I was really looking forward to my stay in Battambang because I thought it would be my only chance to see the “real” Cambodia outside of the cities. Although Battambang is the second-largest city in Cambodia, there aren’t a lot of attractions within the city itself. Most people visit Battambang to ride a bicycle or motorbike around the countryside surrounding the city. There are plenty of attractions within a 30km radius of Battambang that are fun to navigate to on your own.
On my first day in Battambang, I rented a bicycle from a rental shop on Street 2.5. I paid only $2USD to have the bike for the whole day. I pedalled 15 km to Phnom Sampeau (also sometimes called Phnom Sampov), a hill with a temple on top of it that affords a great view over the city. It was not an easy ride in the Cambodian heat, let me tell you. I had to keep stopping every few minutes to take a drink of water.
Soaked with sweat and severely dehydrated, I finally got to Phnom Sampeau, parked my bike, and paid the $3USD entrance fee. Just as I was about to start walking up the stairs, a young Cambodian boy approached me and asked if I was going up to the temple. I had heard that there are always local children hanging around who take it upon themselves to act as guides for tourists around the temple and caves on the hill, and then expect a couple of dollars for their services. Sure enough, the boy (who told me he was 13) accompanied me up the stairs without asking me whether I wanted him to or not. I walked and talked with him for a while, and then handed him a $1 bill and told him I could go the rest of the way by myself. He accompanied me all the way to the temple anyway, but then thankfully left me to sightsee on my own.
The temple itself isn’t really anything special, but the view over Battambang from where it stands is pretty nice. There are tons of monkeys hanging around the temple, so be careful. Thankfully, they seemed completely uninterested in me for the most part. There was a curious little one that kept coming towards me as I was walking away from him, but I managed to scare him off before he attacked.
After seeing the temple, I walked around and explored a couple of cool caves around the hill. During my ramble, I ran into the Cambodian boy again. He and a couple of other boys took me to a cave known as Flower Cave. Then he brought me into a small, dark cave where I had to use my cell phone flashlight to see bats flying around overhead. (He assured me in advance that I did not have to pay him anything for this tour.)
Whether you choose to cycle, take a motorbike, or hire a tuk-tuk, I highly recommend checking out Phnom Sampeau. There’s quite a lot to see there.
On my second day in Battambang, I rented a bicycle again. This time I headed towards the ancient ruins of Wat Ek Phnom, about 12 km outside of town. The ruins don’t cover a very big area, but it was pretty cool to climb around and explore them. As a bonus, there were only a few other people there, so I could take as many selfies as I wanted without feeling self-conscious.
That night, I went to a performance by the Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA) circus. PPSA is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of Cambodian children through arts training and educational programs. Their circus is well-known as one of the top attractions in Battambang. The performers at the show I attended were absolutely incredible. It’s insane what some people can do with their bodies. I was a little bit terrified when one of the female performers started hula-hooping with a ring of fire, but she pulled it off effortlessly. And when another performer built a tower by balancing cylinders and boards on top of each other, I was like, “Oh hell no. Ain’t no way you gon’ stand up on that, boy.” But then lo and behold, he stood up and balanced on it while hardly even shaking! Don’t miss a PPSA circus performance if you visit Battambang. (I paid $14USD for my ticket, and the show lasted about an hour and 15 minutes.)
The next day I didn’t do too much of anything. I had planned to take a ride on the Bamboo Train, which is supposedly the #1 must-do attraction in Battambang, but I found out from the staff at my hostel that morning that the old Bamboo Train has been closed and the new one is located some 20km out of town. I wasn’t going to pay $20 to take a tuk-tuk there and back, so I decided to just spend the day walking around the town.
The hostel that I stayed at, Here Be Dragons (great hostel!), happened to be hosting a cocktail party in their bar that night where all cocktails were $2USD from 5PM – 11PM. I decided to go on a hunt for a bottle of vodka to use for pre-drinking before heading to the bar that night. Let me tell you, I have never in my life had so much difficulty finding a bottle of alcohol. I walked around the town for hours without success. I inquired at so many convenience stores whether they had any vodka (or rum or gin or anything else that would alter my mental state), but the answer was always negative. Finally I popped into a random, unassuming little shop and saw a row of whiskey bottles on display — apparently the only kind of alcohol they sold there. I realized this was the closest I was going to come to what I wanted, so I asked how much it was. The girl working there told me it was 3500 Cambodian riel, which is $0.90USD. Damn, what a steal! Granted, the alcohol content was only 23%, so it was hardly even whiskey at all, but beggars can’t be choosers. The girl wiped off the thick layer of dust coating the entire bottle (clearly this whiskey is not a big seller) and put it into a bag for me. I walked away feeling finally victorious, and also convinced that bottled vodka simply does not exist in Battambang.
