Bamboo train and dust in Battambang

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December 12th 2009
Published: January 14th 2010
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After a pretty unexciting (scenery wise) three and half hour bus trip we arrived in Battambang, another small city on the banks of the Mekong River. We found a guest house and spent the rest of the day exploring the place. Unfortunately Battambang and I didn't gel - I felt that it had no soul. Jerry liked it though but then he seems to like most places! It was very dusty, again with a wide riverside promenade, and seemingly no population as the streets had barely a person on them. It was very hot so I guess most people were inside. The streets along the river were lined with old French colonial buildings as are all the Mekong towns. All seemed to be in a sad state of repair - though one was in the process of being restored - it was nearly complete and did look wonderful. The large undercover market area was bustling again by late afternoon and it was a very interesting one to wander through. There were dozens of jewelery stalls, all with jewelers behind them busily working with the bright yellow gold so popular in Asia. The next province is famous for gem stones and there certainly were a lot for sale in stalls at the market. Another industry was carving very large pieces from wood - there were enormous heavy statues for sale in all the shops on the riverside. As well as larger pieces they were carving miniature Buddhas from bone, marble, wood and even ivory. We spent a fascinating ten minutes watching a man making a finely detailed Buddha piece from ivory. His workbench was lined with blocks of the tusk - he assured us it was legal ivory - I guess it was as he certainly wasn't trying to hide the tusk from public view. There were also rows of women making over the top wedding outfits - very sparkly, heavily frilled and all beautifully hand beaded. Some of them were literally covered in bead work - I was fascinated as I watched the speed with which the girls sewed each bead on, one by one! I think the dresses were to be worn by the brides though they were in every colour of the rainbow. They were expensive - the cheapest I could find was a hundred US dollars - a lot of money in Cambodia. The other interesting items at the market were the piles of fresh pepper for sale (all from the Kep area which we planned on visiting) and baskets of tiny plucked birds, all tied together by their legs. They were a local delicacy, though not one I planned on trying!
Next morning we hired a tuk tuk for a day of sightseeing in the surrounding countryside. We had a great day out - though a very dusty one! You quickly realise why the traditional cotton checkered scarf is constantly carried by the locals when you venture out in a tuk tuk.- you have to cover your mouth and nose with something to keep out the heavy red dust. Over the next couple of days we were to encounter the worst day we've seen anywhere - and all this dust for eight months turns into thick red mud for the other four months of the year. … I wandered why they even bothered to wash their clothes as they were hung out to dry in the midst of the dust anyway! First stop was the bamboo train which is a highlight of any visit to Battambang. The train line goes to Phnom Penh but is only used three times a week by proper trains so for the remainder of the time the local people have their own version of a train which they use to carry goods the few kilometers between villages. They comprise of a wood and bamboo frame, with a small motor attached, which sits on top of some wheels. These trains are made to be lifted off the line if you come to another coming towards you from the other direction. The train with the least amount of luggage and passengers has to be pulled apart to allow the other passed. It was a lot of fun - we knew we were going to be in for a great ride when the driver strapped on his motor cycle helmet before we left! They travel really fast along very warped lines - there was a fair bit of bouncing around on the little cushions we were perched on. We stopped a couple of times but the other trains were unloaded. We loved it and I can certainly see why it is highly recommended. I laughed the whole way. The line is currently being upgraded and there eventually will be a regular connection through to Thailand
Bamboo train driverBamboo train driverBamboo train driver

