No really ! We did, in a specially marked tuk tuk which may not be very discrete, but was very amusing.
This evening’s mission was to go and see an amazing display of bats exiting a cave at twilight to go a-hunting. As the batcave is a bit out of Battambang, the plan was to combine this with a trip to Cambodia’s only vineyard (which having visited and tasted the wine I can see why there isn’t really an obvious demand for many more…), and a bouncy tuk tuk drive that took in an astonishing range of sights, sounds and smells. Glorious. Maybe a tuk tuk is my favourite way to travel after all? The bamboo train was fun, but tonight was soooooo much fun too!
So, in the tuk tuks we climbed and off we went. The first stop was an unspecified rickety wooden bridge with a distinctly Indiana Jones feel to it, wobbled beautifully as you bounced along, and would sway impressively if you were inclined to have a bit of a swing to get it going. It also offered up the most amazing views. Plus unexpectedly intimate moments with local people as they tried to cross on their motorbikes, whilst we annoying foreigners were blocking the path. People were a minor challenge, oncoming motorbikes a bit more so, but not enough to make anyone go into reverse. Much smiling, negotiating and compromise was in evidence!
Of course we all did some photo posing. I offered to take shots of people who were travling together, but was declined. Fair enough, not only am I a distinctly inept photographer, it being a skill I generally prefer to outsource – but also being snapped in shots with your traveling companion isn’t necessarily a good idea. Imagine how tiresome it would be if you were to fall out with one another and have to go through and photoshop them all. Nightmare. Hard enough cutting up wedding photos I undertand.
Next stop was a magic mushroom farm. Genuinely interesting. What looked like cylindrical plastic bags full of (admittedly surpringly uniformly sized) discarded rubbish are actually a simply genius gift to small scale agricultural production. This is an idea that came over from Japan to help local people grow mushrooms to sell adjacent to their own homes. The impetus for doing so was to ensure locals could avoid the perils of venturing into countryside where there may be landmines. No story here can be told without reference to the extraordinarily brutal history of Cambodia.
Essentially, tree bark or rice husks (I think, I was a bit confused about the raw material, but did get that it is plentiful) is gathered to be used as a sort of compost. It is put into these plastic bags, which are then left outside in the fierce sunshine which heats them up. This acts as a sort of solar-powered sterilisation process. Then the bags are opened and mixed with fungi spores, before being stacked in the dark in racks in a specially constructed wooden shed with fabric sides. These racks, when exposed look for all the world like an alien egg colony. Periodically, the spores spurt to life with strange looking life forms emerging ready to be harvested. Absolutely surreal. Each time new long stemmed fungi are removed, new ones erupt out. Each bag will produce a sizeable quantity of mushrooms over a two month or so period. Then they are replacd and the process repeats. It is very efficient, and something about which I was previously completely unaware. It is awesome having these little stop offs. You learn so much. The idea is great, sustainable and low impact, but borne of a necessity that is so shocking. Labour intensive though, everything we have seen requires that. It is easy to romanticise how people seem to live because they are smiling and welcoming, but my god they work hard, doing back-breaking labour in humidity that makes it hard to function. And no, being local doesnt make you immune to the heat. That’s why the dogs can’t be bothered to chase passers by, no unecessary exertion is ever made by man or beast round here!
So, from the mushroom place, to the winery.
