Battambang | Day Tour and Volunteering

Arriving after a fairly pleasant bus journey to Battambang, we were greeted by our the tuk-tuk driver Rodney. We still don’t know his real name but we nicknamed him this as he’d learnt all of his English through watching Only Fools and Horses, meaning he spoke in cockney rhyming slang. He was also doing tuk-tuk driving to fund his his English degree so we quickly decided he’d be the driver we wanted for our full day tour the following day. We didn’t know what to expect to be doing so at least we knew we’d have fun. Our hostel was called Pomme, a small boutique wine bar ran by two really friendly British lads.

Battamabang | Tourist Day

We were abruptly awoken at 5 AM to the music of a pop up wedding being set up outside the hostel. Annoyingly we had the room right next to the wedding tent so we received the volume and base of the khmer chants the most. As we knew this was going to be the same volume for the rest of the day we got up and had a super early breakfast before meeting Ali and Rodney, with us all praying it would just be a one day event. 

Our tour began on the Bamboo train seen on Jack Whitehall’s ‘Travels with my Father’ where we sat on Bamboo planks ran by a motorbike engine and piece of string to start it. We were introduced to the beautiful Cambodian countryside the tracks ran through the middle of where we saw; traditional villages, rice paddies, fields of crops and livestock. The only issue with this system was the fact that there was only one line, meaning that every time another bamboo train came the other way one of the trains had to be completely derailed so the other could pass. This process was made possible due to the drivers and passengers working together to take the engine and bamboo plank off the wheels first, balance it on a nearby bush or hill and derailing the wheels before pushing the other train through and reversing the whole operation again to get it back on the tracks. At the end of the line, we delivered a bag of beers to the workmen before derailing the train to turn it back in the opposite direction. 

Battamabang | Bamboo Train

Our next stop on the tour was a village which completely flooded during rainy season meaning that for the families who’s houses hadn’t been built on stilts, would be living upstairs during these months and use alternative methods to get around e.g. swimming or boats. This was where Rodney was trying to tempt us into buying sun-dried rats that a woman was selling by the side of the street. We weren’t having any of it so in his pursuit for us to try one of his Battambang’s delicacies he bought us Sugarcane juice – which were just as sweet and woody as they sound. We then went for lunch before facing a mountain trek where a temple sat at the top of. The police presence in the temple seemed quite intimidating before they asked us to take pictures of them in front of the statues, all posing in different ways. 

Our last stop of the day was to a hill which the killing cave was half-way up of, with a temple at the top and ‘bat experience’ at the bottom. We visited the killing cave first which was two pits facing into the centre of the hill, one for the children and the other for the adults. This is one of the less known sites from the Khmer Rouge era. We next visited the temple which was panoramically beautiful and offered a viewing to the rest of Battambang city. It’s a place where monks and monkeys live side by side. As sunset was close, we bombed down to the bottom of the hill where we grabbed some seats and sat alongside dozens of other tourists a bit confused as to why we were all facing a small hole in the wall of a hill. At dead on 6.30PM the filter of bats began to leave the cave wall following exactly the same path as each other in their millions to head for their night shifts to find food. The hour-long spectacular was like nothing we’d ever seen with the thickening line of bats dancing over the sunset into the forest behind. 

We embarked on our journey back to the hostel blaring early 2000’s music from the back of the tuk-tuk before enjoying a night of cheap beers, pool and Street Fighter on the hostels vintage game station. It was here we met Tom and Keov (pronounced Gao) who happened to be looking for volunteers to help with their charity project with children working on the local dump. The work offered was to help set up the gallery Keov was managing and from there money and lessons would be raised and provided to help the children work on their artistic and critical thinking skills. We took a walk to the gallery and were all brought on board and set to work the next day. 

Volunteering and Abandoned Places

The plan whilst working at the gallery would be that we’d do a few hours work painting and decorating in the morning then go and find something fun to do in the afternoons in Battambang before all chipping in with dinner, which was a meal made from a wok on the clay barbecue on the roof of the gallery. 

Our first afternoon was spent exploring the abandoned cinema which had been derelict since 1973. It was a two storey theatre room with the original wooden seats and 70’s decor making it look just as grand as how going to ‘the movies’ are depicted in old Hollywood films. During the Khmer rouge regime activities such as these were forbidden so sites were seized by the army and closed down. The check in desk was still there including the original tills and poster boards where Khmer movies were once advertised. We then took ourselves to the (very) local market where we bought chicken wings and veg to skewer for dinner. We learnt early on to avoid buying the luminescent yellow chicken at Battambang’s local market which had been died in order to look fresher. Keov was like a god when it came to lighting fires so the first time we saw her manage to get our 30cm X 30cm clay barbecue going by using only sticks and coal we were pretty amazed. She talked us through it so before long we were all masters. The rest of the night was spent with a crate of beers trying to plan where on earth we were going to start with this four storey building that needed to quickly be transformed into a fully functioning art gallery. 

The following morning was spent painting the ground floor and then visiting Battambang’s abandoned airport just outside of town afterwards. The airport was amazing! The actual building was still kitted out with the seating areas and sign posts juxtaposed by people now drying their laundry in what once would have been the check in areas. The best part of this visit though was the runway. Every evening it would be full of local teenagers on their mopeds coming to race, hang out with friends and enjoy picnics over the runways incredible sunset. We saw kids crack out wheelies whilst driving pillion as well as girls riding in bridesmaid dresses.

Battambang | Airport

Another visit we made a few days later was to the local rubbish tip where the charity Tom worked for was supporting. When we first arrived we were blown away as we entered the school the tip was connected to. We were flooded by kids which we had to each give individual high 5’s to and all greeted us with English pleasantries. After spending some time with the kids on the playground, were shown around the school which had a sports room, juggling/circus room, art room, practise kitchen and astroturf as well as classrooms decorated too with an inch of their lives. This was a much more pleasant site than what we were expecting.

We were then taken onto the rubbish tip directly behind the school where workers, families and animals lined the portrait of plastic mountains. It was explained to us that the school offered fresh water and showers to everyone living on the dump but that living conditions were so poor and disease was so rife that life expectancy was still very low. The view was quite distorting due to having it surrounded by lush fields and rice paddies. 

During our time in Battambang, we got to cook some pretty cool things too. Jess managed to successfully barbecue everyone a Chilli Con Carne, Ali barbecued a Thai green curry and Sam barbecued egg and bacon sandwiches. If we ever find a Cambodian style BBQ in the UK we will be buying it! As we wrapped up with the painting and the gallery started coming together we started to think of what we had left to do in Battambang, the only thing we could think of was the Human Gallery.

This was a photography gallery where we had the pleasure of meeting the owner Joseba Etxebarria, who had spent 3 years cycling through India and South East Asia, finishing in Cambodia and setting up a gallery in Battambang. Each of his photographs were portraits of people he’d lived with along his travels. He could tell you the back story behind each of the people and how many days he’d been with them. The money raised from his work goes towards one of Battambang’s communities through the charity “Wings for the Future”.

Our last night was spent with Keov cooking up a feast of vegetables and meat for us all before heading out to Pomme for a final night of beers and pool. Keov also gifted Jess with a handmade dress she’d made for her. After lots of cuddles we said goodbye to the gallery and Battambang and headed South to Phnom Penh. 

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