Riding The Rails

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Asia Hotel

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Thursday, February 2, 2012

Often times it is the journey and not the destination that provides the big wow. Such was the case on our slow boat from Siam Reap to Battambang. It was an opportunity for an up-close look at some Cambodian communities that rely on the Tonle Sap Lake and the Sangker River for day-to-day life but at the same time have to endure the eccentricities of those bodies of water. During the monsoon season, the flooding of the Mekong actually reverses the flow of the river that normally drains the Tonle Sap Lake and the surface area of the lake can increase by as much as 4x. Great for rice production, not so great for waterfront housing.The homes we saw fell into one of three categories; they floated (in many cases the 'homes' were a relatively small boat containing entire families), they were on extraordinarily high stilts (it was hard to imagine that every year the water would rise that high!), or the homes were designed to be constantly disassembled and reassembled (I doubt that clutter is a big problem if you're literally moving your house multiple times a year).

As might be expected, fishing is the lifeblood of these riverside communities and the modern world has had little influence here- everything is done from small boats or canoes and the nets were deployed and then reeled in by someone in the water. It was amazing to watch this unique lifestyle unfold before us as we floated lazily by.- it was like watching a documentary in an IMAX theatre but this was real life. 

 Our boat was also used by locals and the whole boarding and disembarking process provided good entertainment. The Captain would notify the locals of his presence with the boat horn and this would usually trigger the launching of canoes from the shoreline. The furious paddling was presumably being done by a good friend or relative and once the intercept was complete our new passenger would be unceremoniously hauled aboard along with their assorted products. And to no ones great surprise, fish was a big portion of that cargo- fresh fish, dried fish, fish that was now on the deck in the open sun- not exactly aromatherapy but definitely heavy on the aroma.

Smelling like a pair of well done fish cakes, we arrived safely in Battambang. It's the second largest city in Cambodia yet it has a small town feel to it- there is very limited tourist activity which is a bit of a mystery because, in addition to the boat trip to get here, there are a number of relatively impressive sites nearby. The big claim to fame is the 'bamboo train' although you really have to manage your expectations here- it's a bit of a stretch to call it a train- it's a number of individual handcars that each have bamboo platforms and a gasoline engine with a fan belt mechanism attached to the axle. Each 'bamboo train', known in Khmer as a norry (nori), is rumoured to have the capacity for up to 15 people (I'm assuming they mean Cambodia sized people as the four of us were cozy on ours) or up to three tonnes of rice- crank it up and you can cruise along at about 15km/h (it actually seemed much faster than that at times) along warped, misaligned rails. I thought DH might flashback to a nasty encounter with the Canadian Minebuster ride at Wonderland that ended her amusement park rides career but she kept yelling 'faster' (to a guy who didn't speak English).

The genius (and fun) of the system is that it offers a simple solution to a problem faced on any single-track line- what to do when two trains going opposite directions meet. In the case of bamboo trains, one car is quickly disassembled and set on the ground beside the tracks so the other can pass. The rule is that whichever car has fewer passengers has to cede priority, though motorbikes and rice inventory pull rank. That's great when the two trains racing in opposite directions are bamboo trains but we were a little more concerned about meeting one of the real trains that apparently still uses the tracks. No problem- the tracks are in such poor condition that Cambodian trains are forced to crawl. Second, bamboo train conductors know the real trains schedule. And third, the real train can be heard tooting its horn from a great distance, providing more than enough time to dismount and disassemble.

It was a fun way to start our day, assembling and disassembling our own personal bamboo train but for any train junkies looking to do the same thing you had best hurry- the tracks are currently being upgraded and these ingenious relics of the past will soon be banned.

It was a little tough to go from this bit of frivolity to another of the reminders of the dark days of Pol Pot and his sadistic Khmer Rouge henchmen. One of the hills close to Battambang is Phnom Sampeau. It's a steep climb so we hitched a ride on a couple of motos and, at the top, found several temples, as well as the Killing Caves. These caves were where many Khmer were killed, or maimed and then left to die. There was an opening at the very top of one of the caves and apparently people were lined up all around this opening and then clubbed and pushed to their death. Perhaps it was the visual, or the cumulative effect but I found this site even more difficult to stomach than the Killing Fields we had seen in Phnom Penh. Tyrants around the world have gained power by arming unquestioning teenage boys and unleashing their violent tendencies but the scale of these atrocities would seem to require a complete disconnect with any kind of human compassion. The required viciousness is so out of character with the kind and friendly Cambodians we have met on our travels through this country.

Once we had recovered from this visit, DH decided that we hadn't seen quite enough Angkor temples in Siem Reap so we tackled a flight of killer stairs to get up to see Wat Banan. Aside from confirming that we really need to figure out how to get back in shape, it was an impressive, if somewhat unknown, temple complex.
And on the way back to Battambang, we stopped in to do a tour of perhaps the one and only winery in Cambodia. When I say 'tour', I mean we wandered through some pretty meagre looking grape vines, saw a couple of vats containing unidentified liquid, and sat down for a sampling of their entire product suite, a red wine, a brandy, grape juice, and some sort of ginger/honey concoction that purported to cure all illnesses (presumably including any you might get from drinking the other products). As self-professed wine connoisseur, Ross M might say, "the Cambodian Red Wine has an edginess, sophistication and dominating air that questions whether your palate has the true aptitude to handle the complete clutch of this much worldliness. The body is chasmal, bounteous and a little weighty. Its gorgeous, vaunting style is burning, mantling and amorous with an extravagant softness that is grandiose, exotic and pursed lipped". Actually he probably wouldn't say that- Ross M does speak that way when savouring a wine, but I'm not sure Cambodian Red would get a glowing review- I liked it, but my palate has been bombarded with copious amounts of Gimli Goose out of a cardboard box during my formative university years. Getting no help from DH, I threw back the brandy and, after wiping away the tears, finished up with the grape juice and 'medicine'. Surprisingly none of their product is exported- they are only able to keep up with domestic demand, so I guess that puts me one up in any future conversations with wine geeks??

In the evening we went to a circus that was purported to be Cirque du Soleil done by Cambodian street kids. We went expecting very little and what we saw was absolutely outstanding. It started a little slow but escalated to an explosion of high-wire stunts, dancing, and comedy. It's actually an effort by the Phare Ponleu Selpak NGO supporting those Cambodian kids who show some artistic skills, talents, and interest. An unexpected wow!
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Doug & Elaine on

Great blog! Loved your photos & description of the bamboo train and your hilarious wine connoisseur verbiage!

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