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Battambang and the Bamboo Train

After leaving Phnom Penh our next destination was the sleepy old French colonial town of Battambang, in the north west of the country. This meant yet another fun bus journey along what are generously called ‘National Highways’, dodging cows, buffalo, dogs, chickens and small children, all of whom seem to avoid getting run over – but only just! On arriving in Battambang we struck lucky with our hotel; the nicest we’d had in Cambodia so far, with a roof terrace where we spent the early evening watching the sun set over the town.

There wasn’t a huge number of sights to see, but the next morning we hired another tuk-tuk driver and headed off for our first stop which was the Bamboo Train. This is less grand than it sounds, and is really just the abandoned railway line built by the French in the 1800’s being put to use by the locals. A metal frame resting on 2 sets of wheels, rigged to a go-kart engine is probably the best way to describe it, and they are used to move goods and people from village to village along the line, as well as taking tourists for a ride for a slightly extortionate fee! It was all quite pointless but good fun and surprisingly fast. Since there is only one set of tracks, meeting someone coming the other way means one of the drivers having to completely dismantle their train to let the other one pass, but thankfully we always seemed to get the people we met to do it instead of us!

Our next stop was Phnom Sampeau, a rocky outcrop in the otherwise completely flat landscape. Perched on the top were several Buddhist temples, inhabited by a few monks and a group of wild monkeys which we were told not to approach! It was a long way up in the searing heat, but the views from the top were spectacular and made it worthwhile. There was also another sad monument to the Khmer Rouge at the top of the rock – a cave where those who didn’t produce enough on the neighbouring farmland or who committed the slightest indiscretion were disposed of in brutal fashion.

The next morning we moved on again, this time by boat. We departed at 7am on a very crowded river boat, full of both people (mainly tourists), luggage and supplies for the various stops along the river. Our destination was Siem Reap, which is only an hour or two by coach, but anything from 4-12 hours by boat depending on how high the river is, but we’d been told it was worth doing once so we gave it a go. We passed through some interesting Cambodian countryside around a very windy section of river before it widened out and we starting passing through the floating villages inhabited mainly by fishermen. We stopped off for a break at a shop in one of the 170 villages, which it has to be said was fairly basic, and Gem wasn’t too impressed with the facilities which consisted of a whole in the deck with the river below!

Towards the end of the journey we passed across the Tonle Sap lake where for some reason we were joined by another small boat containing a man and his three children, one of whom had a huge live snake wrapped around her neck! We weren’t quite sure what they wanted, or what they were planning to do with the snake, but eventually they departed! We finally arrived in Siem Reap in the late afternoon, about 8 hours after we left Battambang – by then we’d had more than enough of being on the river!

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