I was a bit worried when I saw that he was wearing a helmet!
- that will signal the end of this fabulous ride then.
The rest of the day was spent visiting nearby attractions. First stop was the ruin of Wat Phnom Banan which was supposed to be a miniature Angkor Wat. To get there we had to walk up a very steep flight of stairs to what wasn't a particularly interesting temple, though we had a fabulous view of the surrounding area. You could see the line of the road through the trees - it was easy to find as all the roadside trees were red from the dust. Next stop was another hilltop site - our tuk tuk wasn't allowed up so we both hopped on the back of some motorbikes and were driven to the top - lazy of us but it was very hot! We visited a sad cave which the Khmer Rouge dropped people into via a hole in the top. Another10,000 people lost their lives here. Within the cave is a large reclining Buddha and a glass walled memorial which is full of skulls from the bodies found there. The cave was hung with fabric remnants of the deceased clothing. From there we went further up to a lovely temple complex on the summit. We stopped at several of the villages in the area that afternoon - all very traditional with simple bamboo and banana thatch houses. The area was pretty, even with all the dust, and would be lovely when the fields were lime green with rice crops. At the moment only the stubble is left in most of the fields. The driver took us along the dusty roads which lined the Mekong and we stopped to see a Muslim fishing village with the stilt houses perched out over the water. The edge of the river was lined with vegetable gardens so looked green and very pretty! Another great day finished with a welcome hot shower and a lovely meal at a pretty restaurant around the corner.
We had debated about leaving the town and heading back to Phnom Penh but spotted a sign advertising cooking classes - we were both totally addicted to Khmer curries and thought that this would be a great way to learn how to cook them. We had a fabulous morning which started with a visit to the market to buy fresh ingredients and then we spent the morning preparing three dishes, which we ate as we cooked them. The curry was fun to make as we used a big marble mortar and pestle to blend the fresh herbs. Hopefully it will taste similar at home when I make it there - after I've bought my mortar and pestle! We had met a lovely lady called Ruth in Siam Reap and whilst in Battambang we had an email from her saying that she would be in Battambang that evening. We arranged to meet for dinner - which resulted in us deciding to share a car the following day to visit one of the more distant Angkor temples - Banteay Chhmar - which is close to the border with Thailand. It was a two and half hour drive to reach it - the last hour and half on a dirt road. It was a busy road as there were a lot of traffic coming from Thailand though it was not a legal border crossing for tourists. All local traffic - mainly small trucks loaded with bicycles etc. Our driver said most of the vehicles were loaded with goods bought on the black market. We passed many motorcycles loaded up with piles of plastic fuel cans - all bought in Thailand and then sold cheaply to the hundreds of tiny 'plastic drink bottle' petrol stands which line road ways everywhere in Cambodia and Vietnam.
The Banteay Chhmar temple was one of my favourite temples. It was constructed in around 1180 and was known for it's magnificent carvings. We were the only visitors there and spent a couple of hours wandering amongst the ruins. The temple is currently being renovated - it will take at least 25 years to do - and we were able to talk to the archaeologists working on the site. It's quite a process to repair the temples - like a big jigsaw puzzle! Many of the carvings on the site are damaged, particularly the Buddhas as they have had their heads carved off and sold illegally on the world antique market. However there was still plenty to see and those there were really amazing. I felt they were in much better condition then the ones at Angkor Wat - certainly the detail was much clearer as the carvings appeared deeper. The bottom half of many of the walls were still under ground which is protecting them for the moment. There were once eight multi armed carvings in a sequence on one of the walls - today only two are left - the other six were hacked off in 1998 and sold in Thailand. It is terribly sad to know that this happened in recent times - and will probably continue to happen as the site didn't appear to be well guarded. From there we went to another smaller temple in the Bayon style (with another face) It was in this area that we saw our first (and only) red 'Danger - beware of mine' signs. This area was until recently still heavily mined. We watched a man with an artificial leg collecting water from a pond - no doubt one of many mine victims in the area.
It was a fabulous day - we stopped in the dust to visit a small local market - would have liked to stop at a few more of the villages but really didn't want to get out into the heavy red air. We saw many bullock carts heading home on our trip back to Battambang - they were many of them on the roads as the local population are quite poor and they haven't replaced the with the 'iron cow'. This contraption costs US$1500 and is used as a taxi, plough, truck and it can even pump water. Amazing invention - I remember watching a show on SBS in Australia about a brother and sister catching a boat down the Mekong from Phnom Penh (where they worked) back to the family village to attend the celebration which followed the purchase of their father's new 'iron cow'. And so ended our few days in Battambang - I still hadn't really taken to the place but ended up enjoying my time there a lot. We headed back to Phnom Penh for another two night before yet another bus trip to the coastal town of Kep. I felt the need to smell the ocean after all the red dust!

Additional photos below
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Carving with many arms at Banteay ChhmarCarving with many arms at Banteay Chhmar
Carving with many arms at Banteay Chhmar

There were eight figures until 1998 when the other six were stolen

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