Slow boats and bamboo trains

Trip Start Oct 03, 2011
Trip End Dec 25, 2011

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Where I stayed
Asia Hotel, Battambang
What I did
Circus acts, ricketty railway and night market

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Saturday, November 26, 2011

Instead of heading straight to Siem Reap and the wonders of Angkor Wat, we decided to take a few days detour to riverside Battambang, Cambodia's second largest city. We arrived to the now expected flurry of tuk-tuk drivers surrounding our bus (on which we were the only Falangs (white people)), and were treated to a brilliant slap-stick DVD that literally had the locals rolling in the aisles. One of the said drivers offered to take us to our hotel for 50 cents, however we kindly pointed out to him that we could see it from the bus stop and so wouldn't be requiring his services. Undeterred he turned up at reception a minute later offering us a multitude of tours and a generally pressurising atmosphere. We happily escaped to our room on the top floor for a bit of peace and quiet and a shower.

Refreshed, we wandered towards the riverside and down towards the night market. We stopped at the first stall for a beer and a coconut shake (you can decide which drink was for whom) while Michael entertained the small boy who seemingly belonged to the stall by making paper aeroplanes. Refreshed further, we picked our way through the almost identical food stalls until we were accosted by an English speaking stall owner with English language menu. Despite informing them of Amy's vegetarianism, some nearby French-Canadians encouraged us to order pregnant eggs to start, followed by traditional Cambodian curries. I will leave the brave-hearted of you to discover what a pregnant egg entails for yourselves... Enjoy!

The next day was a scorcher, we emerged into the heat to take a quick tuk-tuk to Battambang's oddest, yet most endangered attraction: the bamboo train. We didn't quite know what to expect. The idea is basically to have a fun ride out into the country on a bamboo rack with a motor attached to the back along some rickety rails. If two "trains" meet, the one with fewer passengers/cargo has to be lifted off the track to let the other one pass. At the end of the journey is a small village where we had a drink while chatting to an old man who had lived in London for a few years (somewhere around the time of the conflict, we think). We are taken for a tour of the surroundings by some local girls looking to make some pocket money and end up at a rice mill. We then judder our way back along the tracks to our waiting tuk-tuk. The railway, by the way, used to be used for transporting goods to the market etc, but has now become obsolete because of the road network. We are told that there are plans to get rid of the tracks for good in a couple of months and replace them with a functioning train service instead.

That evening we venture out of town to Phare Ponleu Selpak circus. It was formed by eight returning refugee's after their time spent in a refugee camp on the Thai border. The centre now helps other disadvantaged people nearby to overcome trauma through artistic expression. The group perform every night and combine a circus with music, as well as providing school for over 400 students. It was a great show and it's coming to Milton Keynes in 2012. Check it out! We also get a tour of some of the school facilities, a student art exhibition and a meal on top of the acrobatics, juggling and balancing feats.

Early next morning we embark on what was one of the draws of taking this route to Siem Reap, the slow boat! It's another sweltering day (so much so even Michael gets a touch of sunburn after being sat half in shade throughout the journey). Locals and tourists alike use the service, which creeps its way through narrow passes surrounded by houses and vegetation until reaching the vast Tonle Sap lake. Amy is impressed by four very young, very well behaved Cambodian children, who are quiet for the whole journey - then she realises what's keeping them so occupied - they're picking lice out of each other's hair and then popping them! Ew! The fresh-water lake is the largest in South East Asia and is a bird watchers paradise. We wouldn't know if we spotted the rarest bird on Earth but the glorious scenery isn't lost on us. We stop occasionally at floating convenience stores and pass scattered floating villages - one of which has a large mobile phone shop - before landing ashore near Siem Reap. Our accommodation has sent a free tuk-tuk to take us the bumpy, hour-long ride into town. It is here we meet Tommy the tuk-tuk driver, and our next adventure begins.
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