Mongolia!
Mongolia!
Are those donuts?
Are those donuts?

We decided to only make two major stops in Cambodia since our visit was a mere ten days in length. Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city at 140,000 was our second destination. The city has some nice colonial buildings but the main attractions lie a short tuktuk ride outside of town.

The fastest way to Battambang from Siem Reap is to take the bus. A more interesting but slower and more expensive way of making the trip is by boat. The trip started with a van transfer from our guesthouse in Siem Reap to the boat docks on the shore of Tonlé Sap Lake. I think this part of the trip is usually pretty fast but we had to forge some pretty deep door-seal-testing flood waters along the way. Ironically, the flood waters also cut our boat journey short at the other end of the trip as our boat was unable to pass under some of the bridges near Battambang.

At some point on the river, we broke down. I think this is par for the course on this ride; the guidebooks warn about it. This time one of the steering cables broke but our crew fashioned a splice out of a pair of knock-off vice grips. The breakdown was actually nice because for once we could enjoy the peace and quiet of the river. Best I could tell, our boat had a very minimal exhaust system – straight pipes seem likely. All I know is that it was really loud whenever the engine was running!

Eventually we entered the delta of the Stung Sangker river and passed a number of floating villages. They are quite a remarkable sight. Pretty much everything: houses, gas stations, stores and schools are floating. Some of the houses even had floating pigpens and chicken coups. The only permanent structures I could spot were the numerous cellular phone towers anchored to cement pylons.

Once we arrived in Battambang we tuktuked into town (an extra 8 kilometers thanks to the flooding) and found a nice room at the Lux Guesthouse for $18 per night. Surprisingly enough, we heard that Battambang had some good vegetarian restaurants. Starving from the boat ride we immediately went and checked one of them out (Mercy House).  Faux meat dishes aplenty on the menu and those proved to be one of my favorite things to eat during our three night stay in Battambang. Lunch or dinner for two people came to $5 on average. Great food at a cheap price.

Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring

The big thing to do when visiting Battambang is a tuktuk tour of the surrounding countryside. The tuktuk driver who picked us up at the boat seemed like a nice guy but despite emailing and calling I couldn’t reach him to scheduled a tour. Instead, we ended up with one of the guys who works for our guesthouse.

When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.

One of the first stops on our day tour was the bamboo train. Although there are plans to revitalize it, the Cambodia railroad system is currently defunct. This hasn’t stopped the locals from continuing to make use of the tracks. Makeshift bamboo carts with small engines are used to transport people, goods and tourist along the tracks in this part of the country. The carts are easy to disassemble so anytime another “train” is encountered the one with the lighter load must yield the way. Apparently these were also used when real trains were plying the tracks!

We blasted a few kilometers down the tracks at what felt like a very high rate of speed. The train tends to scare the insects living in the grass around the rails so you are constantly pelted with grasshoppers and the like along the way. Amy wasn’t too fond of this!

The steps leading to Phnom Banan
The steps leading to Phnom Banan

Next we drove to Phnom Banan, a temple perched nicely on a hill surrounded in pancake-flat brilliantly green rice fields. From the dropoff point it is a 358-step climb to the temple which was a good way to work up a sweat in the Cambodian heat.

The final stop of the tour was at the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau. The Khmer Rogue dumped hundreds of bodies in these caves and nowadays the site has been converted into a memorial. After the climb to Phnom Banan we weren’t too keen on climbing another mountain so we hopped on the back of a couple of motorcycles.

I spent quite some time chatting with one of the motorcycle drivers. He was a young kid, maybe in his late teens and his goal was to become a tuktuk driver like the one who was showing us around that day. He explained that it is a very highly paying job – they earn approximately $15 for a day tour. They usually spend one day searching for a customer and then spend the next touring with them; at least that is the way it can be in high season. It doesn’t sound like much money but in Cambodia it is way above the average.

He told me that he had to leave school prematurely in order to help his parents run their restaurant near the killing caves. He takes tourists up the mountains as a side job to help support the family and to save for a tuktuk. What struck me about this guy was his mastery of English – much better than most Cambodians we met during our visit. I complimented him on it and we left him a nice tip for showing us around the caves. I really hope things work out for him.

On our third morning in Battambang we rose early and schlepped our bags over to the bus station to catch a Bangkok-bound bus. Actually, there was no direct bus to Bangkok but we didn’t know that until we were dumped in some obscure town along the road to Poipet. Watching the morning “rush hour” while we waited for our second bus of the day was good entertainment.

A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.

At the border things moved very smoothly for us but some of our fellow backpackers apparently had issues leaving Cambodia. Something about their entry visas not being legit – shocking. I think we were waiting on the Thai side of the border for a good hour before they found their way to the minivan.  Then we had to wait longer for them to get food because they were starving.  Classic.  In retrospect, we should have just bought a bus ticket to the border and then a second ticket from the border to Bangkok. Less wait and less hassle!

Spicy green papaya salad
Spicy green papaya salad

We had no idea if it would be problematic to get out of Cambodia so we had padded our schedule with an extra day. This left us time to gorge ourselves on more Thai food and run an important errand: buying winter clothing. Next stop, Mongolia.

