Well, Battambang turned out to be quite an adventure!
Sights and sounds en route to our new destination were all exciting and new – I daresay the novelty will eventually wear off, but it hasn’t just yet! Loving the wiring. Spot the political party signs. Really there is only one, and much disadvantaged opposition party that probably won the election but didn’t get to power.
On arrival at our hotel, Star Hotel Battambang, I was initially a bit perturbed. I had a windowless room. Eek, I wasn’t over keen – we had been warned about this in the trip notes, but the reality of it is bizarre. The sense of being enclosed is akin to being entombed. It was a three night stay too, so I gulped a bit. The towels are thin and rough – though as we continued on our travels it became apparent this is standard hotel issue in Cambodia – well the one’s we’ve stayed in at any rate. Toilet paper also appeared to be rationed, just a few sheets, but placed in a protective plastic shell (necessary as the bathroom is really a small wet room, so you shower pretty much standing over the loo. The overall ambience was nice though, spectacular furnishings. I was on the second floor up a marble staircase, it was a bit precarious climbing up, I was so glad I’d ditched a load at the first hotel to luggage storage pending return to Phnom Penh.
So, our afternoon was a tuk tuk tour (optional, but not expensive) in a Five Star Tuk Tuk no less. Well, strictly speaking a convoy of two tuk tuks, but you get the idea. Tuk Tuks are still a novelty at this stage, so lots of photos, yay!
We had a friendly guide and a busy afternoon. It’s honestly really hard to remember everything we crammed in! We took in the sights and sounds, and punctuated our journey with educational stop offs, some of which were great, and some of which were less so. The first stop was to watch noodle making, it was interesting but did sort of put me off, my that rice gets handled a lot I liked the jolly family who welcomed us though. They were really nice.
The next stop was a Wat – Buddhist Temple essentially, bit unkempt I felt, and I was vague about what we were viewing. We were told to show respect by removing shoes which I was happy to do, but one of our party with very bare shoulders was unchallenged which surprised me. The Wat was faded grandeur I’d say, rather too much dog shit in evidence to be entirely delightful to explore with bare feet, but the architecture is truly stunning. I’m still confused by what happened to these places during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, or maybe buildings were left intact just emptied of their occupants. Sad sad history. I didn’t take a photo of the dog shit, you can probably find some yourself locally to wherever you are if you just step out. I did get some photos of monks robes drying, which I think is more acceptable than photographing actual monks, which feels a bit wrong somehow.
We did come across just a lone monk who was wandering around. Our guide asked him how many monks live there – he replied in English, he wasn’t a full time resident so didn’t know. I wonder what his story was, whether he is just doing this for a short time (some people do seem to have relatively brief spells as a monk – presumably to gain good karma, whereas for others it is a lifelong vocation or a financial necessity).
The next stop was The Traditional House. Honestly I could have done without this stop largely. It was a very grand stilted house, belonging to a wealthy woman who welcomed us speaking french. One of our group was able to exchange greetings asking how she was in return to her greeting. She replied with ‘tres mal’ very poorly, too many stairs, and she has a bad heart.
This house was really a museum piece, presented as such. It was weirdly reminiscent to me of tourist attractions in the uk of old Tudor buildings. All a bit soulless, with carefully placed artifacts here and there to give some context. Having said that, I did learn some stuff. For example, that the reason for the stilts is nothing to do with flooding (apart from where it actually floods obviously) but the raised roof above the ground provides a cool area to use during the day and providing covered storage at night – a car/motorbike port nowadays. The house dates back to the 1920s, and belonged to her a very wealthy family – her grandparents. She can no longer get upstairs, so she does live there, but downstairs only. The house is only really slept in when she has lots of visitors over for some large gathering.
Despite my rather ho hum reaction, later on I was brought up short. We saw photos in the house of the original family members who lived here. Her own parents were academics (father) and both were killed by the Khmer rouge. The portraits smiling down on us became poignant rather than grand. The history of this country constantly brings you up short and catches you by surprise. I noticed how bleached white their faces are. Is it because it is an old photo, or was there an obsession with pale skin colour even at the time this shot was taken?
We didn’t linger too much loner, because the next thing was that we were whisked away for the bamboo train. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but this was completely brilliant.