On my last day in the city, I rented a bicycle once again for another hot, sweaty ride through the Cambodian countryside. My goal this time was to reach Phnom Banan, another hill with a temple built on top of it and great views. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it all the way to Phnom Banan. It would have been a 21-km ride there and a 21-km ride back, and I was just too hot and sweaty to complete that mammoth task (not to mention the long walk up the stairs to the top of the hill). Besides, I had slept in that day and consequently didn’t start my bike ride as early as I would have liked, so I was worried I might not make it home before dark if I took time to explore Phnom Banan. I rode as far as a temple which, according to my map, is known as Wat Bay Damram (about a 15-km ride) and then turned around and headed back. I was disappointed that I didn’t make it to Phnom Banan, but at least I got to see a glimpse of rural Cambodian life during my ride. That’s what I really wanted to see when I came to Battambang anyway.
Battambang is a place that you should definitely visit if you want to see what Cambodia is like outside of the cities. There’s nothing like having the freedom to explore on your own two wheels, and Battambang provides plenty of opportunities to do that. As long as you don’t mind being (extremely) hot and sweaty all day, you’ll have a great time there!
Next stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia!
While I was in Thailand and Vietnam, so many people warned me that Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, was a scary place to be. Whenever I told people that I was staying there for four days, they looked at me in shock and assured me that that was way too long to spend there. Almost everybody I spoke to who had been to Phnom Penh told me that either somebody had tried to rob them there or they knew somebody who had been robbed there. Nobody seemed to have anything good to say about the city. Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive about my upcoming time in Phnom Penh.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried at all. I honestly have no idea why everybody seems to hate Phnom Penh so much. I never felt the slightest bit unsafe while walking through the streets there. To me, it seems to be a pretty typical Southeast Asian city in every regard. The tuk-tuk drivers are ubiquitous and annoyingly persistent — it seemed like every 30 seconds somebody shouted at me, “Hello, lady. Tuk-tuk?” — but they’re completely harmless if you just ignore them. Of course I kept a close eye on my bag at all times, just in case, but there’s really no reason to be scared here.
There are two main sights in Phnom Penh that nobody leaves the city without seeing: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21 Prison) and the Killing Fields. During the 1970s, Cambodia fell under control of an evil communist party called the Khmer Rouge. In their attempt to create a perfect society, the Khmer Rouge tortured and murdered millions of Cambodians. Under this murderous regime, which lasted from 1975 to 1979, the country lost 30% of its population.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison for detaining, interrogating, torturing, and murdering innocent people whom they deemed enemies of the revolution. Today it’s a museum that allows visitors to learn about the horrors that occurred there during the darkest chapter of Cambodia’s history. It’s certainly not a fun place to visit, but it’s an essential stop in Phnom Penh for anyone who wants to understand the unfathomable suffering that Cambodians underwent only a few decades ago.
The day after I went to Tuol Sleng museum, I visited the Killing Fields. This is one of the many sites in Cambodia where prisoners from S-21 and other prisons were taken to be executed (beaten, stabbed, and hacked to death because bullets were too expensive) and buried in mass graves. I paid a tuk-tuk driver $15USD to take me there, wait for me while I visited, and then drive me back to the city. (It’s about a half-hour drive each way.)
Entrance to the Killing Fields is another $6USD, and you get an audio guide for free. I normally don’t like audio guides and don’t bother with them, but this one definitely enhanced the experience a hundredfold. The buildings that once stood at the Killing Fields have been torn down and replaced by signs that explain what was once there, but the audio guide elaborates extensively on what the signs say. The information is terribly interesting too, and I learned a lot during the 80 minutes or so that I spent at the Killing Fields. It’s mind-boggling and horrifying to think of the atrocities that human beings committed against other human beings here and elsewhere in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
After I got back from the Killing Fields, I walked to Phnom Penh’s Central Market. In terms of how it’s laid out and what’s sold there, the Central Market resembles every other market in Southeast Asia. The cool thing about this one is the large, dome-roofed Art Deco building that it’s housed in. It’s worth checking out if you have some spare time in Phnom Penh.
The next day, I decided to check out the Royal Palace, which is the official residence of the King of Cambodia. The palace is certainly beautiful, but definitely not worth the $10USD entrance fee. It was modelled after the Grand Palace in Bangkok, so the buildings look very similar to the ones there. If I remember correctly though, the temple complex in Phnom Penh is much smaller and less impressive than the one in Bangkok. I’m sure I spent far more time exploring the Grand Palace than the Royal Palace. So if you’ve already seen Bangkok’s palace, you can probably pass on seeing Phnom Penh’s.
If you want a hostel recommendation, the Mad Monkey is THE place to stay in Phnom Penh. It’s a huge, clean hostel with its own bar, restaurant, and pool. The city doesn’t seem to have a huge number of options in terms of nightlife — everybody in the hostel heads out to the same small nightclub at 11:45 every night, and then just walks back home after dancing for a while — but I always had a fun night while staying at Mad Monkey. They host a different event in the bar every night of the week (e.g. free keg parties, free punch parties, pub crawls, pub quizzes, BBQs, etc.), so it’s easy to meet people and socialize. It’s pretty clear why this is the most popular hostel in Phnom Penh.
