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Battambang: Killing Caves and Bamboo Trains

Less well known than the killing fields, the killing caves near Battambang are even more impressive, showing the cruelties of the Khmer Rouge regime. Battambang itself is the second largest city of Cambodia, but it feels more like a big village. It's a pleasant city to walk around, while it has no major places of interest. When we make a tour around the city, however, we find out about the killing caves, and see more memorial sites from the era of the Khmer Rouge, plus an alternative use of the railroadÂ…

Wat Ek Phnom near Battambang, a temple from the Angkor kingdom, damaged by the Khmer Rouge

Exploring Battambang

When we go out to explore Battambang, it doesn't take long before we pass the bridge over the river. The water is low and lots of children are playing in the shallow water. On the other side of the river are a number of French colonial villas. Life seems slow here, apart from some activity under the palm trees, nothing much is going on.

We passed the river over a normal, concrete bridge, but halfway to the next bridge on the map, there is a third one. This one is more like the monkey bridges in the Mekong Delta, but much longer. It costs 100 riel (2.5 cents) to pass, and we can just see how two monks are passing, a nice colorful sight.

Monks on a monkey bridge in Battambang, CambodiaSince we are too late to get our camera, we decide to wait for the next monks to come along. In the meanwhile, a boy on a bike comes by and asks us the meaning of some English words. It's remarkable how many signs we see offering courses in English. Almost everybody seems to be learning English here.

As we pass the second, metal bridge we arrive back in the centre of Battambang. The centre consists of 3 parallel streets of a few hundred meters long, with French colonial shops side by side. There is also a roofed marketplace, where people do their shopping. The part where meat is sold smells terrible, and features a lot of flies. We decide to move on.

Motorbike tour

Battambang does not have many places of interest. They only tour on offer is through the countryside. We book a motorbike tour via our hotel, and the next day we're on our way. Soon, the paved road changes in a dirt road, and our guides stop to get us a mouth cap. Moving away from the city, there is less and less traffic. But the occasional truck we pass leaves a huge dust cloud, making our mouth cap all but obsolete.

The roads are straight, with canals on both sides. Several stretches of those are fenced to nurse ducks. Once in a while we also pass a guided herd of ducks. The canals are also part of an irrigation system, offering year-round rice cultivation. But the planting of the rice fields here doesn't look as efficient as what we saw in Vietnam.

The Dam

After two hours on the motorbikes we arrive at the starting points of the irrigation canals: the dam and reservoir lake. The dam was built prisoners of the Khmer Rouge. Thousands of them died in the attempt of the Khmer Rouge to rebuild the irrigation systems of the glory days of Angkor (between the 10th and 12th century).

At the dam, our guide Bat starts talking about his experiences with the Khmer Rouge. Being a five year old, he was also forced to work in the fields, where his father and brother died. His family belonged to the "base-people", people already living and working in the countryside. People from the city were called "new people", which were considered to be lower in rank by the Khmer Rouge. Yet, there were a lot of victims under the base-people as well, mainly due to famine and lack of medicine. Bat's mother worked in the communal kitchen, where she managed to occasionally give him extra food. When he was caught with that, he said he had stolen it, the punishment for which was better than what they would have done to his mother.

We continue our tour and pass some villages. There are a lot of cows and buffaloes, pulling carts transporting all kinds of things. There are also more trees here, and the familiar houses on poles, which we saw earlier. Then we reach a long straight road, leading to a hill in the otherwise flat landscape.

Killing caves

Killing caves near Battambang, CambodiaThe hill is called Phnom Sampeau, (Sailingboat mountain), and is our next stop. On the hill are a number of temples, mostly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, but currently being rebuilt. More impressive, however, is the cave in which lots of people were killed by the Khmer Rouge. The bones and skulls are collected and exhibited in a cage as a monument. We walk pass the point from which mainly children were thrown into the deep cave. Bone splinters from these events are still present.

After the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, a lot of fighting around sailingboat mountain remained. Up till 1997 the Khmer Rouge was still present around Pailin near the border with Thailand, from which they attacked the region around Battambang. On the mountain, there is still artillery pointed in the direction of "crocodile mountain" 500 meters further, which used to be a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge.

After the descent from the mountain, we eat something before we move on. Next stop is Wat Ek Phnom, a temple from the days of Angkor, built in the 10th century. It has been damaged by the recent fighting, and there still is a field gun here as well. Yet, the last damage was by lightning, but the temple still remains, although partly in ruins. It is a beautiful temple in the style of Angkor Wat, built as a hindu temple, but nowadays full with Buddha statues.

Bamboo train

Dismantling the bamboo train in Battambang, CambodiaBack on the motorbikes we pass more and more children, waving at us, before we arrive at the railway track to Phnom Penh. We are amazed to see how people use the track for transport with strange lorries. The lorries consists of a wooden or bamboo platform, on top of two wheeled axles, powered by a small engine. We also get to ride on one of those, which is a great experience. At one point, we meet a lorry travelling in the opposite direction. At that point, one of the lorries needs to be picked up from the rails, letting the other one go through. We also notice the bad condition of the tracks, explaining the bumpy train ride earlier.

The last part of our tour leads us back to Battambang. We pass the river over a long narrow bridge and race over widening roads to the city. Where the city actually starts is unknown to us, but as we pass some statues we know we are almost there. It must be rush hour, there are a lot of motorbikes on the streets. But it doesn't take long before we are back at our hotel.

We take another slow day before we move on from Battambang. It is a nice and quiet town and the few tourists that come here enjoy a relaxing time. Strange enough, we do meet some familiar faces from earlier on in our trip (Sandy and Alex from Scotland, and a few Australian girls). Apparently we are not the only ones searching for the countryside of Cambodia around Battambang.

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