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His Take: Discover the Bat Caves and the Bamboo Train in Battambang, Cambodia

For a sleepy little place with not a whole lot going on, Battambang was surprisingly one of my highlights from Southeast Asia thus far. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, and therefor it was almost inevitable that my expectations would be exceeded, but I’d like to think that it had more to do with the fact that Battambang is kind of a kick-ass off the beaten path type pit stop.

The town itself is truly like nowhere that I’ve ever been before. Upon arriving at the bus station, Jamie and I were basically trampled by tuk-tuk drivers holding up signs for various accommodations and shouting “YOU NEED TUK-TUK” repeatedly, until we actually saw someone holding a sign for our hostel and let him whisk us away from the madness. The scene at the bus station was absolute chaos, but it was also the most people we saw in one place at any given time throughout our entire stay.

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The Bamboo Train

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Battambang

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Village at the end of the Bamboo Train

jaan bai restaurant

Crab at Jaan Bai Restaurant

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Battambang was truly like no other city that I have ever been to. The streets were dusty but bustling in a small town kind of way and everyone seemed to know each other. One of the most popular restaurants along the main drag was called The White Rose and served coconut milkshakes mixed with ovaltine as well as fruit smoothies. The interior was reminiscent of something you’d expect to see in an American diner from the 1950’s, but yet at the same time, was quintessentially Asian. Next door was one of my favorite restaurants that we’ve visited in Southeast Asia, The Noodle Man. This guy made his noodles from scratch every day (as well as dumpling shells) and from the outside, The Noodle Man looks like the kind of place that will have you sitting on the can for a week straight. If I were in North America or Europe, there would be no way in hell I would’ve touched it with a ten foot pole. Luckily, that’s not where we are and therefore we sat down and thoroughly enjoyed some of the tastiest noodle dishes and dumplings that I’ve ever had.

Battambang was truly like no other city that I have ever been to. The streets were dusty but bustling in a small town kind of way and everyone seemed to know each other. One of the most popular restaurants along the main drag was called The White Rose and served coconut milkshakes mixed with ovaltine as well as fruit smoothies. The interior was reminiscent of something you’d expect to see in an American diner from the 1950’s, but yet at the same time, was quintessentially Asian. Next door was one of my favorite restaurants that we’ve visited in Southeast Asia, The Noodle Man. This guy made his noodles from scratch every day (as well as dumpling shells) and from the outside, The Noodle Man looks like the kind of place that will have you sitting on the can for a week straight. If I were in North America or Europe, there would be no way in hell I would’ve touched it with a ten foot pole. Luckily, that’s not where we are and therefore we sat down and thoroughly enjoyed some of the tastiest noodle dishes and dumplings that I’ve ever had.

On the topic of food, Jamie and managed to stumble across an absolute gem called Jaan Bai Restaurant  – which when translated means “rice bowl restaurant” due to the fact that Battambang is located in Cambodia’s largest rice producing area. The restaurant works in direct association with the Cambodia Children’s Trust and all profits that are made at Jaan Bai go directly to this charity which aids local Cambodian families. In addition, the restaurant is successfully hiring and training local Cambodian people to work in both front of house and the kitchen, thus giving them the skills to successfully navigate the hospitality and food industry while bringing home a decent income. I’m not talking about just training them with a few tips here and there. The head chef, who is a local Cambodian woman, has been given the opportunity to travel and train with world renowned chefs such as David Thompson who runs Nahm, a michelin star restaurant that was recently ranked as one of the world’s 50 best restaurants. Not a bad gig. While eating at Jaan Bai is rewarding knowing that every dollar you spend in this restaurant is giving back to the local community, you can rest assured that it will also be an absolutely incredible meal. The pad thai and pulled pork sliders are crazy good, but the Kampot crab is without a doubt the best I’ve ever had. Jamie and I absolutely loved this place, and coudn’t get enough of their feel good story… so, we managed to interview a few of the people who work at Jaan Bai to give you a bit more background. Stay tuned for the final video!

Now, food aside, Battambang has got some seriously fun (and seriously sinister) attractions on its outskirts that can all be done in about one day. We managed to snag a tuk-tuk driver for about $12 who hauled us around for the day. First of all, he recommended that we hit up the Bamboo Train. From the description of it in our lonely planet book, it sounded extremely touristy and thus something we were more than tempted to skip. We relayed this to our tuk-tuk driver, but he insisted that we see it. I’m thrilled he did, because it was a blast. Essentially, for $5 each you’re propelled along an old French colonial rail line by what looks to be a motorboat engine hinged to the back of some bamboo sticks that have been tied together and placed on a couple of axels. As shady as it looks, it’s quite sturdy and actually gets going pretty quickly – probably hits a max of about 60-70 km/hr. It’s not like you’re driving on the autobahn or anything, but for a little platform made out of bamboo I don’t think you’d want to go much faster. The trip takes you through the Cambodian country side and stops at a little village where some local kids jump out and half try to sell you stuff, half want to play with you. There’s also a brick factory (essentially a pile of clay, a couple of chimneys, and thousands of brick stacks) that you can wander around, if you’re so interested. The whole experience is one that you have to do in order to appreciate.

The latter half of the day was dedicated to the bat cave. Every day between 5:30-6:00pm, an estimated 5 million bats exit their cave and fly in search of food. At first Jamie and I were skeptical of the cave actually containing 5 million bats, as it looks like an average sized cave from the outside not really capable of holding 5 million of anything. But I’ll be damned if we didn’t stand there for at least 20 minutes watching a steady stream of bats continuously flooding out of their home. It was like witnessing an episode of Planet Earth in person. Although, the soothing voice of David Attenborough is a bit different from dozens of local tuk-tuk drivers banging on the sides of their little taxis amidst histerical laughter, so as to screw with the direction that the bats decide to fly as they cannot see, but rely on sonar to navigate. Just before the cave completely emptied our tuk-tuk driver hurried us in to the back of his cab and drove us away. I was a bit dissapointed as I would have liked to have seen the bats completely leave the cave, but was quick to appreciate why we had left early. About 5 minutes down the road and just visible amidst the fleeting daylight was an incredible view of a black cloud of bats a few kilometers in the distance, and all forming a steady stream that began at the cave.

All in all, our visit in Battambang was one that Jamie and I won’t soon forget. Although many people choose to stick strictly to Phnom Penh and the temples of Angkor Wat just outside of Siem Reap, or maybe venturing down to the beach town of Sihanoukville in the south, we would both highly recommend a pit stop in Battambang for at least a couple of days. We didn’t meet a single traveler in Battambang that didn’t enjoy it just as much as the two of us.

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