It seemed like a good idea to travel to Battambang from Phnom Penh by local bus, after all, it was cheap ($7) and our bussing experiences in Vietnam had been positive. Little did we know.
Battambang, or Bah dembong, is the capital of Battambang province and is tucked away in the north west corner of Cambodia. It is, according to the guidebooks, well known as the leading rice-producing region of Cambodia.
During the period of French colonization of Indochina, Battambang province was “returned” to Cambodia by the Thai’s following protracted negotiations. Annexed by Siam (Thailand) in 1795 Battambang province, along with Siem Reap, was Siam’s gateway to the regions of the area. Like much of south east Asia, this north western area of the country has changed ownership, governance and influence regularly over the time since it was founded in the eleventh century by the Khmer. Which is why we decided to visit it on the way to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor.
The distance from Phnom Penh to Battambang, by road, is some two hundred and eighty kilometres – not too far a journey at first blush, but a seven and a half hour excursion in reality. Significantly different to the bussing experience in Vietnam, this journey was a delight exactly because it was so contrary and rough.
There’s a big difference between the Vietnamese and Cambodian busses. Vietnamese busses are luxurious by comparison. Spacious, clean and with an organised seating plan – they even give you a complimentary bottle of water. Not so the Cambodian bus we took. While organized – you are allocated a seat and your luggage is placed in the “hold” – the bus is a diesel puffing, dust packed, metal tube that is piloted at break-neck speed down busy city roads, across potholed country lanes and through sleepy villages … perfect for a memorable trip across Cambodia.
Our driver sported a pair of, what I assume to be, fake pilot Ray Bans, a button-down collared shirt, pleated chinos and rounded his dress code off with a pair of slops. It was clear his job was driving only, as he regularly barked orders to an assistant whom you could term a “conductor”. Unlike the Vietnamese busses no uniforms were worn and the complimentary bottle of water was significant in its absence. Our “conductor” acted as jack-of-all-trades and his duties included; directing traffic in order for our driver to park and maneuver the bus, collecting tickets from patrons who had paid the official fare, managing the DVD player, ensuring all bus windows were kept closed, regulating the air conditioner, attending to the fuel pump and tyre pressure when at fuel stations, and loading and unloading the luggage hold.
He had another duty, one I’m sure was completely unofficial: we stopped for all manner of people and their luggage along the way with conductor-man being responsible for finding space for these passengers as well as collecting their fare, which I speculate didn’t end up in the coffers of the bus company. Brilliant!
Equally brilliant was the fact that we’d been allocated front row seats in the bus, which meant two things: we got to be frightened out of our wits by the driver’s interesting driving style and we got to share our leg space with the ” additional passengers” that were picked up along the way. These additional passengers were given plastic seats (that materialized from nowhere) and allocated space in the aisle and at our feet. And far from being uncomfortable in their makeshift seats they settled down, opened food packages and munched their way along their part of the journey, all the while being entertained by the deafeningly loud kung-fu movie being aired on the bus’ entertainment centre. I loved it, but it did wear thin somewhere around the seven hour mark of our journey and Battambang was a welcome sight when it finally appeared through the dust and the evening haze.
We had stopped along the way, twice in fact, for a food and toilet break. Men usually wandered off in to the bushes for their relief while women queued to use the makeshift toilet at these stops. These sorts of occasions remind me why being a man has certain advantages that no gender-based regulation will ever equalize.
We’d taken the precaution of arranging a pick-up from the bus station by our hotel in Battambang – always advisable, if possible, in order to avoid the throngs of Tuk-Tuk and taxi drivers who will thrust themselves upon you, shouting at the top of their voices to use their “best in the town” service.
Kim Hout, our designated Tuk-Tuk driver, rescued us from the melee of pushing, bawling drivers and plonked us, baggage and all, in the sanctity of his neatly covered, sparklingly clean Tuk-Tuk. He then promptly launched into a sales pitch and sold us his services the following day to see the sights of the town, visit the nearby temples and witness the Battambang countryside. Which of course suited us, as we’d planned to anyway. And “what-the-hell”, he seemed like a really nice guy.
Kim dropped us off at The Royal hotel, which hotel I highly recommend, and we walked the streets at twilight for a bit.
In the dusk and fading light, Battambang seemed hardly the quaint town, boasting fine French colonial architecture, the guide books described. It felt dusty, dirty, smelly (well it was the end of the day and we did walk past the fish market) and a bit lost. I saw a couple of kids sniffing (what I think was) glue from plastic bags, a young man naked from the waist down talking wildly to himself and gesticulating (and I later confirmed; high on a drug I cant remember the name of – apparently he is a regular) and finally another young boy kicking and throwing empty beers cans up and down the street.
It was all a bit disconcerting, especially after a demanding day of rough-riding travel but it was a brilliant experience and a memorable journey and exactly why I enjoy travelling in foreign countries. Welcome to Battambang