Battambang, Cambodia, November 2015

  We had been in Thailand almost a month already and our 30 day visas were expiring soon. Mr. Fantastic had to work, and the kids and I decided to go to Cambodia to the town of Battambang. It looked budget-traveler-friendly, it’s closer than Siem Reap (Angkor Wat town, which we plan to visit later), and I was curious about it because I had actually scouted it out online from the US last year as a potential place for us to settle. We took a minivan to the border, unfortunately got a little scammed there by a visa company instead of buying visas on our own, then took a taxi to the town. A word on the scam: I allowed a guy to take us to “the place where you get your visa”, but of course it was a travel company that arranges visas just a few yards from the actual border crossing where I would have done it myself. It was a $12 mistake times five, ouch! That hurt on our backpacker budget but I was determined not to let it ruin my time. I did yell at the guys and try to get my money back when I noticed, but it was too late. Don’t let it happen to you! Anyway, then we had a nice taxi ride (with 5 of us it was cheaper than the bus!) to a reasonable hotel room and set out to check out the town. There was a market, a river, some non-Asian food places. We watched a man making noodles by hand and tried some, they were delicious!  

 The next day we hired a tuk tuk driver who recommended two places the kids might like. We started by going southeast of town to the bamboo railroad, a 7km railroad track that goes through rural villages and rice fields. I wasn’t too excited about this- it seemed very contrived and touristy- but I ended up loving the ride as much as the kids.  

  

  

 It was kind of like a rickety roller coaster ride. It was a flat car with a woven mat and pillows for us to sit on. A loud engine powered the car, and a local man controlled the engine and brakes.   

 It turns out that these railroads were not built for tourists but for transportation between villages. They are not used as much these days, save for the one we were on, maintained for tourists. I read that about 100 exist.

 The beautiful landscape of rice fields and rivers flew by.  

  

  

 Every so often was a big bump. Several times another car headed towards us, and one car would stop, empty and dissemble so the other could pass on the single set of tracks.  

  

 At the other end was a village with tourist shops in the rural shacks- yes, you could buy backpacker staples like elephant patterned pants and t-shirts here! We stayed a little while, mostly talking with one of the shop owners who was quite friendly even after she knew we weren’t buying anything. After a little while, we went back the way we had come. We got back in the tuk tuk and headed to our next stop.  Below are views from the tuk tuk, and us inside:

    
   
Our next stop was a crocodile farm! This family raises them to be sold for meat and for crocodile skin, used like leather for belts, shoes, etc. We were invited to hold a baby but I declined for myself. The kids held the little snappers gingerly.

  

  

  

 I’m not sure how I feel about the animal welfare angle, but I was glad to be separated from the larger creatures in the pools. At one point I asked if I would be eaten if I fell in. “Yes” our guide answered indifferently. Yikes! 

    
 Crocs in their pools, crocs sunning themselves, crocs with wide open mouths, waiting for something perhaps. “They like to do that when they come out of the water” explained our guide helpfully. This place had hundreds of the big green reptiles. We weren’t there for breeding season, but they breed them here, too. We saw the different areas for mamas, eggs, and the newly hatched. 

After a little while, we headed back to town to rest and get ready for the evening. It was another tuk tuk ride, this time west of town to Phnom Sampov, or Sampov Hill. I was glad the bicycle tour company had discouraged us from taking their bike tour; the road was flat but it was very hot and the trip back would be after dark. When we arrived, there were many huts selling tourist items and things to eat and drink. We went to a small park office building and paid to enter the temple. It was $3 each for myself and Cleverly, while the other three were free. We ascended a lot of steps: 

    

The monkeys were cute but they followed us a little too closely. We had heard they could be aggressive so we tried to keep our distance. We didn’t have any problems in the end. 
The views up there were nice! 

    
  

The temple was beautiful! 

    
    
    
 

   

 We went back down all those steps and got ready to watch the bats at dusk. They fly out of a cave in the hill. We could see them flitting about the mouth of the cave earlier. 

 It wasn’t quite dusk yet so I climbed the steps up to a Buddha head on the hill. It was a massive, serene figure considering the land below. The kids went up later. I was trying to get a shot that gives perspective to show the size of the sculpture.

    
   
All of a sudden as we were watching Truly and Cleverly up by the Buddha head, the bats started flying out of the cave. There were thousands, maybe tens of thousands! 

    
 

They just kept streaming out of the cave for 20 minutes or more. We didn’t see the end. Eventually, our tuk tuk driver took us back towards town and we could follow the river of bats in the sky. They are the faint smudge of a line that seems to come from the temple roof below the electrical lines:

    
Below, they are in a curved line above and below lowest electrical line:

It was really amazing to see them. They dispersed out there over the fields, eating insects, socializing I guess, doing whatever it is bats do at night. 

There were more temples to see, and also places to mark the horrible time of the Khmer Rouge. I decided not to tackle the history or more temples this trip since we were without Mr. Fantastic and we had mainly come for the visas. It was a short trip and we headed back to Bangkok.

** A note on Cambodian history for kids: we watched The Missing Picture, an intriguing film by Rithy Panh, a survivor of Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge. Mr. Panh carved figures from his memories of his village before and during the evacuation of the capital, the work camps and the mass genocide that took place under the regime. The figures are interspersed with film from that time, and it is a very sad story but perhaps a good way to introduce the topic to older children.

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