This was truly bizarre! Cambodia’s only winery is outside Battambang and known as Phnom Banon Winery Fair play to them for trying. The location itself is pretty impressive. It is a lovingly put together attraction. There are beautiful arcs of vines to wander underneath. Visitor toilets (squat toilets but very clean) and assorted random flowers. Some sunflowers, rather pest invaded roses, and some surreal trailing roots that I think were just ornamental but couldn’t be sure. It is like a space age garden centre and it certainly has pretensions. In season, the grapes hang from the ceilings making them easy to pick, as a wooden contraption is wheeled underneath. Oh it’s hard to explain, and I’m getting bored – I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:
So next, after our wander around and my rather fine root-based selfie:
It was time for the most bizarre wine tasting. I am not a wine buff in any sense. However, this was not wine in any way I’d recognise. I suppose at a push you might think of mulled wine with added vinegar and a slight cloudy viscosity and you might be getting the general idea…. We all sat down for this solemn ritual, which was laid out for us with real care and pride. We each had four glasses lined up in front of us. There was the aforementioned red wine (the rankest I have ever encountered, sad, but true), a thin brandy, which was pleasant but can’t have been very alcoholic and then two shot glasses. One contained grape juice, very nice, and the other ginger juice, which was AMAZING and I don’t even like ginger, I think it was what my stomach needed maybe. It really perked me up. Most of our party having rejected the wine and brandy on offer, it was lined up in front of the one person in our group who was minded not to let the opportunity for free alcohol pass him by. Go him! It was fun, but not the prelude to drunken revelery, more the prelude to disappointment. Still, been there done that. It’s such a shame, I really wanted it to be good, or at least palatable. It was neither. Go for the experience though.
Other groups arrived, cyling holiday I think. Some carrying off the lycra look better than others. They pulled up chairs alongside a dozing dog. It did not stir, amazing again. I can only assume it too had imbibed the red wine to such an extent it wouldn’t be roused for anything. Unless it was dead – or maybe stuffed? Possible, probably even, I’ve never seen such a motionless dog in the midst of all that activity. This photo is of the dog pre the arrival of the cycling party. It literally had about 12 people surrounding it sat at the table, the leg of which its head is leaning against. Wish I could sleep like that. My sleep pattern is more akin to that of Lady Macbeth post the brutal murder of Duncan, but with less hand washing. Maybe that accounts for the stomach upset of last night?
Another passing tourist asked us about the wine as she was thinking of buying some. We didn’t want to diss it too much, but when she said she was a wine drinker from california we ventured ‘it isn’t wine as you’d recognise’, and I pressed her to try mine which I’d rejected. After demuring a little, she relented and tasted. Her reaction was pretty extreme. Rank I htink may have been the word, she wasn’t going home with a case that’s for sure!
This stop down, we headed off again as the light was fading, down dusty roads. We ended up at a weird looking empty market near a rather derelict looking temple. We were puzzled. Our guide explained. We were here for a taster bat spotting session. Here were fruit bats roosting. It was soooooooooo exciting. Their was a multitude of bats, gathering and muttering and genearlly a-whizzing around the temple. It was very dramatic, plus I got to take a photo of my shadow making me look tall. Always a boon. There was inevitably a slight concern that shit might happen at any time as we gazed up into the trees to view these enormous flying foxes, but hey, shit can happen anywhere. No one was got. Some children were playing nearby using a plastic bottle as a ball, and books as bats, considerable ingenuity shown there. My actual bat photos are less than impressive from a wildlife documentary sourcing point of view, but I like to think of them as atmospheric. Enjoy, or not, as you choose:
weWe didn’t linger as we had an appointment at the Bat Cave. Those bats won’t wait for anyone! The driver there was beyond spectacular. Onwards through rice paddy fields as sun set. The rice is now being harvested and you could smell it in the air. REally nice, akin to freshly mown hay but for me with the added bonus of not giving me hay-fever. Cattle were being driven home back from the fields as we headed towards the only bit of high ground in Battambang, or indeed for miles around. It looked stunning, this mountain in silhoetted getting closer. Periodically enormous trucks powered by sending clouds of dust into the air and choking us, but all part of the experience and no doubt a great exfoliator too, albeit one that is a tad on the rough side for anyone with sensitive skin. Real pinch yourself scenery. I can’t believe I’m here. I do feel lucky. Lucky indeed.
