The Last Train From Battambang
Last Train From Battambang
The town of Battambang, Cambodia has found itself at a tourism crossroads as the city’s biggest draw will be shutting down shortly.
The last bamboo train in Southeast Asia is set to shut down at the end of this month as the country is set to upgrade its railroad system in order to help generate greater infrastructure development as well as increased trade with its wealthy neighbours. For the past several decades the train has helped transport supplies for locals and takes workers to the rice paddies. The use of the rails for tourism is a fairly recent phenomenon but another symbol of local ingenuity for quirky tourist draws. China of course has a vested interest in local resources and has put up its own money to build up the infrastructure (bridges, roads, railways, hospitals) throughout Cambodia and Laos. There is currently a rumour that a French and Australian group of investors are contemplating assisting the local community with making the railway a permanent tourist fixture.
Speaking to other travellers about Battambang and whether they plan to make the trip from Siem Reap usually ends with them contemplating whether they want to make the journey “just for the bamboo train”. With this sentiment amongst most travellers, combined with the probable closure of the bamboo train this month, has motivated me to write a post in order to show that Battambang is more than just a one trick pony.
One Awesome Day in Battambang
Our day began with our tuk tuk driver, Mr. Dollar (yes, his real name is Dollar) picking us up at our hotel around 8 am. After making a quick stop to pick up three friends from another hotel, the five of us negotiated and settled on $10 each for the day. Dollar was originally asking for $17 dollars each which Alyse and I thought might be ok if it was just the two of us, but of course with three others, Dollar could do with a little less…well dollars.
Off we went chugging along the last cement roads we’d see in a while towards our first stop, the bamboo train. As we arrived we were greeted by a tourism police officer who spoke fluent English and explained some of the history of this train, what it was and is used for and its possible closure in about a months time. After paying the family who runs the line $5 each, we boarded our trolley and met our captain who seemed no bigger than a field mouse to me but could lift her own body weight over her head as I later found out.
Like starting a lawnmower, our captain had our engine purring like a John Deer as we slowly accelerated down a very well worn line of tracks. After a few moments we were blazing at a whole 7 km per hour! This speed doesn’t seem like much on paper, but when you’ve got nothing between you and the thick bushes that line the tracks and the rice fields beyond them, it seems a heck of a lot faster!
Now one thing I forgot about as we flew down the tracks was the fact that there is only one line, meaning when another train is coming towards you, someone has to get off and let them by. There is some sort of unwritten right of way that I still can’t figure out, but the drivers decide as they slow down who will jump off their carriage, dismantle it and let the other by. Yes, that’s right dismantle it! The train is made up of only four main parts, the front and back wheels and axels, the bamboo platform and the engine. This means, quick and easy dismantling to let not only other bamboo trains by, but when they were used by traditional locomotives to transport cargo, they would have to let other much larger trains by or suffer the consequences!
After traveling for a good 20 minutes or so we reached our midway point where met by half a dozen children carrying handfuls of bracelets. Not unlike other tourist sites where children sell bracelets, these kids had their geography and basic world languages down cold. Unlike other sites, these kids actually warmed up to us and even opened up a bit about school, their aspirations and their families while showing us a rice milne and “brick factory” before leading us back to the train for our return trip. Look at these little sweeties!
As someone who loved Lego growing up, helping to put together the bamboo train was pretty awesome! The kid beside me is doing most of the heavy lifting, I was just there to spot him 🙂
Overall the train was great, fun and unique experience and we hope that the rumoured companies step up and save this special tourist attraction.
Next up we made a quick stopover along a riverbank where Dollar showed us a small Muslim fishing village which was quite pretty but the highlight of this stop was our honest and open conversation about the state of politics in Cambodia as the national election and the corruption that seems to go along with it, was still fresh in everyones minds. It will be interesting to see what happens in Cambodia before the next election in five years as it seems very clear to me that they young people are not willing to wait for the next election for change.
Wat Banan was our next stop on this day trip which was beginning to shape up to one of the best we’d had in Cambodia. The mountain temple, which predates Angkor Wat, and is even considered a prototype for the world famous temple, bears five beautiful towers representing the mythical Mount Meru. There is said to be 363 steps to the top and believe me, you feel every one of them. As we began to ascend the stairs which had massive Nagas running alongside them, a little girl decided Alyse looked warm and needed to be fanned and not just once, but the entire way up the hill! The temple is in pretty good condition with most of the towers and structures still intact and is actually still in use by people of Battambang.
Our next stop was a visit to a small village famous in the area for one thing, bats. Hundreds of fruit bats choose the trees around Battambang as their resting place during the day. Those who are brave enough to get out of your tuk tuk will be rewarded with the sight and sounds of hundreds of fruit bats hanging just above your head, pretty amazing to see.
Our final stop was a sombre one as we visited the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau. The Khmer Rouge used this site to torture and then bludgeon to death hundreds of men and women and then tossed their bodies into the caves below. In one of caves there is a small staircase which leads to a large room where adjacent to a large reclining Buddha, sits two separate boxes made of chicken wire holding the remains of the bodies pulled from the bottom of the caves. A truly horrific site to see. Just like the Killing Fields around Phnom Penh (read our post here), this site is important to see in order to truly understand what the Cambodian people have been through and how it has consequently shaped the nation.
On our way down the mountain we happened to cross paths with a massive troop of monkeys on their way up the mountain which was a welcome distraction from where our minds had been over the last hour. So far in our travels we had only seen more monkeys in one place and that was at Jigokudani Monkey Park (read our post here) just outside Nagano, Japan.
One other tourist attraction that we did not make it to, but many other travellers claim is quite amazing, is the Battambang Circus. It runs in the evenings in town and we’ve been old the performers are incredible.
As you can see from this post Battambang is more than just the bamboo train and has so much more to offer to travellers who make the short journey from Siem Reap. Alyse and I were surprised with how much this little town had to offer and we know that other travellers will feel the same even if the bamboo train goes the way of the Dodo (which we sincerely hope does not happen!).
Soum op oh,
Ross and Alyse