BootsnAll Travel Network

Uniquely Cambodian

I walked outside at the appointed time to catch my ride to the boat dock for the trip to Battambang. My ride wasn’t quite what I expected as a motorcycle pulling a hay trailer pulled up. I piled into the trailer already holding a hoard of other foreigners. We drove to the boat dock passing through a village of wooden and thatch houses up on stilts. At the boat dock I saw that two boats would be making the trip. As the boats were already full (we were late), I had to get a seat on a hard wooden bench in the back. We set off down a narrow water passage that led us to Tonle Sap which is a big inland lake. We skirted along the edge of the lake and into another small channel. We spent the next seven hours going through small waterways. The trip is normally about four hours, but this late in the dry season, the water level is low. We also had to keep stopping to get the water lilies (also a bane to boaters in Louisiana) out of the propeller. The landscape was flat and dotted with small shrubs and elephant ears, like one would see traveling in coastal Louisiana. We passed through several floating villages. The houses, stores, schools, etc. are all built on rafts and rise and fall with the rain seasons.

The boat arrived in Battambang around 4:00 pm, and I let myself be whisked away to a hotel from one of the waiting hoards of touts. After checking into the hotel I set off to explore Battambang and find the train station as I would be leaving early the next morning. I would have liked to stay longer but the train only runs once a week, and it was my main reason for coming to Battambang. Despite the mass of tourists that come in daily with the boat, Battambang is still relatively untouched and the town is more for Cambodians, unlike Siem Reap, which is now a foreigner playground. I found the station and confirmed that the train was leaving the next day. I then walked to the river stopping first at a bakery, because I was hungry. Cambodia has lots of places making bread (a legacy from the French days). I paid what I thought was a relatively high price. I felt better after I hung around and saw that a Cambodian lady was also paying a lot. I should clarify to say that I wasn’t happy because she was paying lot. I was happy to know that I wasn’t also having to pay high foreigner prices even in the local stores. Food in Cambodia is just relatively expensive compared to neighboring Thailand. Walking along the river, I met a Cambodian nursing student. We ate supper together so that he could practice his English more. After supper, I returned to my hotel as I had to get up early for the train.

The next morning I headed out at about 6:00 am for the train station. This time I hopped on the back of a motorcycle for a ride. There is no public transportation as we know it in Cambodia. If you are a single person, you hail down a motorcycle, agree on a price, and hop on the back (although recently I had been on one with three people). Normally if you are a group of people, you flag down a more expensive tuk tuk (called so because their two stroke engines make that noise). When I got to the station, the ticket window was not yet open so I sat and talked to a German man who was also taking the train. By the time the ticket window opened, four other foreigners showed up. Despite the train going to Phenom Penh, we were all getting off in Pursat, from which one could take a bus to the capital.

Here is as good a point as any to explain Cambodian trains. There is only one passenger train running in Cambodia. It goes from, as I said, Battambang to Phenom Penh. There were once trains running to all the major towns in Cambodia but they have slowly been discontinued due to lack of interest and maintenance dollars. Cambodia has been sinking its money into roads and buses because they are cheaper and quicker. Despite the trip being only 280 km. It can take the train 18 hours or more to cover the distance. This is due to the lack of maintenance on the lines which have left the rails warped. Just looking down the tracks one can see the curvature. The trains must stay below 20 km/hr to keep from derailing on the bad tracks. To make matters worse the rolling stock is ancient. Our train consisted of two passenger cars, one flatbed car, and one cattle car. The passenger cars are vintage 1960’s Australian stock. The seats are hard wooden benches that have long ago ceased to be bolted to the floor so they can hop around a bit. There are holes in the ceiling and floor. The windows are open with absolutely nothing, not even bars across them. The bathrooms consist of a hole in the floor with a rotten door. The main problem here is that it also has the very large uncovered window. This allows one to wave at all the villagers as you squat on the toilet. The cars are in such bad shape, in large part, due to the bad rail lines. The cars sway back and forth constantly as they go down the track which stresses them. There are supposedly newer cars, but the government won’t use them due to fear of messing them up on the bad tracks. You may ask yourself why someone would want to submit themselves to this. Two reasons. First is that the train is very scenic and goes through many small villages. Secondly and far more important, it is probably the only train left in the world where you can ride on the roof. Despite popular stories, this is not done in India. Locals riding the train get on with hammocks that they tie to the luggage racks or stretch across the cattle car.