The lonely planet blah de blah, explains it way better than I can, and it deserves description:
Battambang’s bamboo train is one of the world’s all-time unique rail journeys. From O Dambong, 3.7km east of Battambang’s old French bridge (Wat Kor Bridge), the train bumps 7km southeast to O Sra Lav along warped, misaligned rails and vertiginous bridges left by the French. The journey takes 20 minutes each way, with a 20-minute stop at O Sra Lav in between.
Each bamboo train – known in Khmer as a norry (nori) – consists of a 3m-long wooden frame, covered lengthwise with slats made of ultralight bamboo, that rest on two barbell-like bogies, the aft one connected by fan belts to a 6HP gasoline engine. Pile on 10 or 15 people, or up to three tonnes of rice, crank it up and you can cruise along at about 15km/h.
The genius of the system is that it offers a brilliant solution to the most ineluctable problem faced on any single-track line: what to do when two trains going in opposite directions meet. In the case of bamboo trains, the answer is simple: one car is quickly disassembled and set on the ground beside the tracks so that the other can pass. The rule is that the car with the fewest passengers has to cede priority.
With the advent of good roads, the bamboo train would have become defunct if it hadn’t been for its reinvention as a tourist attraction. Yes, it is super-touristy – complete with some very determined children touting bracelets when you disembark at O Sra Lav – but there’s no denying that whizzing along the click-clacking rails is a huge amount of fun.
All you really need to know though is that this is way more fun than is seemingly possible. I think it might be even more fun when it is unexpected. I didn’t know about it, and hadn’t researched it, so it was all a brilliant surprise!
What the lonely planet blurb does not adequately convey is the hilarity value of being bounced along on the Heath Robinson contraption whilst having your face assaulted by a multitude of flying insects that meet their end like flies hitting a car windscreen. It’s not great, it is bizarre.
The getting on point was next to a makeshift football pitch- surrounded by what looked like weighted dumbbells but turned out to be train wheels! Those not operating a train hung around in hammocks, or played half-hearted football between tourists.
We sat on flimsy bamboo covered with reed mat and a cushion each. And off we went. The trains are powered by little tiny engines, it’s like being transported by lawn mower. When we did meet anther train on single track, what do you do? You disassemble train and get out of the way. Of course you do! Good fun! The train is low-level, and as you are propelled along you crash over the tops of grass smelt gorgeous. An added bonus for me was that although i would get terrible hay fever from summer grass in the UK, I don’t seem to be affected by cut rice or the vegetation here in the same way. I can’t describe how blissful it is to be able to breath deeply and inhale all those scents without fear of debilitating hayfever for the next three weeks. This little Bamboo Train was an absolute highlight, watching the speed with which it could be dismantled and reassembled was a marvel to behold. More marvels came in the form of huge butterflies the size of bats and clouds of mosquitos that were all around us.
The original plan was to have sunset on a river cruise, but we were running late, and the sun crashes out of the sky here at speed. I’m writing this up a few days after the event, and already I’ve lost count of the times we are sprinting to get to a good spot for a view of sundown. We didn’t do too badly though, we found a bridge on the line and stopped there to view the sunset, which was spectacular, but short-lived, and hard to do justice to with my camera.
Off again at speed in the pitch dark. I was told about but failed to spot the naked man in the undergrowth who I gather was a sight for sore eyes, but I did get a face and hair full of miscellaneous insects carpeting my face as we raced through the night sky.
As we clambered off our bamboo train and into the night, and clambered back on our tuk tuks, we found ourselves next to a house where a children’s birthday party was in progress. The birthday girl was wearing a spectacular conical, tinsel covered party hat, which she gave to one of our group to try on and then skipped away. We managed to get our guide to return it to her. What kind of a birthday celebration would it be if some horrid tourist went off with your special hat!
We were all on a high as we headed back to the hotel. This trip was way more fun than it should have been to be honest. It is a simple pleasure, but what a way to travel. YOu get amazing views, smells and the sensation of the train on the track underneath you. There is the novelty value of the whole construction, and best of all the breeze on you as you whizz along, feeling cool for the first time since arriving in Cambodia.
Conclusion? Would recommend.
BAck briefly to my hotel cell – shame this is a three-nighter I thought, though later I came to appreciate the quiet and cool of an enclosed space.
We had an hour to shower and then we were off out all over again. This time for a for a $10 home cooked meal and karaoke, reached by tuk tuk. It has be done I suppose, it has to be done!