What the Battambang?!

…traffic flowing head on will have zero qualms about making a left hand turn a metre in front of you.

Lonely Planet, you have failed me. You sensationally hyped Battambang’s wealth of charming colonial French architecture, nearly antiquated bamboo train and tragic Killing Cave. “It is the type of place where travelers lose themselves.” Oh B.S.

I have a special place in my heart for France and charming French architecture, but don’t bet the bank on Battambang being the beacon of colonial buildings in Cambodia. Battambang is dusty, run down and lackluster. Shortly after the Central Market closes late at night, garbage strewn into the street attracts a healthy population of rats. For foodies, there is an absolute lack of quality establishments and we encountered strange adaptations of standard dishes (strange bad). For social enthusiasts, a lack of life after 11:00 is wholly disheartening.

Okay, but Battambang is the location of the nearly obsolete Norry. These bamboo trains travel slowly along rail road lines, disassembling when encountering train traffic. It is Old World travel and there seems to be a persistent rumor that they will soon be pulled from the lines permanently. Lonely Planet, I am afraid that the extent of this ‘attraction’ is sitting in the sun drinking a beer, while slowly crawling down the line. With prices ‘fixed’ at $5/head it is a little steep for the short ride. But actually, don’t ask me because I was fortunate enough to be sick during the greater part of the one day we spent in Battambang and never made it to the Norry. Trip Advisor rates this as the #1 activity in Battambang. The case against this city is mounting.

This next paragraph could have occurred anywhere really, but it happened in Battambang and really compounded our negative perception. Having asked our tuk-tuk driver to take us to the Green Mango for dinner, we quickly discovered that it had closed at 7:00pm. Typical Battambang. Well then. Having driven past a large riverside dining establishment on the way, I shouted out, “Take us to that riverside restaurant back there.” Well it turns out that there is a Riverside Bar and Restaurant in the close vicinity and the driver mistakenly brought us there, rather than the requested location. The entrance to Riverside was little more than a driveway ending at a two story wood structure. We looked at our driver with suspicion. Surely, this is not a restaurant. We sent a scout out and it was determined that it would suffice. A large group of backpackers were the only other patrons and the dim lighting created a warm ambiance. Things started off well enough. Food orders were placed and $3.50 jugs were served. And then we waited, and waited, and waited. After an hour or so, the first dish arrived: a baguette sandwich. As far as I am concerned baguettes typically don’t warrant an hour to prepare, and this baguette was prepared with all of the wrong condiments and was solid rock. Next came the curry, smart move ordering from the Khmer menu. Then Greg and I’s burgers. We had ordered the exact same $4.85 Decadent Burger. Funny how one managed to arrive without any dressings or cheese. Spartan more like it. Also (un)funny was the rock like bun and hard puck of a beef patty. This grossly overpriced burger didn’t even come with a side of fries. We left feeling slightly robbed. Between the  poor food quality, mediocre service and hour long wait we were collectively suffering cognitive dining dissonance. Avoid this restaurant if you value flavor and good value. It also seems worth mentioning that the white owner of the bar stands at the helm of the bar, pouring himself pints while smoking splifs. I am so far from home.

The one activity I did manage to participate in was the trip to the Killing Cave. I am actually a bit embarrassed that I don’t know the formal name for this limestone mountain crowned with gold stupas. We rented motorbikes and set off in its direction, often stopping to ask locals, “This way to the Killing Cave?” How mortifying of us! Did no one here bother to learn the name of the temple or mountain? While foreigners aren’t legally permitted to rent bikes in Cambodia, whether or not the police pursue you is hit or miss. I’ve been told to expect to pay a $1-2 bribe should you be pulled over. Should one be pulled over, because often foreigners simply outrun them on their newer bikes. We had no trouble but be aware that this is the case. Once we arrived we grossly overestimated the value of a guide. There are many diversions from the path that seemed to lead tourists all over the mountain. We opted to hike straight up the stairs and then down via the main road. Of course any type of hiking in this climate quickly leaves you ruined (read: Sweaty Tourist). We struggled to find the actual Killing Cave and once we arrived we realized that once again, we were visiting a cave and caves necessitate LIGHT. How did this happen again?! What we didn’t know (probably because we didn’t invest in a guide) is that while the Killing Cave is large, it is quite shallow. By the time Angela had missioned to find a flashlight, courtesy a monk, we discovered that the cave ended promptly after the first bend. Nonetheless, the Killing Cave is another example of how inherently flawed man is. The Cave is worthy of a trip, that is if you have already made the mistake of traveling to Battambang.

In renting motorbikes in Battambang, we discovered an extraordinarily high concentration of terrible, terrible drivers. Intersections wholly lack lights and any apparent right of way. Drivers approach, beep their horn and kind of crawl through. The traffic flow with the most vehicles seems to advance through the quickest. Also, traffic flowing head on will have zero qualms about making a left hand turn a metre in front of you. Greg and I were literally putting along when a girl slowly came to a stop in the centre of the road, made eye contact with us and then proceeded to roll through our lane to make her left turn. We braked to avoid imminent catastrophe and I gave her the What-The-Fawk?! arm gesture from the passenger seat. Really? Really?!

Final Thoughts

I think that Battambang is one economic face lift and new layer of paint away from the degree of charm Lonely Planet has afforded it. I am deeply skeptical that people are visiting and being compelled to stay, but give this place a little more capitalism and the amenities that budget travelers such as myself appreciate and it may have some potential. I will lastly note that the folks running the two cafes in the close vicinity of the Royal Hotel are such sweethearts. Both were keen to serve gratis fruit salads and the conversational English was impressive.

The Verdict

If you’ve just come from Siem Reap I think you will find Battambang to be a definite change of pace. The pace of a geriatric pulse. Lonely Planet over hyped the place and I think I can speak for my group of friends, that survey says Battambang was not a necessary stop on an otherwise exciting stay in Cambodia. 

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