As I mentioned earlier, we were all going to Pursat which was a seven hour journey anyway. I didn’t look foward to spending a night on the train. If I had a hammock, I would have considered it. I bought my ticket to Pursat for 10000 riels (4000 riels = $US1). Again this is the high foreigner price. The Cambodians pay nowhere near this. The train finally left about forty minutes late. There was a problem with the Czech diesel electric engine, and there was doubt whether we would go at all. I was glad when we left because this train trip was one of my must do’s in Cambodia. The train was empty when we started. The conductor was reluctant to let us on the roof. I had read that some people had fallen off a while back. He quickly relented though, and we climbed up to the roof on a ladder. It was very fun. It was not too dangerous as the train crawls along. One does have to hold on though as the cars can sway wildly when hitting a bad section of track. It was great fun to see the surprised faces of the villagers at each stop as we waved at them from the top of the train. We were soon joined by some bamboo trains. Another aside is necessary.

Bamboo trains: The rails in Cambodia are now very rarely used. Some people decided not to let the tracks go to waste. A group of people built small railcars consisting of a bamboo raft with rail wheels powered by various engines (lawnmower, motorcycle, etc.). These rafts can travel up to 40 km/hr down the tracks. People pay to ride on them between villages. The rafts are made for quick disassembly. As there is only one track and no formal traffic control, someone has to get out of the way when two meet going in opposite directions. They somehow decide who this is to be. The owner disassembles his car to let the other pass and then rebuilds it on the track.

We rode on the roof until it got too hot. Riding in the car wasn’t as much fun. The passenger cars by this point had filled up with pineapples and bananas. The train is now mainly used by villagers transporting their fruit to be sold at markets. In fact this was the only thing I had to eat. My old guidebook said that people are constantly selling food, like the trains in India and China. This appears to be no longer the case so people should stock up on food before taking this trip. The stops at villages are rarely long enough for one to buy food. I did manage to hop off at one point to buy some cookies. I had to impart a sense of urgency to them as I didn’t want to get left (even though I could probably outrun the train over short distances). Inside the cars the lack of train maintenance once again reared it ugly head. Trees have now grown very close to the tracks. One has to keep ducking in the cars to avoid being smacked by branches. After seven hours we made it to Pursat.

In Pursat, we found the bus company and bought tickets to Phenom Penh. We had to take two different buses as there weren’t enough seats. I arrived in the capital around 7:00 pm. I shared a tuk tuk with a couple from the train and got dropped off at the Okay Guesthouse, which is in the palace/embassy district. To my surprise, I saw Maria from the New Year’s Eve party. We decided to go sightseeing together the next day. I ended the night by going to a bar with a few people from the guesthouse, finally making it into bed at about 1:30 am.

The next morning Maria and I first went to the Tuol Sleng (S-21) Museum. This was a high school which was converted to a prison and torture center by the Khmer Rouge. The classrooms had been cordoned off into small cells to hold prisoners. They slept on the concrete floor with nothing else in the cell. Some rooms contained metal bed frames on which a person was tied down and tortured with electric current. Most of the classrooms were full of black and white photographic exihibits. Many of the photos were of the prisoners. There were also many photographs of the tortured and dead bodies as well. This place is definitely not for the squeamish. One exhibit contained skulls of some of the victims as well as paintings of some of the tortures. Maria finally had enough and waited outside for me to finish going through the exhibits. This is humanity at its most base and evil form. You should prepare yourself accordingly before visiting the museum. Beggars immediately beseige visitors as soon as they get near the prison gate. Here I was initially sympathetic as many of them have gruesome disfigurements from the Khmer Rouge. My sympathy quickly turned to anger though as after giving them money they kept demanding more.

We left and set off to the royal palace for a much less depressing tour. When we got to the museum it was closed for midday. Maria and I seperated and agreed to meet back later at the palace. I headed to the river and then to the National Museum. The museum is housed in an impressive 1920’s building built in Khmer style. I actually didn’t go in. The museum contains Angkorian sculpture. I figured I had seen enough sculpture in its native setting during my three day temple tour. I ate lunch and then walked back to the palace to meet Maria. What one gets to see for their money here at the Cambodian palace is much less than in Bangkok. We got to go into the throne room with is European architecture. The main attraction here is the Silver Pagoda which has silver floor tiles. It was one of the few things not looted by the Khmer Rouge so that they could show the world that they “cared” for Cambodian culture. The pagoda contains various swords and gifts for the king. The most impressive statue was a Buddha covered in 100’s of diamonds. Some up to 22 carats. This was enclosed in bullet proof glass. After leaving the palace, we went back to the hostel and met up later for supper. We ended up eating at a local establishment. Maria was a bit put off by the chunks of congealed blood in her soup. This is common here. I have tried it before but don’t like the metallic taste. We walked in a large park which ended at a large fountain which constantly shifted colors due to LED lights. We then returned to the hostel as Maria was leaving the next day for Kampot by an early bus.

I spent the next day just wandering around the local area. There are many old French colonial buildings here. I did go to a local market where I bought sunglasses (pair number six for the trip). My last pair are at the bottom of a river in Nepal. I had thought about going out to a club called Heart of Darkness that night but changed my mind. While in Phenom Penh I heard of one story about a hold up and another about a drugging. I bought a bus ticket to Kampot for the next day (not due to the stories).

