The pair of enormous trees curled over us like umbrellas. And every single branch dripped with bats. Sam and I were on a tuk tuk tour of the area around Battambang, Cambodia. We'd stopped at a monastery an hour's drive south of town, famous for now obvious reasons. I was discovering that I shared many qualities with the Dark Knight - fear of bats being a big one. (Also, a husky voice and an insatiable need to catch the Joker.) Yes, I know bats are mosquito-eating machines and deserve a humanitarian award. And in Cambodian lore, vampirism is genetic,* so no worries there.
But fear still pricked at the back of my mind. What if we got bit? What if we caught rabies?
There are a lot of shots involved in traveling the world. Hepatitis A and B, typhoid, Japanese encephalitis - we'd been pincushioned these last few years. But we neglected the rabies vaccine for several well-considered reasons (or so they seemed at the time). The vaccination process takes nearly a month. Chances of getting rabies on the tourist trail are remote. Even if we were bitten, the vaccine isn't wholly effective. We'd need another round of injections anyway.
But the biggest deterrent was expense. Our last round of injections happened in South Korea, where rabies shots are really, really expensive. Getting vaccinated would have cost more than all Sam's hospital bills last year. This is because rabies is so rare in Korea that they don't need to stock the vaccine.
But Southeast Asia is lousy with the disease, so shots here are super cheap. Hooray! (Wait...)
So we didn't get immunized, figuring we'd cross that bridge if we came to it. And just across the Iron Bridge, surrounded by bald monks and touristy vendors, I was staring up into my day of reckoning.
Our tuk tuk driver mentioned they were fruit bats. The chances of getting chewed were low, unless we climbed up there and poked our fingers into their mouths (spoiler: we didn't).
More importantly, bats aren't the major rabies threat in Cambodia. In 2013, over 90 percent of people treated at Phnom Penh's Rabies Prevention Center had close encounters with dogs.
Still, standing directly beneath a treeful of them (even in the full light of midday) felt ominously wrong. For one thing, they were huge: imagine a cat with dragon wings.** Each animal was fanning a lazy wing back and forth, so the tree rippled with silent motion. Our driver insisted they were asleep - that the movement was instinct, to keep cool in the Cambodian heat. I didn't fully believe him.
"The bats are famous," he told us. "Many people come here. But sometimes there are problems."
Like when they swarm and start gnawing villagers? I thought.
But he corrected me. "Their meat is delicious."
I blinked. "Their meat? People eat the bats? That's the problem?"
"Oh, yes," he nodded. "The villagers are not supposed to kill the bats, but sometimes... because the animals eat fruit all the time, they are very sweet..."
Sam nudged me. "Didn't you notice the street vendors selling them back in town? The little bat-barbecue?"
Once again, it appeared the most dangerous species was our own. (A thought reinforced at our next stop, the Killing Caves.) But as we climbed back into the tuk tuk, our driver mentioned we had another bat-themed stop on our tour. The Bat Cave. And not the one under stately Wayne Manor.
We arrived shortly before sunset. The cave was a gash in the side of a cliff, already swirling with shadowed motion. The air carried a high-pitched, rustling noise.
"At dusk, millions of bats will fly out. From there," our driver said, pointing up at the opening.
Other tuk tuks pulled up, and the area slowly filled with tourists. As the sun dropped below the horizon, people pulled out cans of deet and started spraying extravagantly. It didn't deter the mosquitoes, who clearly knew where the buffet was held each night. Those nasty, little vampires were probably more dangerous than all the flying rodents combined.
But a few minutes later, when millions of bats erupted from the mountainside in a chattering, black column, I instinctively ducked. They soared above us, more and more, an endless stream. After a few minutes, our driver herded us back to the tuk tuk so we could get pictures from farther away. And the river of bats kept coming the whole ride back to town, a ribbon stretching kilometers above the open countryside. We were told it sometimes took more than an hour for all of them to emerge.
It was intense. Batman probably wouldn't have been able to take it. But after I'd gotten over my initial mind-numbing terror, I decided it was kind of pretty.
The Bat Trees and Bat Cave are standard stops on tuk tuk and motorcycle tours around Battambang. If you're interested in checking them out, just find a driver when you hit town.
*And involves the nifty trick of detaching one's head and organs from the body each night to fly around. Cambodian vampires are way cooler than Bela Lugosi.
**Now imagine waking up in the morning, stretching, opening your eyes, and seeing it swoop down toward your face, claws rending, fangs bared, hissing, snarling, ohmygodRUN! RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!
Sorry. Got a little carried away there.