Cruising on the Bamboo Railroad

Day 1

I always get overly excited about strange attractions while traveling. I’m from the United States, a country that built roadside attractions to keep road trips a little wacky and a lot more fun. I guess I have my nationality to blame for this obsession, and it has no boundaries. Take for instance Battambang, Cambodia. A lot of people skip this section of the country on their trip, but I for one couldn’t wait to get there. It’s not an overly interesting city, though it’s not horrible either, but it’s home to something called the bamboo railroad.

In case you’re trying to figure out how a railroad could be created out of bamboo, let me just explain how this whole thing works. Back when France had planted its flag in Cambodian soil they built a railroad line that ran a great length of the country. The railroad itself is now defunct, and has been for a really long time, but that didn’t stop the Cambodians from finding a use for the miles of line left behind. Being ingenious, they took the wheels from some old carts and built bamboo platforms to set on top of them. Thus the bamboo railroad was created.

Every year there seems to be chatter about it being replaced with an actual train and new railway system, yet it’s still around leading me to believe all the hype is doing more for tourism than word of mouth ever could. It was even listed in my travel book as possibly not operating.  Luckily for me it was still running when I arrived in Battambang, and was the perfect way to begin a long and interesting tour around the area. I had been looking forward to the moment I’d find myself zooming along on one of those rickety carts, and when it arrived I was not let down.

It’s a fairly simple and short ride from one end of track down to a small village, where almost instantly a group of people welcome you with large smiles, beer, and crafts made from leaves and grass. I had been riding the rails with a couple, whose names I never did catch, and all three of us were surrounded by children handing us little gifts and hoping for monetary compensation. They were by far the best trained sales-children I have encountered during my trip, as they didn’t beg or demand anything, but were literally just good enough to make us feel like they deserved something for their time and creativeness. None of us gave them very much, but getting even a little money seemed to make them the happiest creatures alive.

I left with a ring, a head band, and a large grasshopper in my hair and felt wonderful about the whole experience. During this section of the ride we found ourselves face to face with another cart and a pride match began between our conductor and the one facing us began. We were more than willing to move out of the way, being 3 against about 15, but in the end we were given the right of way only to run into a line of 3 cars a few minutes later that forced us off the track. Luckily these things are easy to take apart or we would have been in a standoff for eternity.

Next my tour guide and I were headed to Wat Banan, a small temple complex similar in style to the temples in Angkor if my memory serves me correctly. It’s up a long staircase (because why wouldn’t it be?!?!), and along the way a group of women stopped me and in a confusing mix of Khmer and English I finally understood that they wanted me to take their photo. This actually happens to me a lot, and never ceases to be both interesting and fun. I obliged and showed them the image before we all parted with smiles from ear to ear.

To be honest I spent more time going up and down the stairs than I did in the entire temple complex. It’s not really that big, and anything you see after the temples in Angkor don’t feel very impressive, but it was still an interesting place to visit. I met my guide in a restaurant at the bottom, and we chatted while waiting out a rainstorm. I’ve all but forgotten his name, which isn’t unusual for me, but I really enjoyed spending the day with him on the back of the motorbike we were traveling on. Our next stop would be the killing caves, which is essentially a smaller version of the killing fields in Phnom Penh, which I will cover in a later post.

The killing cave is a small cave with a temple inside full of skulls, and is set into a mountain which also has a temple with a cannon left over from the war just sitting outside the entrance like a statue meant to be there in the first place. Once I had been given a tour of everything the mountain had to offer, we were off to the small village nearby to wait out the next section of my day: the flight of the bats. Now this was an incredibly hard thing to capture on film, as there are literally millions of small black dots to try to capture, so be nice about the following photos.

As the bats continued to flood out of the cave, and the light began to fade, I hopped onto the back of the motorbike and we sang “Hit the Road Jack” as we zoomed back towards my hotel. It had been a great day.

Day 2

This would be my last day in Battambang, so I spent it cruising around town in a tuk tuk. There were still a few things I was interested in seeing, so I made sure to check as many things off my list as possible. Included in this list is another section of abandoned French railroad line and the rundown building which used to be a train station but are now both a dump and pasture for cows, an old Pepsi bottling plant which I broke into, much to the fear of my driver; and the Presidential palace which is actually now a guesthouse thanks to the new version being built right next door.

It was a good day to say the least, and was topped off with some delicious food at a cafe down the road from my guesthouse. What a perfect ending to a great section of my time in Cambodia.

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