After our visit to the Angkor temple complex, it was time to do some planning. With visas running out and future travel plans unfolding, we were all scheduled to leave Cambodia. We said goodbye to two of our family (headed to Thailand), leaving four of us behind. One more day in Cambodia; one more day together.
Two of my remaining friends also had plans to go to Thailand. They would travel to Battambang together and catch a bus across the border.
I had heard of Battambang before and had actually hoped to visit. Several travelers had told me about these caves in the hills just outside of the city which are inhabited by millions of bats. If you visit the caves at sunrise or sunset you will see them entering or exiting the cave. Other travelers had told me about the bamboo trains – more on those later – and urged me to go there for a ride.
And so, with one day left and no concrete plans, we decided to throw caution to the wind. We would all go to Battambang together. Four hours there, a short visit of the sights, then two of us would take a four-hour bus back to Siem Reap in time for our flights the next day. The others would continue on to Thailand. Our plan was messy at best, but as we booked our tickets for the 9:30 am bus, I couldn’t be happier. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta live a little.
30 March 2019
We leave the hostel in the morning and our bus takes the expected 4+ hours to get us to Battambang. I spend the time staring out at dusty roads and endless open fields. I daydream about riding my motorbike. Together, our team cooks up a plan for our arrival in Battambang. Our first order of business will be to arrange a bus ticket to Thailand for George and tickets for a night bus back to Siem Reap for Lesley and I. Should be easy enough.
In the afternoon, we are spewed out at a bus stop outside of Battambang’s city center. We head to the hostel Elliott has booked for the night and store his and George’s backpacks. Then it’s straight to the ticketing office to arrange those bus tickets. It doesn’t take long, because the answer is simple: there are no buses. Oops. Back to the hostel it is then; looks like George spending the night. As for Lesley and I, who knows how we’re getting back to Siem Reap, really.
We return to the hostel and our tuk tuk driver is ready and waiting to take us sightseeing. I cannot help but laugh at the impossible situation we have created. He offers us his help, telling us there is also the possibility to catch a private taxi back to Siem Reap. We tell him we are on a budget and ask if he can bargain for us. He promises us that he will. “I will find you a taxi. Now we go to the bamboo train!” he tells us happily.
The bamboo train (also called a norry) is a rudimentary rail vehicle. It’s essentially a series of bamboo slats laid over a steel frame. The steel frame rests on top of wheels taken from old trains and, I’m told, tanks. The whole thing is powered by a motorcycle or tractor engine, which can deliver a top speed of 40 km/hr or more. While in the past the bamboo trains were more readily used, nowadays they only exist on this small section of railway and are mainly used for tourism.
Our tuk tuk driver, whose name we have learned is Pow, drops us off and within minutes we have paid our $5 per person to ride the train. We climb on, the engine roars to life, and off we go. I immediately forget all about our current predicament. This is just too wonderfully bizarre.
There is something utterly absurd about barreling down a track at 40km/hr seated only on a wooden platform. It is rickety at best and as the trees whizz by, I hold tight to the small railing in front of me. All I can hear is the roar of our tiny engine and the bounce of my own laughter.
We meet a train heading in the opposite direction and get to witness its dismantling. Because there is only one track, it’s quite normal to encounter oncoming traffic. When you do, the rule of thumb is that the train carrying the least number of passengers “gets out of the way.” First, the two trains slow down. While the passengers climb off, our driver does so too and goes over to help the other driver. Within moments they have lifted the wooden platform off the wheels and placed it beside the tracks. They remove the wheels one by one and our driver comes back to our train. We pass the train beside the tracks, then he returns to put the other train (now behind us) back together. The process feels like it takes less than a minute.
The ride takes you to another small village where you have a break to buy souvenirs. Then the train is dismantled, turned around and we return to Pow.
He tells us he hasn’t been able to find a taxi for us yet. “But I will find one! Now we go to the caves,” and off we go in his tuk tuk, chatting the entire way. A small part of me is amused and surprised by the fact that I am not worried at all about how I am getting back to Siem Reap. I make a mental nod to past versions of me, thinking: oh, just look at you now.
Pow has an enormous grin and incredibly infectious energy, and he happily tells us about Battambang as we ride towards the caves. Soon enough, we are at the base of the hill. We climb up, find rock outcroppings to sit on and crack open one beer each. The sun lowers in the sky and we continue to chat with Pow as he tells us about his life and his dreams of becoming a tour operator. More tourists gather, and soon we are a group of billy goats on a mountainside. Billy goats with beers.
It turns out that Pow knows quite a lot about bats, and he tells us all about the difference between the “big bats” and “small bats,” as he calls them, the research that is done about their movements and the efforts that have been taken to protect them. We comment on the peculiar smell and he tells us that it’s the smell of their droppings. When we hear an unfamiliar sound, he says: “they’re coming. You can hear it, their wings.” He points to the left, telling us that that side of the hill is where the cave opening is. “If you watch there, you will see them soon.” And he’s right, because shortly after, a stream of black specks comes hurtling out into the sky. The stream loops and spirals in the air. As it stretches into the distance, I follow it, hoping to see where they are going. But they fly further than my eyes can see, and soon enough the first bats are out of my reach. All the while, more of them continue to stream out of the cave. Never letting up, never slowing down.
“How many bats are there?” someone asks.
“Oh, not so many. Only 1 million,” Pow answers. I laugh, because to me these bats seem limitless.
We watch as the sun dips lower and lower. The bats continue to flutter and Pow continues to talk. He tells us about the most important things in life, according to him (education, travel and friends). He tells us about the places he wants to travel to.
“I don’t stay [live] in Battambang,” he says. “Only work. But one day I will go to more places than only Battambang.”
“Where do you stay [live]?” I ask him.
“I stay everywhere in the world. I stay in your heart.”
I think about how to me, Cambodia seems to have become one long poem, carefully crafted by its people that I have met. I decide this is a time to listen, so I take another sip of beer and let Pow speak on.
In the end, Pow takes us back to the hostel where we say goodbye to George and Elliott. A private (and expensive – $50 if I remember correctly) taxi takes Lesley and I back to Siem Reap. I have seriously exceeded my daily budget, but as I sit in the darkened car, exhausted from the sun and full of new stories, I know it was worth it. We ride with a driver, a woman and child in the front seat and us in the back. When we pick up another passenger, rather than placing him in the back seat with us, he shares the driver’s seat with the driver. And so ends my last day in the incomparable Cambodia.