Cycling in Battambang, Cambodia: Rice Paper Making 101 and Other Lessons

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Village market near Battambang—C.Helbig

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.

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Our happy guide Sokim brings up the rear—C.Helbig

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.

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The rice batter being made into thin rounds—C.Helbig

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My feeble attempt at transferring the rice paper to the drying rack

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.

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Slicing bananas for the production of dried banana sheets—C.Helbig

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.

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Fermenting vats of rice that will be made into rice wine—C.Helbig

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.

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Nimble perching next to the meats—C.Helbig

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Friendly fish monger—C.Helbig

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Ladies engaged in commerce—C.Helbig

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She was amused by us—C.Helbig

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Happy veggie ladies—C.Helbig

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.

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Chopping at the fish paste market—C.Helbig

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Stirring the goopy vat of fish paste—C.Helbig

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Fish paste overflowing everywhere—C.Helbig

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.

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Bamboo rice cakes roasting over charcoal pit—C.Helbig

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Yummy treat, happy children—C.Helbig

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“Mom and dad” in our silly hat-helmets posing with our fun group

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-
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    At the circus in Battambang—C.Helbig

    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.

 

 

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

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16 thoughts on “Cycling in Battambang, Cambodia: Rice Paper Making 101 and Other Lessons

  1. I would love all those stops … I think! – I might have trouble with all the overflowing fish paste! Getting to bicycle from place to place would be the best, and every one of those faces is so dear. I love these smaller, local outings run by the community members themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was definitely a great way to see some typical Cambodian villages, with the bonus of a wee bit of exercise. Our student guides grew up in Battambang and took great pride in showing us their community. It was a peaceful, joyful and interesting day.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike Hohmann

    Great travel story, Caroline. Beautiful part of the world. Street food is always interesting, often better eaten w/o viewing the production process, but everyone seems to survive the process. Always fun to watch the kids, and everyone is so friendly. Great photos as always. Thanks for sharing, Caroline.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Mike. This really is a very friendly little community and I think they are super supportive of the local student-led tourism initiative. We all survived the food stops but I saw a number of green faces at the fish paste market. Cheers, Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful photos Caroline. It sounds like a really great tour.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great photos of a very interesting place! I’ll be the smells and noises were interesting too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Caroline, Sounds like fun. But eewww the fish pasts market, that put me off a bit.I think grey colour put me off the most. Louise

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Louise! It’s definitely not pretty to look at and the smell gets most people running the opposite direction. But it was strangely fascinating, probably because it was so different from anything we have at home. Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What an amazing adventure and the photography is beautiful Caroline, it’s like reading a National Geographic

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Beautiful portraits of the locals as they go about their daily life, Caroline. The rice cakes sound delicious and I can reach out for a handful or more of banana chips which I have a major weakness for. So, the question is are you now deft at making rice sheets? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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