Currently, I am traveling through Cambodia with my mother. Our itinerary: Phnom Penh to Siem Reap to Batambang to Phnom Penh to Kampot to Kep and back to Phnom Penh. I was most excited about Batambang because it’s the only place that my mom and I were able to explore for the first time together and I couldn’t wait.
I had compiled a list of things that we had to do: visit the Batambang Circus, the Crocodile Farm, the Bamboo Train, and the Killing Caves/Bat Cave. Coming from Siem Reap the bus ride is only about three hours.
At our bus stop there were 20 tuk-tuk drivers calling dibs on tourists as we exited the bus. We were fatefully chosen by a young tuk-tuk driver named Rich to take us to our hotel. He asked if we wanted to go to the circus that night, and without hesitation we said yes.
Phare Ponleu Selpak (The Batambang Circus)
This circus is nationally and internationally famous. It started in the refugee camps in Thailand during/after the Khmer Rouge and eventually made its way back into Cambodia and found its home in Batambang. It is a non-profit community organization that focuses in on three fields: art schools, social support and education. The circus’s vision says that art is a tool that facilitates human development and social change–which was noticeable the moment I walked inside the gate. Inside the gate I was able to explore the property and see completed art pieces before heading to the top, where my mom and I found prime seats.
A a Frenchman introduced the circus and gave some background on the circus as well as its other programs, he explained that two of its students were in Montreal, Canada training at a professional school, and that the Batambang circus has traveled throughout Cambodia, China, Australia, and Thailand. He told us that this show was about a stolen bicycle and as he took his last step offstage, the lights went dim and the show began. I did not know what to expect and my expectations were surpassed. It was amazing. It is similar to Cirque du Soleil, with crazy contortion, strength, balance, hula hoops on fire, and humor. It was more than we could ask for. What was more impressive than the skill level was that the performers’ energy and enjoyment were contagious. There were slip-ups (a hula hoop on fire slipping from one of the performer’s fingers and flying towards the first row) but no one blinked an eye and it made you question whether that was really a slip up or just part of the act.
After the circus, we were passed from Rich to his dad, Mr. Phi Lay. Mr. Phi Lay is a Khmer Rouge survivor, lived in a Thai refugee camp for nine years and is more than willing to share his story. We told him that tomorrow we wanted to go to the crocodile farm, ride on the bamboo train and go to the bat cave. Without skipping a beat, he told us that we would be picked up at one the following day.
The Crocodile Farm
Mr. Phi Lay was prompt in picking us up and it took up about 10-15 minutes to get to the crocodile farm. The entrance costs $2 per person and Mr. Phi Lay led us in like he owned the place. Under a metal tin roof lay about 12 shallow plastic tubs, each with baby crocodiles in them. Some were born that day, and others were older but not by much. They were so new they couldn’t get themselves out of the bucket. They didn’t have teeth, and we were able to hold them. They were so cute, I couldn’t believe it.
While taking pictures, Mr. Phi Lay started to tell us about the crocodile farm. Owned by a judge, it is a breeding farm. You can buy a baby croc for about $20. Most of them are sold to Thailand and Vietnam for eating or zoo purposes. After we were finished coddling the baby crocs, Mr. Phi Lay led us to cement steps. As we reached the top, I couldn’t believe it–there were about 4-5 cement pens each with two pools filled with adult crocodiles! It was nothing like anything I’d seen before. Off each cement pen were smaller ones that had doors where they kept the crocs when they were cleaning the water.
As we looked down on the motionless animals, we saw Mr.Phi Lay grabbing tree leaves and making them into a ball. He pointed to a spot in the small pond where all the crocs were and threw the balls of leaves into the water. Their reaction was instant. The second the leaves touched the water (or croc–whichever came first), there was a chain reaction, which included all of them snapping their jaws and climbing on top of one another. I don’t know if I have ever seen something that looked so still become so alive and frightening. As inhumane as it all was, it was still absolutely amazing to see. After a bit more antagonizing, we left the crocs and headed to the bamboo train, but not before learning more about Mr. Phi Lay.
Originally from Phnom Penh, Mr. Phi Lay was made to march to Batambang when the city was evacuated to work in the rice paddies His wife’s family (who he married after the Civil War) was Khmer Rouge and his dad was an officer for the Royal Army serving under Lon Nol. His cousin, who was Khmer Rouge, killed his uncle and dad. (All seemed to have been forgiven and they are now on good terms.) At that time, Mr. Phi Lay was treated like a dog, scavenging for food, eating leftovers and whatever he could get his hands on. He had the starvation belly.
