After my adventures in and around Siem Reap I only had a few more days left on my visa to explore Cambodia. I had been planning to enter Thailand via the Aranyprathet/Poipet border, so a stop in Battambang seemed natural. Aside from my original plan I encountered many travelers along the way who had nothing but good things to say about the city, so I made sure not to miss it. Upon my arrival, I found the city to be quaint but without the charm of Kampot. I made a last minute booking at Chhaya hotel, mostly just because they would pick me up from the bus station. My tuk-tuk driver started immediately with his sales as he whipped out his book of tours he operates, but I must say he did so with some tact, I was not in the least bit annoyed. I wasn't going to join any but when he mentioned he was taking a Swiss man to the bat cave that night I decided to join.
The afternoon was enjoyable and left me feeling somewhat productive about my day, at least I didn't waste the whole thing in my room or wandering around town aimlessly. I was impressed that literally thousands if not tens of thousands of bats comes out of this cave every night. Also as a bonus you get to visit Phnom Sampeu which is home to a Buddhist stupa and the famous Killing Cave. It was interesting to see but a little disturbing as a young boy (maybe 10) walked us around the area telling us about the thousands of people killed there.
I took my second day in the city easy, aside from the morning run anyway, did some blogging and sampled a few coffee shop/restaurants in town. On my third day I decided to give Butterfly Tours a try. I actually wouldn't have went on this tour if it weren't for the couple I met while volunteering in Siem Reap, who had nothing but positive things to say about it. The company is run by a group of determined and hard working university students; Moth Pheap (Sopheap) being the brains behind the operation, a really inspirational young man. I was picked up from my hotel bright and early at 7:30am and driven out to their office, which is a good 15 minute ride outside of town. Sopheap greeted me with a big friendly smile, had me fill out my registration form and we chatted a little while waiting for our second tour guide, Sopeou. I guess I was lucky because it was only me and one other girl for the tour so we had a very personalized tour and loads of conversation opportunities with our tour guides.
After riding for about a half hour we came to our first stop which was rice paper making. I always wondered why this type of rice paper had a grid on it, but wonder now more, this tour answered my question. We watched as the women worked, one pouring the rice mixture out to shape it and then the other rolling the wrappers out to dry. I couldn't imagine doing this work all day, but the women continued with smiles on their faces, telling us about earning money to feed their families. It's crazy how easily you can forget about where your food comes from and all of the work involved to create things that you eat in seconds. Speaking of eating, after we watched the women working we cycled a little further down the road and ate some amazingly fresh and delicious spring rolls.
Once we were full we were back on our bikes and headed towards stop two, dried banana making, which was an equally as repetitive and boring looking job. My favorite part of this stop was the old man who stood by watching us, with an amazing smiles plastered to his face. We took a few pictures of him which made him shy but thankfully he didn't run away, I think he secretly liked it. This stop especially made me appreciate the hard work that goes into making dried bananas because I love those things. Although I'm pretty sure if I had to sit and cut bananas into thin layers all day I wouldn't love them quite as much.
It was really cool to have Sopheap and Sopeou as our tour guides because they were able to explain what it's really like to live in the country, having come from that setting themselves. Not only were they informational but they were the friendliest guys, super easy to talk to and a lot of fun to be around.
Next we made our way to a small market area on the other side of the river, but only after a short stop on the bridge to watch some boys play in the water. We stopped at a truck filled with watermelons, little tiny watermelons, which we ate loads of. This wasn't technically part of the tour, but since there were only two of us the day was flexible. The real stop was to learn how rice noodles are made and of course eat. It appeared as though the noodle making was finished for the day but Sopheap jumped in to explain the process for us. To be honest I don't remember it all in detail; I think we were too busy taking pictures of him. We sat with the locals eating fresh, handmade noodle soup, which I must say wasn't my favorite but I enjoyed the ambiance none the less.
It was about this point that I told Sopheap he should tweak the name of the tour from 'Countryside Tour' to include the word food because it felt like all we had been doing was eating along the way. At least we were doing some biking to balance it all out though, right? With full bellies we walked across the road and down the lane a bit to the home of an old man and his daughter who are in the rice wine making business. This is once again a process that I completely underestimated the difficulty of; there's so many steps involved that I never would have thought of had I not seen it myself. Rice is dried, boiled, fermented, mixed with yeast, left to rise, distilled and probably some other steps that i'm forgetting, not to mention those being out of order. We did get a small sample and it reminded me much of Soju, but warm and not in the least bit delicious.
Now that we were substantially full of food it was time for us to head home, but the tour was not over. WE knew when we were getting close to our next destination because you could smell it. Along the side of the river we made a brief stop at a fish paste making 'factory', thankfully no eating included. The first thing to greet us as we parked our bikes were the rows upon rows of fish heads lying in the sun to dry.
We walked further into the building and that's where the smell really hit you in the face, or maybe the olfactory. The entire area was filled with large containers of fish soaked in salt water, left to get nice and smelly. Now this is a job I would not want and I was shocked as we walked through and I saw two girls sitting on the wet, fishy floor, cutting apart fish. Shouldn't they be at school, or outside playing?? were my only thoughts. We only stayed long enough for Sopheap to explain the process and for us to capture a few pictures but then it was time to move on, to something more delicious, yes more food.
We were running behind schedule (I guess we were talking too much), but we still managed to squeeze in a stop at the fruit stall for some fresh coconut juice. That's the luxury of going with these boys though, not only did they talk too much causing us to be behind schedule but they still allowed us to do everything. The coconut juice was good but what was even better were the mystery fruits that I still can't find the English name for (Maprang according to that website). It's a good thing that none of us had plans for the afternoon because we clearly were not in a hurry to go anywhere. Seriously, once you sit down in one of those hammocks it's hard to move, Sopheap especially.
I really thought the tour would end here but there was still one more stop to be had, and I'm so glad we didn't miss this one. Although I was not in the least bit hungry I managed to squeeze in a taste of the delicious sticky rice as we watched it being made, street-side. It was meant to be a short stop, seeing as we were already behind schedule, but there were hammocks. Once I saw Sopheap fall into one of those I knew we weren't going anywhere anytime soon.
Eventually we did get up and back onto our bicycles for one last stop. The end of the tour led us to a killing field and stupa memorial site, one of many that are spread throughout the country. I had previously been to the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh along with a few other locations, but the information Sopeau gave us at this one was the most impressionable. No matter how many killing fields I visit, books I read, movies I see or stories I hear I don't think I'll ever be able to come to terms with what happened in this country. The history in Cambodia is much deeper than many people imagine and what amazes me most is the positive outlook that most of the country holds today. Roughly 2 million people were killed during the rule of the Khmer Regime and that brutal part in this history only ended roughly 40 years ago. That means that many people living today were somehow connected to this tragedy, which amazes me.
Enough with the sad news though, this post is about the good times I had in Battambang thanks to the boys of Butterfly Tours. I seriously hate the word tour and usually go running in the opposite direction of anything associated with the word, but I'm glad I gave this one a try. The students running it are clearly some good businessmen whom have great entrepreneurial skills. Even while we were on the tour they were talking business, making plans for a competition the government was hosting to create a new business. I have no doubts this business will continue to grow and prosper, and I highly recommend checking them out if you ever find yourselves in Battambang.
Only recently has this country shown up on the SE Asia tourist route. With a dark, harrowing past it's amazing to see the smiles spread across the locals faces. I've met travelers with mixed impressions, but if you're lucky enough to connect with a few locals I'm confident you'll fall in love.