Just a note : I’ll add photos and videos to the page in the next few days. I have a bit of time back in Bangkok to care of that. I’ll also add to and improve text; I’m a wee bit squeezed for time today and have not got this anywhere near the state I want it, sorry.
The journey here
A minibus, booked on 12go.asia, took me from Bangkok all the way to Battambang in Cambodia. As we set off from their office a few minutes from my hotel I thought there were only going to be three of us on the bus. However we stopped in new Bangkok and filled the remaining spaces. I was the only westerner.
The drive through Thailand was uneventful with a stop at a service area a couple of hours into the trip. The same family who only organised themselves to get out of the minibus after it stopped were also, unsurprisingly, to be the same ones that were late back.
The border crossing was pretty slick. We were dropped off at a wee office just before the border. The three of us who started together were the only ones going to Battambang, the others going elsewhere in Cambodia. Everyone else’s luggage came off, whilst ours stayed on. We would rejoin the van on the other side. We were given destination badges to hang round our necks and a photo of the group of three taken.
First off was a walk through a set of offices to get stamped out of Thailand. Then out of those offices and a 50 m walk to the Cambodian side. Up and into the foreigners’ office we were met by an agent who had pre-filled our immigration cards. A quick check of passports & visas, and we entered a short queue to get stamped in. Less than 10 minutes later I was in Cambodia. 100 yard walk and we found the van.
We drove off without a chance to change cash or pickup a SIM. I only needed the latter and could do that in Battambang.
The initial drive through Cambodia was slow given it was a two lane road, some of the very slow traffic and the limited passing opportunities. However it eventually freed up and once we hit the road between Siem Reap we were on a dual carriageway. This was not the Cambodia I knew from 20 years before. Back then if a river route ran parallel to the road you took the boat rather than the bus because it was smoother and faster. In those days needing to drive around the pot-holes made roads very slow and rough. Now we were cruising on a smooth dual carriageway.
Finally we were in Battambang. Annoyingly the driver drove past the declared drop-off point as he was going to drop the other two passengers first, then came back to the place we had passed 10–15 mins earlier.
The whole journey was about 7–8 hours in total and cost me just under £30.
Battambang is a city in Cambodia that I had never visited before and has recently been designated by UNESCO as a creative city of gastronomy; it therefore appealed to me when I sketched out this trip.
The Lonely Planet maintained that it was a place visitors loved with a faded colonial charm. That charm is not immediately apparent. It does however have a compact and walkable centre, a couple of cookery schools, some visitor friendly, local cuisine restaurants and a few things worth seeing nearby.
There are two cookery schools in Battambang, within 3 doors of each other on the same small street. As my initial accommodation in the town was at the back of one of them that is the course I did first.
Starting with a quick market tour given by a nephew the cooking course itself is given by the owner Toot. The menu for the course is fixed :
- Fried vegetable spring rolls : with a seasoned filling of taro and carrot
- Fish amok : a local steamed curry, cooked in a dish you make from a banana lead, made using a paste you create yourself
- Beef lok lak : a local hot salad made from marinaded and fried beef served over a tomato, onion and lettuce salad. It is also served with a sour & pepper dipping or pour over sauce.
- A banana a tapioca dessert.
The two key dishes here are the fish amok which is a lovely delicately flavoured curry and the beef lok lak which contrasts the savoury, richly flavoured beef with the fresh salad. Both are dishes I look forward to making again.
I improved my technique for rolling spring rolls but I prefer a fresher, more crunchy filling than taro. Taro is a bland, starchy vegetable I first came across in Samoa and always regard as a last resort if you need calories and can’t be fussy about any flavour or texture. The technique shown here for preparing the filling is to mix it aggressively with your hands, further reducing the texture of the filling.
I’d never have picked anything to do with tapioca and this just confirmed that for me that is still the same judgement to make.
It’s all good. I’ve found two lovely new dishes to make and refined my spring roll skills. It’s been a good afternoon. Unfortunately I was so caught up in the cooking I didn’t take many photos.
Coconut Lyly Cooking School
A couple of days later I took the course at the other school, run by chef Lyly and his wife. The market tour was given by Mr Lyly and then, as it was a morning course, the cookery lesson was given by his wife. It’s very much a business run by all in this young family. I was doing the course with a German lady and we could pick our menu.
- Vegetable spring rolls : with pork is more common but runs the risk of being undercooked in the class, still taro and carrot
- Green mango salad : similar to Som Tam, the green papaya salad
- Fish amok : the local speciality
- Coconut Lyly : a gelatine set dessert of coconut milk and vanilla
My spring roll rolling technique is pretty good by this point and the less heavily crushed filling has a bit more texture on eating. The dressing for the salad is used as the dipping sauce and is more interesting than plain sweet chilli sauce.
The green mango salad is fresh and has a dressing that uses sweet chilli as an ingredient. It’s a lovely dish but I prefer the sharper Som Tam.
