A Wop Bobba Loo Bop A Wop BAMBOO!

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, June 6, 2013

So despite my fears of the bus careering off the road en-route to Battambang and arriving to find our bags had vanished out of the boot; it turned out thankfully to be the least eventful bus journey we had had. The journey was fairly comfortable and we were in Battambang in just 3 hours. The fun began as we pulled into the bus stop in Battambang and out of nowhere like a pack of zombies 20 tuk tuk drivers started chasing down the bus waving signs for various hotels and guesthouses.  Luckily for us, and much to our amazement there was a tuk-tuk driver in the pack with a sign with our name and hotel, what a surprise.  We were picked up and delivered to our hotel for free, result.

As with all things in life nothing is ever free, so we ended up booking our tuk-tuk driver for a few tours around Battambang, Tim being Tim he managed to use his best bartering skills and practically had him in tears so I think we got a good deal.

Battambang is a funny little town, pretty much a little town that time forgot.  Back in the day when Cambodia had trains Battambang was a main station, now it is just a stop off for travellers who cannot avoid the draw of the Bamboo Train.

Our first outing was a night at the circus, as odd as this sounds the Phare Circus is a Cambodian non-profit association which steers underprivileged children and youth towards a better quality of life through cultural, artistic, educational and social skills. The association gradually gathered more and more children who were living in difficult situations such as streets kids, trafficked children, and orphans, and helped them to reintegrate into society through the medium of culture and arts.  The result is the most amazing circus show with some fairly awesome acrobatics and balancing acts.  The story of the show was a little odd and had something to do with a bunch of school kids and a severed head that turned them into zombies, I think?! Never the less, the show was great to see and it was good to feel like we were putting our money directly into the hands of people who will use it appropriately to educate and train and encourage these young kids to have a brighter and better future.

So our main reason for being in Battambang was to take a tour to the bamboo train, but we figured we may as well make a day of it so booked a full day tour with our tuk-tuk driver to see the best of Battambang.  Having read about it in Lonely Planet we asked our driver to take us to the old Pepsi factory, which Lonely Planet made sound amazing, we expected to see a deserted factory with old bottles and machines everywhere. In fact we were not allowed in past the gates and so saw nothing but an old building with a Pepsi sign on the front, well that was disappointing thanks Lonely Planet!

Next stop the Bamboo train, this is a health and safety nightmare of a tourist attraction, basically since the trains no longer run this route to get around the locals created their own way to travel on the disused train lines.  The general construction is a pair of train wheels at the back and the front, a flat bed made of –you've guessed it- Bamboo with a lawnmower engine at the back.  It has now become the main tourist attraction in the area and for some unknown reason we paid our entrance fee and got aboard.  The tracks have definitely seen better days, you can see that they are bowed left, right and centre and every so often there is a gap of a good half a centimetre in the lines which makes the already fast and uncomfortable flat bed jump and shake and threaten to derail. So here we are sat on a piece of bamboo, tearing across the countryside at a good 20 MPH at least and what is up ahead, cows on the track.  But this was not a problem for our driver, who just accelerated and hoped that they moved before we got there.  After about 15 minutes of being rattled and rolled and hoping that we stayed on the rails we pulled up at an area that had a few mini cafes set up.  Thankfully this was the end of the line so we were more than happy to part with a couple of dollars for a diet coke to celebrate having survived. The only problem was that we now had to go back the way we had come, bring it on.

Refreshed and ready for the return trip we hopped on the train and headed at speed back along the track.  My heart started to race when I saw something up ahead, not a cow, but another bamboo train…. Um how does this work?  Seemingly it is all part of the adventure.  We stopped got off the train, the driver took off the flatbed, lifted the wheels off the track and simply rebuilt it all on the other side of the train.  Unbelievable we must have hit bamboo train rush hour as no sooner were we back on the rails was another train coming at us, this time it was their turn to get off and be dismantled.

What an experience that was, not one I plan to repeat and my bones were shaking for a good 2 hours after, but at least I can check it off the list – Battambang Bamboo Train – Done.

The next part of our tour was a tad more depressing, it was our first insight into the horror caused by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I will save the full history lesson for the Phnom Penh Blog, but basically between 1975 and 1979 Pol Pot and his army undertook a horrific campaign of genocide throughout Cambodia and brutally executed 3 million people.  As a result of the horrible atrocities that took place across the country during the Khmer Rouge campaign many of the tourist attractions today are a stark reminder of what the Khmer people endured.

