Buses and Bamboo Trains: Battambang

Angkor Wat. The Killing Fields. I think they would possibly be the first things that spring to mind when you mention Cambodia, unless you’re already familiar with the country. That’s pretty much all we knew prior to planning our trip. After consulting the good old South East Asia guidebook, we picked a handful of places to go and figured that doing a loop around Tonle Sap Lake, smack bang in the centre of the country, would be the smoothest route in joining up all our destinations. Of course, things did not go that smoothly, as will be explained in the next few entries.

The city of Battambang is listed as No. 14 in Lonely Planet’s ‘Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Northern Thailand’s Top 20’, which inspired us to add it to the itinerary. It’s described as ‘the real Cambodia…one of the best-preserved colonial-era towns in the country with charming French shophouses.’ Sounds nice, eh? With that description I’d imagined petite French boulevards and charming cafés. I’d clearly gotten the wrong end of the stick; the description wasn’t incorrect, but easy to misinterpret… And before you get snotty about us using a guidebook, we weren’t going to go out of our way to get ‘off the beaten track’ just to prove a point. Plus it would be no easy feat; Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world thanks to the Vietnam War.

We’d booked a bus from Me Mates in Phnom Penh for 10:30 am, and sat eating breakfast and commenting on how smoothly things had gone in Cambodia compared to the usual Vietnamese pandemonium. At 9:30 a man came marching into the hostel shouting ‘Battambong!’ It was our bus. Breakfast was inhaled, we ran to grab our luggage and settle our bill and were shoved into a van and dropped at the bus station almost an hour before we were due to go. Shouldn’t have spoken too soon.

When the bus turned up it was a local Capitol coach and we were the only foreigners on board. Not exactly a problem in itself but it catered to the locals by blaring a good hour’s worth of Khmer karaoke which was intensely annoying. My old Ethnomusicology lecturer would flinching if she read this, but EVERY SONG SOUNDED THE SAME! The accompanying videos were as painful and could easily be divided into two categories, the first being an annoying man virtually stalking some young pretty girl (you might say punching above his weight if you’re as mean as me), and the second all duets between a man and woman, accompanied by a dancing chorus of people who looked desperate despite the unconvincing smiles pasted on their face. By dancing I mean stepping and flicking their wrists for the entire song. I mean seriously, are there no other moves in the Khmer dance repertoire! (I’m writing this whilst squished onto another bus so you’ll see why I sound so intolerant.)

  

Not one of my own pics, but similar enough for you to get the idea.

This racket meant we couldn’t concentrate on books, music (because it was drowned out), or even sleep. To top it off, the trip took an hour and a half longer than it should because the bus went all round the wreaking to drop everyone off at different locations. The bus guy didn’t speak English so we had no idea what was going on and were starting to think we were driving past Battambang.

When we finally reached the bus station we had to deal with post-bus tuk tuk drivers for the first time. Out and about, you’ll always find drivers calling ‘tuk tuk!’, but getting off a coach is another matter. The minute they spot a foreigner through the window they’re grinning and lining up ready to pounce. Trying to shake them off whilst you collect your luggage is not fun. 

We needed to get into the city so had to negotiate. One driver said he would take us to the city centre for a dollar so we picked him. Miraculously this turned into two dollars once we’d stacked up the luggage and sat down, and he also refused to drive unless we booked him for the following day too. Sure, tuk tuk drivers aren’t well paid and there’s competition for customers, but frankly, we are all fed up with this nonsense after dealing with it on a relatively frequent basis for the last six months. Lindsay ‘went Bennett’ on him and told him ‘No! We said today, not tomorrow! You are taking us for one dollar!’ His mates stood laughing but he wouldn’t budge, so we told him to shove it and got out.

Another driver turned up as we were reclaiming our luggage who spoke both good English and French. Thank goodness he did. ‘Look, I’d prefer it if you booked me for tomorrow, but I can go with the flow,’ he told us. He loved the ‘go with the flow’ phrase and said it in the most exaggerated English accent which brought some humour to the situation at least.

It was during this drive into the city that we began to wonder where all this lovely French architecture was. Battambang is a dusty city and half of the buildings are shut up so it didn’t feel very lively. Top 20 Lonely Planet? Is this the best on offer? Of course there was plenty of colonial architecture, it just didn’t look how we’d expected. In fact, it was like being in a bit of a time warp so I suppose the guidebook was right about it being ‘well preserved’. We later learned just how much the country relies on money from tourists, so I suppose this is what real life looks like in Cambodia when youre not in a tourist hotspot.

  Again, not mine. I hadn’t really seen anything that inspired me to take photos. But this is what the city looked like.