Battambang, Cambodia
Floating gas station
Floating gas station
A floating flood vendor
A floating flood vendor
Sunset with a thunderstorm
Sunset with a thunderstorm
Battambang's central market
Battambang’s central market
Three kids on a bike in a torrential rainstorm.
Three kids on a bike in a torrential rainstorm.
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Are those donuts?
Are those donuts?
Riding the bamboo train
Riding the bamboo train
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
I hope this bridge had a few more wooden ties back when real trains came through.
I hope this bridge had a few more wooden ties back when real trains came through.
Bamboo lever is used to slide the engine and make the belt taught.
Bamboo lever is used to slide the engine and make the belt taught.
Cane juice! One of my favorites.
Cane juice! One of my favorites.
The steps leading to Phnom Banan
The steps leading to Phnom Banan
A good reason to stay on the path.
A good reason to stay on the path.
One of the killing caves where the Khmer Rouge disposed of countless people.
One of the killing caves where the Khmer Rouge disposed of countless people.
Checking out some abandoned German and Russian built tanks.
Checking out some abandoned German and Russian built tanks.
Cambodian gas station (soda bottles filled with gas)
Cambodian gas station (soda bottles filled with gas)
Old Pepsi factory that wa abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over.  Oddly, the lawn is still maintained.
Old Pepsi factory that wa abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over. Oddly, the lawn is still maintained.
Chicken is always on the menu in SE Asia
Chicken is always on the menu in SE Asia
The horse quite nearly took to the air as the trailer was loaded. I'm glad this guy isn't loading cargo into the jumbos at BKK.
The horse quite nearly took to the air as the trailer was loaded. I’m glad this guy isn’t loading cargo into the jumbos at BKK.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
Thailand has some great vegetarian options
Thailand has some great vegetarian options
Sweet dessert made of sticky rice, coconut milk and sweet beans.
Sweet dessert made of sticky rice, coconut milk and sweet beans.
Spicy green papaya salad
Spicy green papaya salad

Thai Airways took us from Colombo to Bangkok on their way-too-short 3 hour red-eye – certainly a terrible night of sleep. We stayed in Bangkok for two nights to enjoy some of the food but our intended destination was actually the ruins of Angkor near Siem Reap, Cambodia. The most direct land route to Siem Reap is through the border crossing at Poipet. Citizens of most countries must obtain a visa to enter Cambodia and while this can be done in advance, we opted to do it right at the border.

The border crossing at Poipet has a pretty bad reputation in terms of corrupt officials and transportation scams but if you read up on it in advance it really isn’t that bad. We had one tuk tuk driver try to take us to a visa agency that likely would have overcharged for the visas. After we were past the Thai side of the border we found the official Cambodian visa office. There is a large sign hanging in the office that plainly states “Tourist Visa $20″ but this wasn’t enough to deter the official, who was standing right below it, from telling us that the visa would be $20 and 100 Thai baht (about 3USD). We chuckled at his request and handed over $20 per person – our passports were given back a few minutes later. Visas in hand, we passed through immigration and into the hands of a transportation mafia that gets $9 for the 2 hour bus ride to Siem Reap – horrendously expensive by local standards but it was a decent enough bus. In reality, the transportation mafia gets $9 to take you not to Siem Reap but rather a place a few miles short of town where the tuk tuk drivers pick the crowd over like vultures.

Nice digs on the cheap in Siem Reap
Nice digs on the cheap in Siem Reap

Safely in Siem Reap, we started planning out our visit to the enormous Angkor ruins. The planning process is quite intimidating since there seem to be as many opinions on itineraries as there are stones in the temples. We settled on a three-day approach. On the first, we hired a Cambodian tuk tuk driver to take us to some of the more remote attractions. On the second and third days we borrowed bikes from our guesthouse and hit the closer sights.

I’m not going to babble on and on about the history of all the temples because, honestly, I can’t remember most of it. What I can say is that they are all quite old (800AD – 1400AD) and are in various states of being consumed by the jungle. Many are being actively maintained and refurbished (like Angkor Wat itself) but others are left as is. The ones with jumbles of rocks all over the place and trees growing out of them have an eerie atmosphere about them.

Bike riding on the second and third days was hard work. The weather was hot and humid, just as one would expect in Cambodia, but at least the terrain is flat and traffic was minimal. The one bit of excitement was seeing something green fall from above onto the back of my bike. I saw it just from the corner of my eye and thought it was a tree branch. Amy, who was riding just behind me, pointed out that it was a bright green snake!

My favorite temple at Angkor was Bayon. It is well-known because of the dozens of giant stone faces that decorate its towers. The 12th century temple also has a huge variety of meticulously carved reliefs that show different historic events and scenes from everyday life. I also noticed a labyrinth of hallways and tunnels in the lower levels that left me wishing that I had brought my flashlight.

The biggest nuisance we faced while visiting Siem Reap was flooding. Not only did it prevent us from visiting one of the main temple complexes (Ta Phrom) it greatly limited what we could do in town. The old section of Siem Reap is right next to the river and many blocks of it were under water – sadly, this was the same area of town where most of the restaurants and nightlife are to be found. Amy and I did manage to find a cheap local vegetarian place which was outside of town but even going there required peddling through knee-deep water on our bikes. What a mess.

All in all, we enjoyed Angkor and Siem Reap but we certainly found ourselves “templed out” after three days of touring. The ruins are unquestionably impressive but just about any metric and I can definitely see where someone with a keen interest in ancient civilizations could spend a week visiting.

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
Nice digs on the cheap in Siem Reap
Nice digs on the cheap in Siem Reap
Vegetarian noodle soup at Vitking House
Vegetarian noodle soup at Vitking House
Just another day trimming the weeds off an ancient temple
Just another day trimming the weeds off an ancient temple
Crowded streets of Siem Reap
Crowded streets of Siem Reap
Climbing Angkor Wat, note the slight repairs needed on my camera bag.
Climbing Angkor Wat, note the slight repairs needed on my camera bag.

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