In what couldn’t be a bigger contrast to the fun and excitement of the Bamboo Train the next stop was the Killing caves of Phnom Sampeau.  We made one major mistake when we left our tuk-tuk driver at the bottom of the hill, we told the moped man trying to make us pay a dollar for a ride up the hill that we were fine and we would walk.  Major mistake! After a good 20 minutes of huffing and puffing and stopping for a rest we were redirected half way back down the hill by two Khmer ladies who could tell we had no idea where we were going and had missed the entrance to the temple.  So we eventually found the temple which had amazing views over Battambang but we were still lost and couldn’t find anything that looked like a cave.  After a bit of wondering we found what looked like a cave with a few skulls and no obvious walkway down to a hole in a rock face.  Despite Tim’s best efforts I was not persuaded to venture down to investigate.  So we went back to the start and found another path which eventually led us to where we were headed, the killing cave.  The cave is now a serene temple which houses a relaxed and calm reclining Buddha which is watching over a glass case filled with the skulls of the victims murdered here.  It is strange to be in a place that is so sad, yet so beautiful.  We made our way back out of the cave to the huge Buddha which sits on the hill and just as we were about to head back down the hill we saw tourists wizzing up the hill on mopeds so we figured we must be missing something.  We were right, after another 15 minutes of wheezing and huffing and puffing we made it to the top of the hill and a rather fine family of macaque monkeys sitting around watching us.  We followed the path lined with monkeys and at the top of the hill was a very small temple with the most amazing views over Battambang.  It was flat for miles around and you could see a storm rolling in and lightening flashing across the sky.  We started to head back down the path and something hit me in the head.  I turned to see what it was and above me was a cheeky looking monkey who had clearly just thrown some random nut at me, gee thanks monkey!

Back at the bottom of the hill we found our tuk tuk and were a little concerned to see the engine of his motorbike in pieces all over the floor, hmm, I didn’t expect that.  He was not the least bit concerned and just told us to buy a drink and go and sit on a wall to wait for the bats?!  We didn’t actually know that we were going to see bats but hey ho.  We treated ourselves to a couple of cans of Angkor beer and got ourselves a spot on the wall to sit and look at a cave.  No sooner had we sat down had a young lad appeared and started to ask us the usual tourist questions, where are you from, how long are you in Battambang/Cambodia.  We assumed he was trying to sell us something so just remained polite; it turns out this is actually a major hangout for students from the university who are learning English and want to practice.  They come here ever night knowing that there is nowhere for the tourists to escape and they have our undivided attention for as long as it takes for the sun to set and for the bats to come out of the cave, cunning.  As it was our student was really sweet and clearly had no need to practice his perfect English, I think he just likes to chat.  So as the sun started to descend the bats started to come out of the cave,  I am not talking hundreds of bats, I am talking thousands of bats and in fact our student claimed there were a million.  I couldn’t put a figure on it, but there were a lot of bats!  The sky turned black with just swarms of them all headed out for a night on the town.  We said a rushed goodbyes to our new student friends and the tuk tuk which now had miraculously been put back together followed all the other tuk tuks full of tourists to get a different view of the mass of bats as they flew over the fields.  It really was something of an amazing sight.  As the bats started to disperse the rain started and it was time for us to call it a day and head back to Battambang.

Our last day we decided to explore the town and even after Lonely Planet’s rubbish suggestion to see the Pepsi factory we felt obliged to go and see some of the old French colonial architecture and the disused train station they recommended.  The French colonial architecture was fairly disappointing, just a few rows of buildings with little balconies and shutters, pretty but nothing blog-worthy.  The disused railway was ok, worth the short walk at least.  It is a bit haunting to see the main entrance just all closed up, the railway lines hidden by grass and the old platforms deserted.  The one problem with a disused railway station is that it is a perfect place for scabby street dogs to take up residence.  We discovered this whilst playing on the platforms and suddenly realised that there were a whole lot of bright eyes and bushy tails eyeing us up.  Ok, so dogs can smell fear and we can’t run.  I have never power walked so quickly out of anywhere in my life.  Back in the street and dog free we could relax.

So we managed to do a fair amount in a town that doesn’t really have much so it is onwards to Phnom Penh. 

Another bus and another 5 hours across the country, this was where our luck with buses went down the pan.  First off the bus was totally full and in fact had more people than seats, we were ok as we had our seats but others were three to a seat, comfy.  The problem with my seat was that the back would only stay in the fully reclined position, no matter how many times I pulled the back up, after 2 bumps I was flat on my back again, no doubt driving the person behind as mad as I was being driven.  Then the fun really started when a small kid who was a part of the three to a seat game started to throw up because the bus was so bumpy, I handed over my wetwipes and closed my eyes hoping it would all go away, it didn’t, it was a VERY long 5 hours to Phnom Penh.  I hate Cambodian buses!!

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