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Joe and Sarah's Adventures

Battambang, Cambodia

CAMBODIA | Tuesday, 2 October 2012 | Views [1229]

We decided to move on to see more of Cambodia and Battambang was highly recommended as the next best stop after Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. So after another death-defying bus ride we made it to the town. Battambang is supposedly the 2nd largest city in Cambodia, but you'd never know it-- we walked around the entire town in just about 30 minutes! The biggest sites were the former French Governor's mansion (closed to public), a regional musuem (closed to public) and a few bridges that spanned the lazy river. Needless to say it's a sleepy place and even the market was a little less rowdy than others we've seen. Everything closed by about 9pm so we took the opportunity to relax in our hotel after a long bumpy day on the bus.

View of Governor's Mansion
View across the bridge to the Governor's Mansion

What really attracts people to Battambang, besides it's calm, quiet nature and pretty French colonial architecture are the sites to see outside the town. We hired a tuk-tuk and headed out to what is recommended as the #1 tourist attraction in the whole region: The Bamboo Train. Words don't do this experience justice. There is a single train track running out of town, left over from the days of French rule. The rail system was shut down and neglected during the years after Cambodia's independence from the French and then the madness of the Khmer Rouge. There is still no rail system in the country today and these tracks are used only to transport locals with their vegetables and chickens to sell at Battambang's market and as a tourist attraction. The train "cars" are actually just bamboo platforms, about the size of a large door. These are placed down onto 2 axles that are set on the train tracks. A motorbike motor is attached to the back axle and a driver perches on the back to run the motor.

On our bamboo train!
On our bamboo train!

We climbed on, braced ourselves, and off we went! Zooming across the Cambodian countryside at 30+ miles per hour with nothing between us and the ground but a few bamboo slats was exhilirating! Overgrown brush along the tracks smacked our arms and faces as we flew by, and we had to duck several times to avoid becoming human windshields to some large bugs. The experience is almost deafening-- not just the roar of the motor, but also the loud click-clacking that the wheels make along the warped tracks. We were positive we were going to be derailed and thrown to our deaths at any moment. Especially when we saw another bamboo train zooming along straight at us! Somehow, both drivers brought their trains to a stop before we collided and then the best part of the these trains was revealed. When two trains meet like this, the one that is less loaded with people, goods, chickens, whatever, is simply picked up off its axles and moved to the side of the tracks. This allows the other to go by, and then it's put right back on and off both trains go again! (Click here to see video! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8-P_E5oPmM&feature=youtu.be)

Bamboo train disassembly
Taking the trains apart and putting them back together again

We rode about an hour out to a small village where a family invited us into their home for drinks. I drank a fresh coconut while an adorable girl made me jewelry out of long pieces of grass. Joe and our hostess talked (in broken English) about the similarities between Florida's and Cambodia's climates and flora and she decided we should trade seeds so that she could grow Florida fruits in Cambodia and vice-versa. We spent a nice half hour chatting with her and her family (the kids were excited to practice their English) before getting back on our train and zooming back the way we'd come.

Joe showing these little guys where Florida is
Joe showing these little guys where Florida is and showing
them how to spell their names in English

After our bamboo train experience we headed out towards an outcrop called Phnom Sampeau about 12km outside Battambang to see the infamous Killing Caves. Just like the more widely-recognized Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh, these caves were the site of a Khmer Rouge massacre. As our local guide informed us, members of the Khmer Rouge forced hundreds of villagers from all around Battambang province to the top of this hill, where they cruelly bludgeoned them to death (in order to save bullets) and then tossed their bodies through an open skylight into the deep caves below. A separate smaller cave was used for the children (yes, they did this to dozens of children too). What would have been simply a beautiful, tranquil place is now tainted with this horrible history. We descended to the cave via a stairway and inside viewed a golden reclining Buddha lying next to a glass memorial case full of the bones and skulls of the victims.

Heading down into the Killing Cave
Heading down into the caves

From there we made our way up to the top of the hill, where there is a complex of temples overlooking the gorgeous countryside. Joe talked to some friendly young monks keen on practicing their English, while I stalked a family of macaques that live among the trees up there, hoping to catch some good pictures. As the day drew to a close, we headed back down the mountain (on the back of motorbikes! our first rides on these over here!) and back over the bumpy dirt road into town. Overall our time at Battambang was an excellent and very moving experience. We were able to connect with more local people, learn some of the region's history from their own perspectives, and come away with a deeper respect and admiration for how they have overcome such inconceivable hardships. We were sad we could not spend more time here but Joe's siblings Sam and Margie were on their way to Ho Chi Minh city back in Vietnam, so it was time for us to backtrack a bit and head back to where we started this whole trip! More on that next.

Caught on camera! My first view of wild macaques!
Caught on Camera! It was getting dark but I got one!

Tags: bamboo train, battambang, cambodia, khmer rouge, killing caves, macaques

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