Many- if not most- travellers who make it to Battambang do so by boat either to or from Siem Reap because of the excellent scenery the trip offers. Sure, you can also travel by bus and it will be cheaper (5 vs 20 USD) but you will miss an excellent opportunity to take great pictures and observe unusual lifestyles some Cambodian families have chosen.
Our early morning drive to the dock was a on pick-up truck instead of the bus they had mentioned. Nothing extraordinary had it not been raining as heavily as it was. Liza managed to squeeze into the cabin with other travellers, but I had to jump on the back with another couple and hoped that my raincoat would do its job. It did, unlike the backpacks which were quite wet by the time we reached the dock.
The boat is nothing fancy: made of wood, it can carry up to 20 passengers inside and you can climb on the roof for views if you want to. The first hour or so (leaving from Siem Reap) is not very exciting as all you see is water. After that though, you begin to see isolated houses built on stilts, with nothing but water surrounding the roughly 40 to 60 m squared with perhaps another 4 m2 of a floating den with chickens and a pig tied to it. Obviously extremely poor, the families would eagerly wave at our passing by boat, happy about seeing foreigners who can’t help much but wave back smiling and taking pictures.
We crossed two towns along the way, carrying the occasional passengers from one place to another for free (courtesy of your relatively expensive ticket) and stopping in one of them for a snack, drink or food if you want to. I went to the toilet, a wood cabin the size of an average table with a hole on the floor and the lake water moving slowly below.
These views repeat themselves along the way, but you never get tired. Eventually you cross marshlands which bring the boat to an unwanted stop making the crew jump into the water to free the blades from the algae, and about 30 minutes of navigating upstream a small river you arrive to Battambang. There were two vans willing to take travellers to their hotels: most choose the cheaper Chaya Hotel at 5 $/person/night, but we chose Park Hotel for 12$/double room/night which apppeared much better. What a deal. Only 6 months old, spotless, with AC, fridge and a modern toilet it was our best hotel in Cambodia and one of the best of the trip.
Battambang itself is nothing special, but there are a few side trips to be done nearby. We decided to spend 3 nights pushed as well by the excellent accommodation, and soon after checking in we had arranged trips for the next two days with a friendly tuktuk driver that included one of the oldest houses in the area (100+ years old) and a chat with the owner, the local wood train, another stupa with memories(skulls) of Pol Pot victims, a temple on top of a hill (about 150 steps), a wine brewery (awfull, but the grape juice was very good), one of the largest local temples, the black buddha and small family run businesses where local food was made and distributed. Good fun, with the added bonus of seeing local people from the tuktuk when going from one place to the other.
Foodwise, there is not much to choose from in town, but some ladies make an excellent porridge in the street stalls ( not the market) with a great taste, very cheap, and filling. We enjoyed our stay very much, although at one point Liza did not join me when visiting a small cliff from which Pol Pots army pushed innocent people to their deaths. Unfortunately his presence is found in way too many places.
On our last day we shared a taxi and a van with two other travellers to Bangkok, a city we know realtively well and would provide a few days’ break in our trip.
Cambodia is a spectacular country home to very warm and gentle people who have endured one of the most horrific regimes in the world. The visits to stupas and S-21 are not for the faint hearted but a must (in my opinion) if you want to know about Cambodia and its people. Too many tourists fly to Siem Reap, visit Angkor Wat, leave two days later and say they have visited ambodia. False. Wrong. BS. They might know Angkor Wat, but have skipped the best of this great kingdom, its people, and fail to admire their warmth having endured the dark side of humans as portrayed through Pol Pot and his regime.
It is quite expensive when compared to its neighbouring countries because it has adapted the USD as currency, so helping out money-wise when possible brings some relief to the benefactors. And finally, if you can, visit any. I guarantee you will not regret it, even if you show up empty handed, and will take great memories with you to share. if adults are happy to see you, you can’t even imagine how happy kids can be only because you say hello.