The Bamboo Train (Nori)
This was the first method of transportation that was quicker than walking after the Civil War. It was an extremely expensive mode of transportation at the time. It consists of a 7×5 ft plank made up of bamboo stalks, two axles, four wheels, and at its birth, it was powered by people pushing it like it was a canoe or gondola. Now it has a lawn-mower engine and like a lawn mower, you have to pull to start it. But in order to do that, the driver must wrap a piece of fabric around it and then pull. The lawnmower has a rubber belt that connects it to the back axle and by using that, we were powered forward.
The whole trip was one-hour long. We spent 20 minutes riding down the tracks through the jungle, backland province and rice paddy fields to a small village where children were selling bracelets and adults were selling souvenirs. We were at the village for about 10 minutes and then got back on the train and returned the same way we came. We weren’t the only ones on the track and when another bamboo train came toward us, we dismantled one train, and moved everything off the track. The other train would pass and then help reassemble our train so that we would get back on and continue down the track. We made it back to the starting point, tipped our conductor, got back into Mr. Phi Lay’s tuk-tuk and headed to our next destination.
The Killing Caves and Bat Cave
These are not one and the same but they are on the same mountainside, 20 minutes from the bamboo train. My mom and I got on the back of two motos to go up the mountain to see the Killing Caves and temples, to make sure we were back in time to see the bats. The Killing Caves are what you might imagine–a place where the Khmer Rouge dumped bodies of their victims. Despite its tainted history, it is beautiful and scenic.
After the Killing Caves we moto’d to the top of the mountain to see the temples, monks, children, families and a lot of monkeys. We were scared of the monkeys because we had read that they could be aggressive, though we didn’t find this to be true. Cambodians live among the monkeys without fright so that eased my tension. The temple is beautiful as is the view. There is also a canon left over from the Civil War.
After touring the temples, we hopped on the back of our motos and were taken down the mountain to the cave where millions of bats stream out every night between 5 AM and 6 AM. At the entrance of the cave, you could see them swarming, flying in circles, and you could hear them screaming. At first a few sporadic ones would fly out of the cave and off into the sky. Then, as though right on cue, they all started streaming out of the cave in a chaotically synchronized line that wound through the sky. This line seemed endless and Mr. Phi Lay told us that it takes an hour to an hour and half for the cave to empty.
After about 30 minutes Mr. Phi Lay told us to get back in the tuk-tuk so we could see the same bats, flying in a shape that looked like smoke instead of a line. He was not lying; down the road a short distance, the bats seemed to change their rhythm and looked like black smoke in the sky. He explained that they were going to eat, and some of the unlucky ones on their way back would get caught in nets and sold in the markets.
At this point, he also took time to tell us more about his experiences during the civil war. He ate leeches that were on his skin, as well as banana peels. He and everyone else had lice. His skin peeled like a snake, young people looked old, and he did not feel right in the head. He was caught eating the scraps from the Khmer Rouge officers, they beat him with a stick, and he ran off like a dog (his words not mine). During his travels, he and his brother and sister were fatefully in the same place at the same time and other villagers told him that they saw his siblings and they were reunited. When the civil war was over he walked back to Phnom Penh, which took him a month.
After watching the bats smoke the sky and hearing Mr. Phi Lay’s stories, we headed back to our hotel to eat and rest.
My mom and I did a lot during our two days in Batambang and it quickly climbed the ranks to be one of my favorite places in Cambodia. Our experiences as well as the ones that Mr. Phi Lay shared with us made it one of the most memorable experiences that I have shared with my mom. If you are ever in this part of the world, make sure to give Batambang two days of your time. You won’t be disappointed.
Travel Tip #7
Traveling is an opportune time to learn and ask questions. My mom and I were amazed by how calm and open Mr. Phi Lay was, along with other Cambodians, about sharing their experiences during the Civil War. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially if something interests you.
Where we stayed: The Sanctuary Villa. While a bit pricey at $45 per night, between two people it was a beautiful place and truly a sanctuary. The staff is beyond friendly and helpful and the property is beautiful. The rooms are spacious and clean and there are bathtubs outside. It is not right in the center of town, but not far out either. It was quiet and calm and really lived up to its name.
Mr. Phi Lay is always looking for customers. If you ever find yourself in Batambang, feel free to contact him for your driving needs: (855)12 682 230; 012 682 230.
To read this post on Pink Pangea click here