Eventually we arrived at the viewing point for the Bat Cave. It wasn’t quite as expected, and after the tranquility of the journey through the rice fields, it seemed a bit bizarre. We were confronted with a mass of road side eateries, and queues of tuk tuks that had disgorged their occupants. It was almost identical to the main strip in Las Vegas I’d venture, but then I’ve never been there so perhaps best not take my word for it! The whole world it seems comes to view this nightly spectacle. There was a Buddha’s head visible, carved out of the rock. It turns out this is a relatively recent innovation – 4 or 5 years ago they began the work of hueing it out of the mountain side. Some of us clambered up the ‘stairs’ to get close to the Buddha’s head. The stairs turned out to be perilously steep iron ladders, once on the second rung, you are sort of committed to seeing it through, but I admit it was way out of my comfort zone. Not so much upwards in itself, but knowing you’d need to go down again afterwards made my blood run cold. Later our guide said the head is only the start, a whole Buddha is to be carved out of the rock face. I wonder if that ladder is really for work access rather than tourists, it certainly wouldn’t pass health and safety anywhere else!
The view from top was undoubtedlhy impressive, and it was fun to get up close to the work. I didn’t want to linger too long though as didn’t fancy a descent in the dark. Photos snapped, I led the retreat! Two hardy souls remained, wanting to watch the bats emerge from up on high.
I came down the ladders slowly and backwards, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Rejoined our guide and the one of our group who decided against the climb as wearing a dress. Soon we started to see the bats emerging from the right of the Buddha. A trickle at first, then a great cloud of them, winging through the sky on their dusk departure to the paddy fields to pick off mosquitoes. It was like watching starlings swarm, there must have been tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, squillions even. I forgot to count so don’t know for sure. They were noisy too, which I didn’t expect, but I suppose such a multitude will make itself heard. The photos don’t really help. If you go, ditch the camera, keep the images in your mind’s eye. Will be loads better and more vivid too.
There was something of a scramble as people moved closer towards the point of emergence. It was remarkable. Weird too though, so busy and with LED lit bars on the road behind. Almost as soon as it started, it ended. Then tourists piled back in their tuk tuks and like a giant motorcade departed
We sat it out, waiting for our two waifs, I was worried about their descent in the dark. We eventually saw them, using their phones as torches, they seemed to be descending facing forwards. A third person was in front of them. Turned out to be another backpacker we’d seen up the top. We speculated it was him and that he was on the pull – having offered to stay up there to escort them back down again.
Eventually they reappeared, safe and sound from the climb but really excited because whilst at the top they saw an owl try to hunt a macqack monkey. It swooped down chasing it, the monkey took fright and ran towards our two compatriots. The monkey was big and the owl was small, but it was a serious attempt it seems. They shared this story whilst the third explorer revealed himself as being indeed the suave independent traveler from earlier on. ‘It was alright, I was there to protect them‘ he said. Much to the stifled guffaws of those of us in earshot. I don’t think they needed protection as such, but how hilarious he cast himself in that role so easily, besides which, from the sound of things he wasn’t exactly doing much in the way of protection in any event! Even more amusing was that after he’d disappeared into the night, we asked the others why they came down facing forwards. ‘Oh, we had to, the other guy didn’t have a light, so we were using our phones to help him down‘. I think his version of events was something of a fantasy.
Incidentally, the next day I found out from a fellow traveler who had googled it more succesfully than me, that the Bat Cave is actually a place called Phnom Sampeau. It was also a killing cave during the time of the Khmer Rouge. There are horrible memories and skeletal remains within. This wasn’t mentioned on this tour. I can sort of see why, it casts a shadow over the attraction, but it is yet another reminder of the backdrop to so many places we have seen and will see. The whole of Cambodia is riddled with killing fields, they are not limited to those that have been turned into visitor attractions around Phnom Penh. Sobering thoughts indeed. Lonely planet does say this about Phnom Sampeau to be fair, I had only known our destination as The Bat Cave, which does sound a lot jollier. Also, we went to see the bats, not to explore the site, which you can also do, and sounds interesting if inevitably sobering. Maybe next time…
Back to hotel by about 6.45 p.m. The afternoon all in (transport, winery, mushrooms, bats) was $12. It’s ridiculous really. I was too tired to go out and eat. I am hungry, but I think after all my body has been through it will be good to give it a break. Anyway, I wanted a shower. Three in one day. Excessive certainly. What a grand day though eh?
Nice memories though, so much to take in. Sigh, it doesn’t feel real.