I didn’t arrive in Battambang in the best of spirits.
I was on Day 2 of the worst attack of bedbugs I’d ever had, thanks to the hostel I had stayed in my first couple of nights in Siem Reap. The weather was suffocatingly hot and humid, which is the worst weather to be in when you’re covered in painfully itchy bug bites. I had to sort out getting all of my clothing and bags professionally cleaned and treated, in case I had picked up any hitchhiking bugs that wanted to plague the rest of my travels. And I was tired from sleeping poorly and being run ragged during the days by the adorable but energy-filled young children I was volunteering to help.
Which was why I spent my first night locked in my private room at the Here Be Dragons hostel, sobbing at my fiance on the phone.
But by the next morning, I had chinned up, dropped all of my belongings at the laundry, and was jumping on a tuk tuk with the rest of the group to spend the entire day seeing the sites that this central Cambodian city had to offer. Our driver, CJ, promised us the best of the area all in one day.
We kicked it off with the Bamboo Train, which is essentially a flat bed on railway wheels. Bamboo mats were put down, and we climbed aboard. Next thing we knew, we were flying through the Cambodian countryside, desperately trying to find something to hold onto as the wind whipped our hair around our faces, and trying to dodge any overgrowth from the side of the railway tracks.
From there we toured a few villages, where they showed us how to make rice paper rolls and rice wine – a concoction that tasted and smelled a lot more like whiskey than like any wine I’d ever had.
We stopped off at an ancient temple, which happened to be the site of a wedding photo shoot!
After a break for lunch and a rest during the heat of the day, we went to Sampeou Mountain. Here, we were able to take in views for miles from a pagoda at the top. We then proceeded to a temple, which had been a prison during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
We descended into a nearby cave, shivering as the temperature dropped nearly twenty degrees. Our guide explained that this had been a Killing Cave, a place where the Khmer Rouge cast anyone they considered a dissident of the fascist rule. In the beginning, they would shoot their victims and throw them 100 feet below. But as money became scarce, ammunition was considered too valuable to use on those who would soon be dead, so they were simply thrown in. Some would take days to die.
Khmer tradition requires that the remains of the dead stay where they died, so two glass shrines held the bones and skulls that had been found at the site as it was excavated for tourism. I looked at the tiny skulls of the children who had been thrown down, trying to fight the lump in my throat. Surrounded by the ghosts of the oppressed, my petty concerns from the night before didn’t seem to be such problems anymore.
In an attempt to lighten the mood, CJ then took us to the bat cave, where we watched a beautiful Cambodian sunset behind the mountains that border Thailand. Watching tens of thousands of bats streaming into the forests as the sun set wasn’t exactly the mood lifter our guide had hoped, but it did get us squealing and mugging for the cameras as we modeled our face masks, handy for blocking out the overwhelming smell of bat poop.
By the time it was time to leave, I returned to Siem Reap in much better spirits than I had arrived. Maybe there’s something to that mountain air in northern Cambodia…