So, we decide to take the bus to Battenbang as we’re both still not feeling 100% and, to be perfectly honest, the thought of two more days of riding on National Highway 5 across the flat, parched landscape doesn’t massively appeal. The plan in our heads now is to bus it to Battenbang, then chill out there for a few days and fully recover, before a final two days of riding into Siem Reap, rather than taking either bus or boat for this final stretch.
Taking the bus to Battembang is relatively straightforward. We have breakfast at the same place we dined last night, where, from our streetside table, we observe a guy whose job it is to flag down the coaches as they pass through, and bundle people on. After breakfast we cross over to the spot just outside the big Acleda Bank sign and, after a bit of negotiation, agree a fee of $20 for two people and two bikes (nominally, $6 per person and $4 per bike). It’s a bit steep but we feel it’s within the realms of a reasonable price.
Within a few minutes we’re bouncing down Highway 5 on a double decker coach, with our bikes stowed downstairs. Even though the inside of the coach is basically held together by bungee cords it’s comfortable enough. I spend much of the journey talking to my seating companion, a friendly 29 year old lad who is heading home ahead of Cambodian New Year.
We are dropped off a couple of km outside of town (standard Cambodge) which, due to the fact that I had to deflate my front tyre to take the wheel off and our bike pump is broken, means we face the minor humiliation (for cycle tourists) of having to get a $3 tuk tuk ride into town, with our bikes and luggage squeezed in alongside us! We get dropped at Hotel Royal, which other cycle bloggers have recommended, and take a good sized room with hot water, comfy bed and wifi for $10 a night. The staff here are all super friendly and helpful.
On our first day in town, we focus on relaxing and exploring Battambang, which is a sleepy little place full of interesting buildings and cute little places to eat and drink. We download an architecture walking tour from ka-tours.org and then, naturally, do the tour by bike. It uncovers some interesting spots and is well worth doing.
On our second day we are a little more adventurous, cycling out of town 5km in the morning to ride the infamous bamboo train. This is an adorable little tourist attraction that basically involves sitting on a flat pallet (or ‘Norry’) partly made of bamboo and then racing down a rickety railway track (the old line to Phnom Penh) for a few km powered by what looks and sounds like an old lawnmower engine! There’s absolutely nothing to see or do except to cling on and hope you stay on the tracks.
When something comes the other way one of you has to stop, dismantle the carriage (the pallet sits on two sets of wheels), allow the other ‘train’ to pass, and then reassemble and carry on. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and unintentionally hilarious too – you kind of expect to see Laurel & Hardy appear out of the bushes as a band strikes up some incidental music. At the end of the line there’s a small group of tourist trap stalls where you’re encouraged to part with your cash by a variety of villagers, but it’s all good natured fun; Rach buys a t-shirt for her nephew back home.
After lunch in town at a local Vegetarian-only cafe (a bit of a rarity here) we get back on the bikes to cycle to the Killing Cave and Bat Cave, about 15km south of town on a very good road. We sweat our way up the hills on foot after being told it’s too steep to cycle (we soon realise this is nonsense – we’ve tackled much worse!) and then have a good wander around the various stupas, pagodas, statues and monuments that are scattered all over the mountain. The Killing Cave is another odious reminder what the Khmer Rouge did; a grim mass grave, where the bodies of the dead were casually pushed down a shaft at the top of the cave into the pit below. There’s no audioguide or information as there is at the Killing Fields, but it’s still a powerful and poignant place.
At the top of the mountain, Phnom Sampou, we enjoy the unbroken views all the way back to Battambang. While I’m watching another tourist feed some monkeys and worrying that they’re about to swipe the food from her, a cunning little so and so goes for MY bag of dried banana, making me yelp with shock! These guys don’t miss a trick.
We head down the hill just in time to buy a cold beer and then sit back and enjoy the natural spectacle of hundreds of thousands of bats leaving their daytime roost for an evening of hunting and gathering. A noisy black trail snakes its way out of the hillside for a good 20 minutes as several dozen tourists gawp below. It’s quite a sight. To get back into town before dark we have to take our chances and cycle underneath the river of bats – I’ve never seen Rach cycle so fast! Luckily we both manage to escape the poo bombs and enjoy a great sunset ride back to Battembang.
After two enjoyable days here, we’re both feeling good and ready to push on for the final two days of riding to Siem Reap.