Friday, March 18, 2011

Battambang - Cambodia

After five amazing days in Siem Reap, we decided to head the scenic route to Phnom Penh in order to try to get a glimpse of the places slightly less travelled in Cambodia.  In order to do this we headed west towards Battambang, looking to do a whistle-stop tour of the town depending of course on any unexpected 'pull factors' causing us to stay longer which sometimes occurs.  Our main reason for this visit was to ride the Bamboo Train, which undoubtedly conjures up various images in the mind.  I personally had a 'Swiss Family Robinson' impression of an elaborate fully developed steam train made of bamboo chugging its way into my mind until I thought logically about it and decided that in actual fact I should probably think smaller scale.  Upon arrival to the city, we had a tuk tuk driver take us to our hotel and he recommended a good restaurant for some lunch.  I found the town of Battambang fairly unremarkable although perhaps this was unfair considering we had just come from the bustling and awesome Siem Reap.  It was very relaxed and had a nice river, although a busy road ran parallel which destroyed the opportunity for a Riviera atmosphere.  Perhaps we didn't give the town enough of a chance, but not long after lunch we asked our driver to take us to the embarkation point for the Bamboo train.

We handed a cool ten dollars over to a very formally dressed gentleman, very expensive by Cambodian standards.  For this we hired what looked like a rickety wooden board with a small boat engine attached to the back.  This was placed on top of a couple of heavy metal wheels and trucks which then sat fairly loosely on a set of train tracks that were often crudely fitted together.  People still used this method to transport goods and themselves from place to place, but a new rail line is being built which will soon put it firmly into the history books.   To be honest, it isn't the most convenient mode of transport with its undeniable floor being that trains approach each other from both directions and as there is only one track, etiquette dictates that the lighter contraption needs to be disassembled and removed from the tracks in order to let the other one pass.  Kate bought a small scarf for a dollar to help protect from the sun and we hopped on the contraption cross legged and raring to go.  The driver yanked the six horse power engine's starter cord a few times until it chugged into submission and we set off.  I'm not sure exactly how fast the train went but when you're barely two feet off the ground it feels like you are going fast and you feel each and every bump, some of which really hurt the bum!

The Train and its passengers
The driver
One of the bridges we had to cross
The not so well kept track!
We stopped after about half an hour hurtling down the track and grabbed a drink from a lady who was selling drinks whilst looking after a group of children.  She explained that her husband is a driver of one of the trains and earns one dollar per trip whilst the owner (Im assuming this was the official we met at the start) pockets the rest.  This wasn't very surprising and her half of their family income was from the beverages sold and some days she could sell very little as there was competition.  Not a rich family but yet another happy one.  Some other English people had brought paper masks which they gave out to the children which were a nice touch.  We spent a while chatting until our driver became fidgety and started looking at his watch so we said our goodbyes and began the journey back.  On the way we had the benefit of meeting another group of tourists head on which meant we got the train dismantling experience.  The other driver courteously helped take our heavy wheels off the track and let his train pass.  Whilst this was going on, the other driver’s train which still had its engine running picked up significant momentum and the brake had to be yanked by one of the braver tourists whilst the driver helping on our train looked on in despair.  Our bums were grateful when the train returned us to our starting point and waiting tuk tuk driver.  We decided that there wasn't quite enough to keep us in the town and decided to check out and move on to Pursat the next day.

Enjoying the masks
Overtaking lane is the same lane as the only lane

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