One of our favourite days in Cambodia was spent on a bike tour run by local students through the villages and markets around Battambang. It felt good to stretch our legs, get a glimpse of rural Cambodia and be in the company of young folks. We pedalled through the peaceful countryside, stopping at small villages that retain traditional Cambodian livelihoods. It was a fun and hands-on day. I even learned to make rice paper wrappers (well…sort of).
Butterfly Tours is a locally-run student venture and I can’t say enough about the enthusiasm and knowledge of our young guides Dina and Sokim. We were quickly outfitted with basic bikes, bottles of water, and thatched hats (notice how only Sokim, who brings up the rear in his scooter wears a real helmet). No big deal as the pace was slow and easy, with six stops along the roughly 30 km lightly-trafficked route.
First stop: a family-run facility that makes hand-made rice paper — soft, super thin wrappers used for fresh salad rolls and other Asian cuisine delights. We watched as one young lady spread the rice batter on a piece of cloth tightly suspended over boiling water and quickly fashioned it into a perfect round. Her sister then deftly transferred the rounds to a drying rack. We were all allowed to give the second part of this process a try. It’s a lot harder than you’d think! Notice the rice paper gal laughing at my efforts.
Second stop: sampling dried banana products. I was amazed how the woman could sit cross-legged on a rickety wooden platform, all day, slicing bananas. And, according to Dina our guide, she’s been doing this for over 20 years. We watched as she laid the thin slices on bamboo boards for drying into banana “sheets”—a delicious Cambodian snack. We weren’t recruited for cutting bananas, just sampling the yummy dried bananas and banana chips.
Third stop: the rice wine distillery. We could smell the yeasty aroma as we parked our bikes outside the home brew facility. These small, local distilleries are prevalent throughout Cambodia, and rice wine is the cheapest and most popular alcoholic drink among locals. It comes in varying strengths, from mild to fire-water (I sampled them all and I think I’ll stick with grapes). They even had novelty bottles with “pickled” scorpions and snakes at the bottom. I graciously declined these.
Fourth stop: noodle eating in a colourful local market. This may have been my favourite stop on the tour. Sadly, I was too busy eating the delicious Khmer home-made noodles and forgot to take photos of the noodle making in action. But, once the feeding frenzy was over, we had a great time exploring the lively little market and taking photos of the friendly locals.
Fifth stop: the fish paste market. Unlike many foreign visitors, I really enjoyed our stop at Battambang’s largest market—a dark, damp, smelly place that produces fish paste, a staple in the Cambodian diet. The pungent aroma doesn’t bother me and I was fascinated by the many tasks—cleaning, chopping, drying, fermenting, shovelling, carrying— that engages so many workers. Apparently this unassuming place produces some of the best fish paste in the world.
Sixth stop: sampling bamboo rice cakes. I never realized that sticky rice could be such a tasty treat until I sampled this local delicacy. The rice takes on a sweet, caramelized flavour after it is stuffed into bamboo stalks that are blackened over a charcoal fire. The yummy treat combined with the smiling faces of the rice cake maker’s children was the perfect final stop on our awesome tour.
A few Battambang details and subjective observations:
- Battambang is about a 4 hour ($7) bus ride from Siem Reap.
- Based on guide book descriptions we expected the town to have more charm. It’s a peaceful, dusty, faded place with some “niceish” French colonial architecture that has seen better days. It’s the countryside and attractions around Battambang that make it an interesting stop on a Cambodian itinerary.
- We booked our Butterfly Tour while in Battambang with no difficultly, but you can also book in advance, online.
- In addition to our cycle tour, we were very impressed with our half day tour to the sobering Killing Cave of Phnom Sampeau and the amazing nearby bat cave. Nane, our tuk tuk driver/guide, arranged through Sangker Villa was great. I may do another post on this excursion.
- A really fun evening activity is going to Battambang’s famous circus: Phare Ponleu Selpak. The performers are all youths who are beneficiaries of a Cambodian non-
profit association that runs arts schools, educational programs and provides social support. You can see the show in Siem Reap too, but Battambang is where it got its start in 1994.
- Battambang has some good dining options. We particularly liked About the World and Jaan Bai. Both places have delicious food and a nice atmosphere. The latter trains and employs vulnerable youth.