. Perfect for the motorbike culture.
Filling up the motorbike tank.
We reach the temple, and as I begin to walk up the steps, there are a group of young boys just sitting around. One of them starts following me and waves a hand fan at me, to keep me cool as I walk up the 100 steps or so. I haven't seen this before, but it's another form of making money from tourists. I politely decline by just saying “no thank you” and he stops following me. I've taken the stance of not buying products from children as it encourages child labor. Parents of the kids may decide to pull their kids out of school if there is enough money to be made from tourists.
After walking around the temple for a few minutes, I find a isolated spot in the corner and decide to meditate here for 20 minutes. I'm all alone. Halfway into my meditation, I hear some other tourists come by, and I hear them around me, taking photos, laughing. I'm not sure, but I feel like they were taking photos of me while I was just sitting there. I keep my eyes closed through it, but I'm distracted anyway, wondering if they are taking photos of me. It's a big enough area that they don't necessarily have to be in the same corner as me…but in any case, those were my thoughts at the time.
After I'm done with my meditation attempt, I have lunch. My driver talks to me about the Cambodian government, and how the People's Party doesn't really help the people. He tells me how he doesn't want to be a tuk tuk driver, but he doesn't have the time or money to go learn a new skill. He tells me of his young daughter who had recovered from typhoid, and how it took a lot of time and money to help her recover. He also told me how four of his relatives had died during the genocide. A melancholy conversation. He had been through a lot, and I could see it in his eyes. Yet somehow he had a calm and soft demeanor which he had preserved through all of this, which is partly why I felt impulsive and agreed to tour with him when he asked me; I felt like I could trust him.
After this we head to a hill where one can get scenic views of Battambang. It's a paved dirt road, but it's quite a bumpy ride in the tuk tuk. Kip tells me we are taking a shortcut so we can make it there with enough time before sunset, to see a daily spectacle that happens every evening. We stop halfway to let the motorbike engine cool down for a bit.
We resume, and after another bumpy 20 minute ride, we arrive. I walk up the hill to explore the wats on top, which have scenic views of the landscape. Right around this time it starts to pour heavily, but I continue exploring. I head back down to the hill and find a nice path on the hillside. I find a large Buddha face. Recently construction had started where they were going to carve out a giant Buddha statue in the hill, but for some reason they stopped at the face.
Afterwards I wait for the daily event of 20 million bats exiting a nearby cave at dusk, going out for food. I imagined there would be a lot of noise, as thousands of bats would be exiting the cave every second. It started rather unceremoniously, and the bats silently exited the cave, silently flying out to the skyline.
After watching this spectacle for 20 minutes, I go back to the tuk tuk, ready to go back to the guesthouse after being out all day. I reflect on a day filled with new and novel attractions from what I had seen since the beginning of my trip – the bamboo train, the giant Buddha face, the bats.
I return to the small, relaxing town my guesthouse is in. The streets are small, quiet, and unlit. There's no need for a map, as one can walk for a few minutes to any restaurant in town. It makes it easy to decide where to eat. I've come to appreciate small towns like Battambang, which allow for a “break” from the usual process of needing to orient yourself in a new (usually busy) city: figuring out what are the top sights to see out of many, deciding which restaurant to eat at and then figuring out how to get there, and even feeling the need to socialize with other backpackers when in a busy hostel. It is a small, quiet town, and in my guesthouse I am the only backpacker in my dorm the first night. A two-night stop in Battambang is a perfect interlude before I proceed to the next destination: Ankgor Wat.