After spending a few days in the beautiful and historic Siem Reap, we were quite relieved to arrive in Battambang. The laid-back pace of Cambodia’s second biggest city was exactly what we needed after the throng of tourists rushing around temples and enjoying the festivities of Bon Om Tuk, the Cambodian Water Festival.
Before our trip to South East Asia, we didn’t know much about Battambang. However, after only a few days there it became one of our favourite places. Despite being easily reached from Siem Reap and Phomn Penh, Battambang tends to be overlooked by tourists and has remained relatively untouched by development. In Battambang you will discover a thriving art scene (including the wonderful Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit art school that works with children and young adults from challenging backgrounds), lots of independent galleries and quirky cafes. It is also home to the most sophisticated underground rain-betting market in the country, where thousands of pounds can be won or lost depending on the weather. This a fascinating and friendly city which we highly recommend a visit to.
With all of this that Battambang has to offer, the highlight of our stay was our day spent with Soksabike, a sustainable and responsible bicycle tour through the countryside.
The Kinyei Organisation
Soksabike are part of Kinyei, a non-profit organisation which promotes social entrepreneurship amongst local university students. Along with the Kinyei Cafe (tip – they serve some of the best coffee in the city), they offer cycling tours which give visitors the opportunity to meet local families and learn about traditional Cambodian industries in a responsible and ethical way. All tour guides are local students who are provided with vocational training and scholarships for university, and the host families receive a part of the profit from every tour. All tours are carbon-emission free (they are all on bicycles!) and use recycled water bottles. Kinyei and Soksabike are also involved in a range of community events, including workshops on responsible tourism and wildlife conservation, fun rides in the countryside for local people and I.T. workshops for local students.
We loved Soksabike’s total commitment to responsible tourism. So as soon as we arrived in Battambang, we signed up to the full day Local Livelihoods tour – a 40km bike ride through local villages and along the Sangker river, visiting local family run businesses on the way. We were very excited about such a unique opportunity to explore Battambang.
We arrived bright and early at Kinyei Cafe for our free coffee that comes with every tour (served by a winner of the Cambodian National Barista Championships) and met our tour guide, Saram – a local university student who works to fund his studies and to meet people from around the world. He taught us some key phrases in Khmer (such as sok-sa bai jee-a tay? which means ‘How are you?’ and is the phrase which gave Soksabike its name) and explained how to interact with our hosts in a culturally respectful way – and then, we were off!
Meeting the host families
During our tour, we met families who made rice paper, local textiles, dried bananas, fish paste, rice wine and bamboo sticky rice. At each stop, Saram introduced us to our hosts, who invited us into their homes or businesses to show us how they made their products. We were encouraged to try lots of samples and even have a go at making them. We had a great time attempting (and failing) to make rice paper!
The host families were incredibly kind to share their stories about their lives and the impact of the horrific Khmer Rouge regime, during which over 2 million Cambodians (nearly a quarter of the population) were killed. We heard about how whole families fled the city, fearing for their lives and returned years later to rebuild their lives and businesses. Their stories of survival made our afternoon visit to Wat Soron Knong, a memorial to Khmer Rouge victims, even more poignant and moving.
The Battambang Bamboo Train
The final stop on our journey was the notorious ‘Nori’ bamboo train – a small surviving part of Cambodia’s old rail network. The ‘carriage’ is a simple bamboo platform with a few small cushions, propelled along the rickety tracks by a small motorised engine at speeds up to 50km per hour. A long wooden stick acts as the brake. It was an exhilarating, slightly white-knuckled ride as we hurtled through the Cambodian countryside for 20 minutes.
A note of warning – the bamboo train makes a mandatory 15 – 30 minute stop at the end of the line where you will be approached by locals, many of whom are young children, trying to sell you things. Do not feel pressured into buying anything. Buying from children encourages them to stay out on the street and out of school. Giving to a local NGO that supports child education is a far better way of helping these children.
By the time we returned home, we were exhausted. However, our day with Soksabike was an experience we will never forget. Visiting the host families and hearing their stories gave us a real insight into traditional rural life in Cambodia and allowed us to see Battambang in an incredibly unique way.
Address: St 1.5, near Psar Nath, Krong Battambang, Cambodia
Cost: We booked the Local Livelihood Full Day Tour for $40 (January 2017). Other half and full day tours are available.