As you can see, my apprehension towards Phnom Penh turned out to be completely unfounded. The tuk-tuk drivers are annoying as hell, but nobody ever made me feel at all unsafe during the four days I spent there. To be honest, there aren’t a ton of things to do in the city, so I can understand why so many people want to leave after seeing the Killing Fields and S-21. But I personally had quite a good time in Phnom Penh, thanks to the cool hostel I stayed at and the great people I met there.
Next stop: Battambang, Cambodia!
It’s been ages since I’ve posted anything. Since returning from my 3-month-long Europe trip at the end of August, my life has been just like that Rihanna song: work work work work work.
Well… work and trip planning, that is! I’m heading out in just over a week to spend almost three months in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. As you can imagine, I’m pretty friggin’ excited!
In true Jodie style, I have my entire itinerary planned out in detail and all my hostels booked, weeks before my plane takes off, even though conventional backpacker wisdom says to wing it and figure out your route as you go. (As I’ve said before, I like to have peace of mind knowing that I will have a bed to sleep in, in the hostel that I want, when I arrive in a new city.)
Here’s my painstakingly planned-out itinerary:
Jan. 19: Fly from Toronto to Bangkok (arrive Jan. 20)
Jan. 20-27: Bangkok
Jan. 27: Take the train to Chiang Mai, Thailand
Jan. 27-Feb. 2: Chiang Mai
Feb. 2: Take a minivan or “sawng teeo” to Pai, Thailand
Feb. 2-8: Pai
Feb. 8: Take a minivan or sawng teeo back to Chiang Mai, then fly to Bangkok to spend the night
Feb. 9: Fly to Hanoi, Vietnam
Feb. 9-18: Hanoi (Feb. 14-16 spent on the Castaways Island Tour in Halong Bay)
Feb. 18: Take the overnight sleeper train to Da Nang, Vietnam
Feb. 19: Take the bus to Hoi An, Vietnam
Feb. 19-26: Hoi An
Feb. 26: Take a bus back to Da Nang, then take the train to Nha Trang, Vietnam
Feb. 26-Mar. 2: Nha Trang
Mar. 2: Take the train to Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon), Vietnam
Mar. 2-8: Ho Chi Minh City
Mar. 8: Take the bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Mar. 8-13: Phnom Penh
Mar. 13: Take the bus to Battambang, Cambodia
Mar. 13-17: Battambang
Mar. 17: Take the bus to Siem Reap, Cambodia
Mar. 17-23: Siem Reap
Mar. 23: Fly to Bangkok
Mar. 24: After arriving in Bangkok late at night, take the 6:00am bus from Khao San Road to Chumphon, Thailand, then take the ferry to the Thai island of Koh Tao
Mar. 24-28: Koh Tao
Mar. 28: Take the ferry to the nearby island of Koh Phangan
Mar. 28-Apr. 2: Koh Phangan (Full Moon Party on Mar. 31! Wooooooooo!)
Apr. 2: Take the ferry to the mainland, then take the bus to Ao Nang Beach in Krabi, Thailand
Apr. 2-6: Ao Nang
Apr. 6: Take the ferry to Koh Lanta
Apr. 6-11: Koh Lanta
Apr. 11: Take the ferry to Koh Phi Phi
Apr. 11-15: Koh Phi Phi
Apr. 15: Take the ferry to the island of Phuket
Apr. 15-19: Phuket
Apr. 19: Take a 14-hour bus ride back to Bangkok
Apr. 20: Catch my early-morning flight back to Toronto
Apr. 21: Touch down in T.O.
As for what I’m bringing with me, my packing list will be largely the same as the one I used for my Europe trip. The biggest difference is that I will be swapping out a few pairs of shorts in favour of long skirts and maxi dresses. One of the requirements for visiting temples and the like in Southeast Asia is to have your shoulders and knees covered. No way am I going to be one of those clueless tourists who turn up to Angkor Wat in a tank top and booty shorts!
I’m also excited to use the brand-new anti-theft bag that my mom gave me for Christmas. OK, so it’s not the most fashionable handbag ever, but it’s got slash-proof straps and body panels, as well as locking compartments. (If only I had had this bag when I was in Berlin last June, my passport wouldn’t have gotten stolen. Sigh.) It’s even got “RFID blocking slots” thrown in for good measure. I’m not sure exactly how those will come in handy for me, but hey! Cool!
If you’re interested in purchasing this bag, here it is on Amazon:
Travelon Anti-Theft Signature 3-Compartment Crossbody
Looks like Travelon has tons of other anti-theft bags with varying designs, too, so you have lots to choose from.
As for me, I’ve just got a few odds and ends to tie up before I take off. The next time you hear from me, I’ll be in Thailand!