I was really excited to visit the first Stray overnight stop at a village homestay, in Battambang. We were going to be accommodated in a small village, just outside of the main city, where we would share the home of a local family and live a day of local village life.
Having spent two days in Siem Reap, and visiting the Angkor Wat temples, I really started to feel love for Cambodia and its people.
It was interesting meeting travellers in both Bangkok and Siem Reap, who had not heard of the Stray overnight stop Battambang. Most travellers had researched prior to arriving, and were sticking to the typical tourist route of Seam Reap – Sihanoukville – Phnom Penh. Being the second-largest city in Cambodia, I was surprised there wasn’t more interest.
On the road
The Stray bus picked us up from our accommodation, and we were on the road at 9am on the dot. With a quick meet and greet, the local guide Tong welcomed everyone and quickly brought everyone together. Being a local from Battambang, his story piqued interest with the passengers on board, as he depicted his early childhood and family history which was strongly affected by the Khmer Rouge era of the mid-1970s.
We stopped at a couple of points of interest on the way, including outside a hut on the edge of the road, where our guide challenged us to eat a rat (!). One passenger and I took up the challenge to which we were pleasantly surprised how much it actually tasted like chicken! The main reason I took up the challenge was we were convinced that they were field rats, which feed off vegetables in the rice fields rather than your typical inner city stereotypes.
Following a brief drive-through tour of the city, we headed out to the local attraction known as ‘the Bamboo train’. This was a very unique experience, which was offered free to all Stray passengers on board. We were invited to sit down on a basic bamboo platform floor resting on two axles, powered by what seemed to be a lawn-mower engine.
This thing was one of a kind! As we took off down the tracks, the cushions we sat on absorbed the majority of bumps, as we bounced and swayed down a rickety old track.
It was nice to know that we wouldn’t be expecting any large locomotives coming towards us, as the track is now decommissioned from its previous use of connecting Thailand with Phnom Penh. The final destination of O Sra Lav, was a small village about 15 minutes from the starting point.
The local people of O Sra Lav were well accustomed to visitors, with make-shift stalls selling cold drinks and textiles. Our Stray guide Tong took us for a tour through the railway-side village to an old brickworks factory, where he demonstrated the brick making process and explained how it was the main source of income other than rice. Very interesting and a great way to learn more about the very secluded village.
Following the tour of the brick factory, we were back on to the bamboo train (aka ‘Nori’ in Khmer) and headed back down the same railway track from where we came. As there was only one track, we found ourselves hopping off and carrying the bamboo train off the track to allow for oncoming traffic…a very unique experience to say the least!
Back on the bus
Once back on board the bus, we travelled to the outskirts of Battambang to the local educational institute, where we were given the option to purchase some stationery supplies for the local kids in the village school if we wanted to. It was also the place where our guide had graduated prior to starting his employment as a tour leader.
We then made a short five-minute journey to our overnight stop, where we were greeted by a smiling, toothless man as we drove into the driveway of the split level home. He was the elder to three generations of the local family we would be staying with that night. Before arriving, our guide Tong had taught us a local greeting so we could greet our host in Khmer. As that was the extent of our language skills, Tong did the translating after that.
The accommodation was quite a large building, with the main dining / communal area on the ground floor, open on all sides, and next to a small kitchen area where some of the family was preparing food for later in the evening. The amenities were also on the ground floor, with flushing toilets and warm showers – although I opted for the traditional bucket shower that evening (i.e. using small buckets to splash water from a trough over yourself). Our bedroom was up a steep staircase, directly above the outside communal area. The staircase led to one large room, with ten large double beds. Each bed had mosquito nets and a large fan directly above the surprisingly comfortable mattresses.
The time was 4pm, and so Tong took us on a brief walk through the village, where we quickly become the local attractions, as young children poured out of the homes and followed us like a scene from the Pied Piper. We were on our way to the local primary school to visit one of the classrooms and gift our stationery supplies to the students and teacher. Education is an important part of Cambodia, and I was impressed to see all the children in uniform, as we joined a classroom and sat amongst the students during their final class of the afternoon.
It was hard not to distract the children, as large crowds gathered outside, looking in, to see the ‘foreign’ visitors who were twice the size of the average student in the classroom. The students sang local songs for us, and then invited us outside in the playground, where we joined in on their games and attempted to translate each others languages. A memorable and rewarding experience.
It didn’t stop there… Our guide then walked us down to the village English School, were students were actively learning English language and literature. The tutor was really enthusiastic to have all the passengers involved, and so we all separated into groups and began impromptu English lessons with the students. I was amazed at how knowledgeable they were, with ages ranging from 5 – 17 years old.
As the sun started to drift away, it was time to head back to our homestay for an authentic, traditional Cambodian meal. The family we were staying with put on a banquet of local foods, including Spring Rolls (which we were taught how to make), Amok (fish curry), and other local dishes. During the meal, we were also offered their local evening drink – homebrew whiskey, with snake blood. Definitely an acquired taste, but something to try when on tour.
The following morning was an early start, however, we had breakfast included in the accommodation and then stopped by the local attractions to learn more about the city and its history before we set off on our journey to Sihanoukville.
The homestay experience was unforgettable, and something I would recommend any traveller to experience. Not only did we ‘get off the beaten track’ with our homestay experience within the small village, but our interactions with the local community was definitely a highlight of my Cambodian adventure.
Battambang is a place I would like to visit again one day and would have stayed longer if I had more time on this journey.
Guest post written by: Clint Maskell