The fish amok is lovely. I added a little extra chopped chilli this time to just give it a little heat. After some fiddling I can make a banana leaf dish, but craft work isn’t my forte, It’s definitely a dish I’ll do at home, though using small dishes rather than banana leaves to steam it in. One ingredient I’ll need to see if I can find is Chinese ginger or finger ginger. I don’t know if it’s available in the UK as I’ve never looked for it. All other ingredients are ones I know I can get. Cambodian fish sauce is at the strong, pungent end of the scale.
The previous course had all savoury dishes seasoned with bouillon. Today’s were all will Knorr chicken stock power, though Mrs Lyly noted that their own cooking tended to use MSG. They switched the course to stock given the unpopularity of MSG in the west. I’ll need to experiment with both.
The dessert got slightly over chilled so it was a lovely delicate ice cream.
It was a fun morning with lovely hosts / teachers. If you pick one cooking course to do in Battambang the Coconut Lyly course is the one to choose.
Touring the sights near Battambang
There were plenty of pre-packaged tours in the area but all seemed to bundle in fake touristy stuff along with the things really worth seeing. I had a WhatsApp of a local remorque (motorbike towing a trailer) driver, Panhasin, and arranged with him to see just the bits I wanted.
Note : add in video of driving along road
Wat Ek Phnom
To the north of the town via some roads that run through local villages is this 11th century ruined temple. Built before Angkor Wat you can see the similarities in style. Adjacent you now find a more modern Buddhist Pagoda and a giant statue of the Buddha. The statue is to be surrounded by smaller figures, though this is still a work in progress, limited by funding.
Note : add flyover video
In the south of this city is a wooden house maintained as a museum by the owners, descendents of the original owners. Built in 1920, by an army commander, it uses three specific local woods for different parts of its construction. The rooms inside don’t have ceilings, giving rooms with a lot of height up to the inside of the roof. This height draws away the warm air keeping the inside remarkably cool. The whole house is on stilts giving a working and storage area underneath. There is a kitchen at the back without a specific roof or chimney; I don’t know how they managed the fire risk but a large water butt was nearby.
The house passed on to two of the commander’s daughters but then under the Khmer Rouge much of the extended family was killed, the rest exiled. After the Rouge were forced from power one of the daughters returned to claim the house, expecting many of the survivors of the wider family to join her. They never did. She only recently passed away at the age of 85, though still suffered phycological effects from the years of terror. The house is now owned by the 3rd generation of the family.
Bat cave, killing cave, ~15 km SW
About 15 km to the south-west of Battambang is a cave that is home to some bats; about 15 million of them. And around sunset they exit the cave in a continuous stream to go visit their feeding grounds over the Tonlé Sap lake.
Although the roads on the way there are reasonable it’s an unsettled ride in a moto without suspension. Nearby the bat caves are a couple of other caves that tourists are guided towards : the Killing Cave and Pkar Slar Cave. Both are up the same steep road that forks about half way up. Until my second day in Battambang temperatures had been in the mid 30’s. They had just dropped to the mid – high 20’s the day before I came to the caves.
I headed up the road to the Killing Cave. This is where the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned to death up to 10,000 people, pushing the remains into the cave from above. You can enter from the side and head down. The bottom of the cave now contains a Buddhist memorial and a reclining Buddha. There are a few remaining bones in a cage to memorise what happened here.
It was still hot getting here so I didn’t push on up to Pkar Slar Cave. I took the time to read up on the Khmer Rouge and how they came to power.
Phare Ponleu Selpak
In the west of Battambang is a performing arts school and the home of the Phare circus. A tour of the school is available weekdays, but I lost track of the days and missed my chance. The circus puts on a show about once every two nights and I had a ticket for the last night I was in Battambang.
The show, “Rouge”, is about the Khmer Rouge. It could have been a disheartening piece, but it wasn’t. Yes there was some clear imagery of violent suppression, but the talent of the acrobats and musicians kept you entertained, not overwhelmed. All the performers and ushers were students, all of them with a genuine smile (when appropriate).
Cambodia needs to grow things, make things and provide each other services. But it also needs its own arts scene. No external arts, no Breaking Bad however good it is, no Oscar winning Hollywood film, will help Cambodia come to terms with its recent past. Its own arts might. I hope that these students become a part of that.
However there was a small art exhibition needs the entrance to the site, displaying drawings and paintings of the students. They were all for sale. But they were all of Angkor style ruins. All about the remains of 800-year-old history, not about 50-year-old history. I suppose it’s what sells, but it doesn’t reflect the elephant that is in the room any time you converse with someone directly affected by those events.
Over a beer in the rooftop bar at The Place hostel I met Mike Hamilton. Having started travelling about a decade ago he has spent 2/3 of the time since on the road. That travel has covered all sorts of places and modes, including the over-landing type that I have been interested in for part of my next big trip. With the time he has made available Mike is in no hurry, if a place is appealing he will linger there, not rushing off to the next site like the majority of travellers. Our conversation went on till almost 11 pm by when Battambang has almost totally closed down and when I wondered for a moment if I was locked out of the hotel. Meeting fellow travellers like Mike is one of my favourite aspects of the traveller scene; listening to stories of places you have not yet been and things you have not yet done. Swapping tales and advice you always come away with new inspirations.