We had a quick breakfast and checked out of the hotel at 6.30am. Luckily there weren’t too many questions about our destination, unlike those we got last night from the night manager, who pegged to the fact that the bus to Battambang didn’t leave from the supermarket!
We were dropped off by a driver, got some money from an ATM, and met by reliable Chheab. He first dropped us at Angkor Wat for a last look around the incredible monument. There was no queue to speak of this time, so I zipped back up to the top level for a last look from the summit.
It was a bit over 3 hours to Battambang. A drive along back roads, then a stretch of a new highway still under construction (by a Japanese company) which was pretty bumpy, rough and dusty. In between chatting to Chheab, both of us dozed some of the way.
Battambang city is a busy little metropolis. After some confusion we organised to meet our new host at the bus station, and Chheab dropped us off; we’ll meet him again the day after tomorrow for the trip back, and in the meantime he’s staying with some friends.
Eventually we were picked up by Saro, a very nice, laid back guy at whose homestay (called the Family Bat Cave) we were staying. He had an English couple with him, and he drove them to the ‘bamboo railway’, a place where locals used to use simple flatbed carts on the old railway tracks before motorcycles became common, and now sell the experience of riding on them to tourists. As the couple did that for an hour, Carol and Saro and I sat in a shed, had some lunch of rice, soup with chicken, bamboo shoots and fish, and chatted. He told us the story of how when he was a tuk tuk driver, a female traveller who had recently broken up with her partner pretty much forced herself to stay with his family (“I was scared” he said), and then encouraged and supported this whole idea of him starting a homestay operation. Amazing story. It was really nice to sit in this local shed in the Cambodian countryside, drinking out of a big coconut and swapping stories. I love seeing incredible archaeological sites, but there’s something special about sitting around chatting with locals.
The English couple returned, and we headed for Saro’s house, where he lives with his wife, two kids, and extended family. We have a little room above the outdoor kitchen and right next to Saro and his wife’s room—the mosquito net will be essential tonight!
After a brief rest, we and the English couple climbed up on the back of a 4WD truck and we were driven to nearby Phnom Sampeau, a huge limestone outcropping on the plain, in the side of which is the famous bat cave. And next to the bat cave (a giant vertical opening in the cliff face) scaffolding and sheets covered where people were carving a monumental Buddha out of the cliff; only his finished head peeped over the top of the scaffolding. Not sure how the bats feel about that!
We drove the steep road to the summit, stopping first at a Buddhist temple, built in 1964 and used by the Khmer Rouge as a prison. Nearby was the ‘killing cave’, where 10,000 Cambodians were bludgeoned to death and thrown into the darkness. A very grim place indeed.
At the top were several Buddhist temples, a very surreal small, smoky gorge where there were several gold Buddhas, a very large reclining Buddha in a building, creepy little caves, and skittering monkeys. There was an incredible view over the countryside at the very top of the hill. I bought a Coke can and set it down briefly to take a photo, and a monkey grabbed the can, ran a few steps away, tipped it over and lapped up the Coke. I felt very guilty seeing him drink that sugary muck!
The whole place was quite weird and had a strange atmosphere; a few travellers milled about, temple music played, monks sat in front of shrines; litter was everywhere.
Back down the mountain and we took a table at a rooftop bar across the road from the huge vertical gash of the cave. I had a beer, and at about 5.30pm millions of tiny bats began pouring out of the cave mouth and streaming across the sunset sky in a twisting horizontal column, looking like a 3D particle simulation. The bats were still flying out of the cave when we left half an hour later.
Back to Saro’s place. The English couple left for Siem Reap, and we had dinner with Sao, his wife, and another couple Ronan and Brea, very nice and switched on young travellers from Denver, Colorado who both work in the not-for-profit sphere. It was really refreshing to meet such intelligent, socially aware young Americans. We talked about subjects covering indigenous peoples in NZ, Australia, and America, the effects of colonisation in general, India and the East India Company, and politics in general.
There was a brief rainstorm before we went to bed, but it only increased the humidity. We went to bed in our little hand-built room, under a mosquito net, and thankfully also under a roof fan; sweaty and covered in sun lotion and DDT spray. A slightly restless night but not too bad.