Having skipped the opportunity to eat a bag of crickets, we headed away from Siem Reap to Battambang, the second-largest city in Cambodia by population – though you’d never believe it. With a tiny city centre and a few short roads either side, it feels more like a small town than a city; despite its #2 ranking its population is still less than 140,000. Even that seems too high of a number – it’s a quiet, sleepy sort of city, though not without its historic importance.
One thing that will come up a lot when you Google ‘Things To See In Cambodia’ is, unfortunately, the word ‘genocide’. The vicious Khmer Rouge takeover of the country in 1975 resulted in almost a quarter of the country’s population either being executed or dying from famine and disease, so it’s understandable that a great deal of the country‘s modern heritage would feature places like Battambang’s Killing Fields, Killing Cave and Torture Museum. You’d be hard-pressed to find a funny spin on such destinations, but it’s a hugely important aspect of the country to absorb.
A memorial stands just outside the city, containing hundreds of actual skulls of the victims and adorned with carvings depicting the horrors inflicted upon them. Outside the memorial is a booth with one incredibly friendly guard who lived through the experience himself, asking for a tiny donation (a few thousand riel, or less than a dollar) for the upkeep of the shrine. It’s hard to walk away smiling, but it’s a part of history I wasn’t ever taught in school. Chalk it up to a failing on the part of the British education system.
It’s not all historical horrors in Battambang, however. Hop on your trusty scooter (or ever-available tuk-tuk) and head either north or south from the city to visit its own ancient sites, Ek Phnom and Phnom Banan; we headed to the latter, nipping along smooth, tree-lined country lanes and returning the enthusiastic greetings from children on the roadside.
The path up to Phnom Banan starts as a serene, tree-canopied stone square with a small flight of steps – which quickly arches up into a aggressively steep incline of rough-hewn stairs bordered with dragon-head banisters. By the time you reach the top you’re heaving and cursing under your breath, but the small ruins is worth the climb. Sitting in a cloud of incense fumes, the temple has panoramic views of the countryside and multiple prayer sites; visitors don’t need to be hushed by caretakers as the tranquil atmosphere seems to create itself, with visitors stepping quietly over fallen statues and worn-smooth steps.
The main event of Battambang for us was the mountain containing the Killing Cave, Pkar Slar Cave and the mountaintop temple Phnom Sampov, as well as the Bat Cave – a huge scar in the side of the mountain, from which thousands upon thousands of bats pour out every evening at 5:30, more or less on the dot. Pull up a plastic chair, buy a cheap beer and marvel at superhero origin stories as the sky is filled with the chittering of crazily-flapping creatures.
We were too late for the Killing Cave in the end, though that didn’t stop the security guard amiably pointing us the way even an hour after closing time. It was starting to get dark and the power had already been switched off, so when we found ourselves at the bottom of a ravine famed for its horrific executions, in the dark, surrounded by piles of human skulls, we thought better of becoming a viral internet mystery and left rather than wander deeper underground with nothing more than a low-battery iPhone torch.
The rest of the evening was uneventful, save for a slightly-near-death motorcycle crash skinning both our left legs a little bit (sorry, respective parents, you told us so). Roundabouts in Asia can be perilous at best, so when an articulated truck cuts you off and sends you braking onto wet gravel, there’s only so much that can be done. Lesson learned and shared: big trucks are not your friend, avoid them before they try to make friends with you.
Bandaged and sore, but otherwise alive, we hobble our bags onto the waiting tuk-tuk for the bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. I bagsy the front passenger seat and absolutely play up the injury for attention, but I suspect I’m just another backpacker with a leg-bandage now. Way to enforce the stereotype, me.