After Phnom Penh we headed to a spot fast emerging as a new favourite on the classic Cambodia loop: Battambang province.
The city of Battambang is an easy bus ride from Phnom Penh and the journey was a delight. What, I hear you ask, could be better than five hours of deafening Cambodian karaoke on a bus? That’s right, dear readers. Seven hours of deafening karaoke on a bus. Hurrah!
The following morning – ears still ringing slightly – we joined a tour with Butterfly tours, a company set up by enterprising Khmer university students. We spent the morning doing an easy 30k bike ride through the province which guided us through nearby villages to see some of the traditional industries of Battambang in action. We saw rice paper being made, and got to watch as they mixed the boiled rice into a wallpaper paste-like mixture, before carefully drying it in circular discs under Cambodia’s baking sun.
We also met a lady who made dried banana chips in her home, a family who ran a local mini-distillery brewing rice whiskey and a fish paste factory – a whole new level of foul smell.
We really enjoyed our tour with Butterfly tours. The young guides spoke good English, and were able to bridge the language gap so we could ask the producers questions. The Butterfly guides were also a mountain of information about Cambodia generally, and happy to answer any question that popped into my head. We also got to visit a local vegetable market (no other tourists in sight!) and sat down to a bowl of noodles at a local food stall.
The local Khmer were (as always) friendly and welcoming to us, and seemed very at ease with us popping in. There was no pressure to buy anything (although you could, of course!) and we felt like we were being shown a slice of real local life which was unconnected to and not fatigued by tourism.
This feeling extended to the rest of Battambang; although it is Cambodia’s second largest city, the centre has retained a pleasant “small town” feel where tourists aren’t dictating the game. Compared to some other spots in Cambodia, this was incredibly uplifting.
The nightlife is currently fairly low-key – a few restaurants and a scattering of quiet bars. There is rumour the local government are trying to set up a “pub street” akin to Siem Reap’s lively bar scene, but we didn’t see much evidence of it when we were there. Good. Cambodia needs another Sihanoukville like it needs a hole in the head.
Despite this, we did have one of our best evenings out in Cambodia when we visited the Battambang circus at Phare Ponleu Selpak – an arts centre which runs programmes for disadvantaged youngsters. I dragged an extremely skeptical Craig along to a Monday night show, and good god, it was fantastic. The kids are born performers and incredibly talented acrobats with it. There was fire.
There was balancing from great heights. There were somersaults and aerial acrobatics. The whole performance was jaw-droppingly AMAZING. Our brief photos simply don’t do it justice – you MUST go if you are in the area. Craig was converted. I was smug.