Battambang kind of reminded me of Haiphong in Vietnam. It’s the second largest city in Cambodia but it seems like a lot of nothing, or certainly at first. There doesn’t appear to be any investment or wealth but, as with most of what I’ve seen of Asia, you can always find phone shops on every street selling iPhones, iPads or the Samsung equivalents. It made me think of some PSHE lessons I had to cover last year at Stratford School. The students were supposed to decide what could be considered a want or a need. There wasn’t too much discussion surrounding water, food and cinema tickets but I was shocked that not one student would regard a mobile phone as a want. I gently tried to suggest that maybe it could be considered a want, because you know, back in my day, we actually managed without them. They wouldn’t budge. Since living in this area of the world, I’ve always found it bizarre that your average Vietnamese person makes such a basic income but undoubtedly has at least iPhone an iPhone 5 (need to read that Freakonomics book). I wonder whether those Stratford kids might have a point; sure, you won’t shrivel up and die without a phone, but internet has become so central to our lives that even many of the poorest families have a smartphone and wifi. Priorities change.
  Can’t complain for £2.50 a night.

Anyway, after arriving at our $3.25 peer night hostel, we took a little walk before getting dinner. There didn’t seem to be anywhere exciting to go so we retired to our hostel for a restful evening. The other residents were quiet and pleasant which was good, except for one girl who twice started shouting ‘Christ, there’s a spider on my face!’ during the middle of the night.

The following day was our only full day in Battambang and we had read that there were various temples nearby as well as a bat cave. We’ve seen plenty of pagodas recently so weren’t fussed about going on any any temple runs and just we didn’t really get our act together to organise a trip to this bat cave. We spent the morning doing what we do best: chilling out in a cafe for breakfast. Again, it wasn’t the sort of European-style bakery we’d come to expect, but it was decent and whiled away a couple of hours.

We’d heard about a decent massage place called ‘Seeing Hands’ which creates employment for the blind community, so we thought we’d try that. Our backs are pretty messed up from frequently carrying rucksacks for the last six months. If you had witnessed us finding the place you probably would have noticed our pace slowing as we each tried to subtly shuffle to the back of our group. Like most of the city, it was a very run down building and looked like it hadn’t changed for the last forty years. We could see the beds set up but there was only a thin curtain that barely concealed them which made us nervous. But we swallowed our apprehension and went through with it. Of course, it was absolutely fine. We were given loose clothing to wear so we didn’t need to feel nervous about onlookers. I think having clothes on and knowing your masseur can’t see makes you a lot less conscious too. 

We received an hour-long Japanese style of massage which was new for us all. It mostly involved pressing down on stress points, which was sometimes great and other times pretty painful, as Lindsay’s bruises proved. I had asked for a strong massage, as being quite ticklish, I usually find soft touches make me squirm. It was strong alright. I may not have squirmed but I sometimes had to suppress laughter. Having your glutes rolled in enormous circles and your feet pushed to your head was new. I felt great after, especially as we only paid $7. 

We could have quite easily collapsed for the rest of the afternoon but figured we should make an effort to do something exciting. I’d heard about a bamboo train, although wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, so we got a tuk tuk over to the sight. This particular tuk tuk was a converted old car (which looked strangely like a hearse). The driver let us plug in our own music so transport was improving.

  

We arrived at the site. The original train line linked Bangkok to Phnom Penh but hasn’t been in use for decades as the service was shut down by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The bit of track we’d been riding was straight line to a small village a few kilometres away. The bamboo trains themselves were essentially a rack of bamboo sticks on top of a motor on top of wheels. They were constructed and deconstructed within seconds to let other trains pass, so it surprised me when we hopped on and the driver cranked up the speed. I thought we’d be chugging along or maybe even pushed along with a stick, but it felt like a roller coaster. The track lengths have also war per from the heat so they aren’t exactly aligned for most of the stretch either so it was by no means a smooth (or safe) ride. A lot of fun though.

  
  All aboard.


We stopped on the other side for a good twenty minutes. Of course, children were doing half the selling . We had spent our budget for the day so couldn’t have bought anything even if we wanted to, but they persisted with their efforts because the knew that we ‘are very rich.’ In the grand scheme of things, of course we are. We’ve never had to go hungry or homeless. But of course, trying to explain to young children who will have been taught to target us that we do, in fact, have a limited supply of money is pretty useless. They were very sweet and bright children so we diverted the conversation and asked them about themselves. It’s always interesting to hear what they have to say.

  Children on their way home from school.

The train was reconstructed ready for us to return back, and of course, another local man told us to make sure gave our driver a $5 tip. Tipping annoys me when it’s not set in stone like it is in the USA, because you can’t budget for it. For me it’s the reason for having a living wage, however idealistic that might sound. Whinging aside, we stopped on a stone bridge to see the sun setting over the rice fields. It’s the wrong time of year so the paddies aren’t shimmering in all their glory, in fact most of them have been burned down to replenish the soil, but it was still a sight to behold.

  

In the evening we headed to the riverside for dinner. The river was basically like a stream through a marsh, probably because it’s dry season so the water levels are low. We sat under a canopy to eat and had the joy of feeling a huge insect drop on top of my head. Not sure what it was but it terrified me so I made Lindsay swap places with me. We ordered Khmer dishes, but they weren’t great; very oily and bland. Not the best ending to our trip but never mind.

So, probably not one of my recommendations for Cambodia, but not a wasted trip either; the massage and train were worthwhile. I doubt this is the most interesting blog entry I’ve made (although Lonely Planet might rate it), but I wanted to write about what I actually thought of all the places we’ve visited, rather than just bigging up the ‘best bits’ of our trip. Onto Siem Reap.

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