The bus trip to Kampot passed through the, by now, countryside full of rice fields and palm trees. On the bus I met Ronan (Irish) and Cassy (English) who I would hang out with for the next few days. On arrival in Kampot, we made our way past the usual crowd of people trying to convince us that their hotel is the best thing since sliced bread. We had to try three different guesthouses before finding one that had rooms in our price range (sub $5 a night). Cassy and I went to walk around the town going to a bead shop owned by a French lady. While Cassy bead shopped I sat outside and visited with the French owner. I asked if the heat was normal and she replied it’s cool now. I didn’t expect January to be so hot in Southeast Asia. We left and walked around a bit more. Kampot is a very sleepy town with few cars. It sits on an attractive river with big tropical hills in the distance. Returning to the guesthouse, the three of us booked an overnight trip to Bokor for the next day. We could have rented motorcyles to go there ourselves but the road is horrendous and beyond our skill levels.

Time for Bokor aside:
Bokor: Bokor is an abandoned French hill station built in the 1920’s. The area is now a national park. The main attraction is exploring the abandoned buildings and a respite from the heat as the station sits on a plateau 1080 meters above sea level. There is a ranger station where one can spend the night.

I woke up early and went to the market to buy baguettes, fruit, and other food to take with me on the trip as the food at the ranger station is expensive. I got two large baguettes for $0.25. A truck came to the hotel to pick us up. I rode in the front as the back was full. After leaving town and paying the $5 entrance fee at the gate, we headed up the bad road to the station. The road was once paved but is now rutted and the remaining pavements sits in chunks and the road is full of holes. There is a lot of work being done on the road as Bokor is set for redevelopment soon which will in someways be a shame. Especially if the plans to bulldoze the old buildings go through. Before reaching the summit, we stopped to see the views from the old palace but the view was thwarted due to the fog that came rolling in. Upon reaching the plateau we stopped at the abandoned church and then the ruined hotel where we ate lunch. The area, especially the church, looked like a slasher film set due to the thick fog and clouds that kept rolling through the buildings. The buildings were full of bullet holes from Vietnamese and Khmer fighting.

After eating lunch, Ronan, Cassy, and I were dropped off at the ranger station. We were the only three from the group of 10 or so spending the night. After all the tours left and it was just us, the rangers, and another couple, it was a lot of fun and very eerie to walk through all the buildings in the dense fog. Before dark fell, I walked to a nearby monastery that was newly being built on the plateau. At present it only had one monk, eight geese, and a monkey in residence. I was startled at one point on my walk by large movements in the bushes. There are a few tigers about and the ranger had set off on patrol with an AK-47. I believe this was more to catch illegal loggers. The immediate area was supposed to be tiger free due to all the tourist activity. The main area of concern would be hiking into the jungle alone which would be stupid under any circumstances. Not only are there tigers but potential land mines. That night Ronan and I used the ranger station kitchen to make pasta and tunafish. After eating, the three of us went back to the hotel and climbed to the roof to look at the stars. This was very creepy though. The hotel has a narrow staircases and many rooms which one has no idea if there are people or tigers in them. We kept flashing our lights in the bushes to check for glowing feline eyes. We really weren’t in any danger but the thought still kept crossing our minds.

The next morning the fog rolled back in even thicker than the day before once again obscuring all the views. We spent a quiet morning hearing nothing but the wind whistling through the buildings and crickets. We went back to the hotel at the appointed time to catch a truck back down the mountain. Our tour truck never came. We eventually caught a ride down in a Toyata Camry that had space. We learned that the truck with the days tour had broken down leaving the group stranded on the plateau all day while repairs were made. Because we had come down on our own we still got to do the evening boat ride along the river which was to end the tour. Because the group was stranded, we were the only ones in the big boat. We got to watch a very nice sunset over the mountains while cruising down the river.

Today I rented a bike to go out into the countryside. I rode out of town down a dirt road along the river. I turned off the main road by a school and rode down some narrow dirt paths that looked promising. They had tree cover, and it was hot. I was assualted by barrages of hellos and “Where you go” by all the kids that I passed. I finally made it to the riverside and found, much to my surprise, a small riverside restaurant complete with umbrellas and chairs. This was definitely a Khmer establishment with no foreigners in sight. No English was spoken. To order I just pointed to a dish that had just been made. It consisted of shrimp and bean sprouts in some kind of sauce. This and a coke set me back $1. It was okay but a little fishy tasting for me. After eating I sat and read and the heat caused me to enter a sort of tropical stupor. I finally abandoned reading and set about trying to figure out which babies belong to what hens as there were many chickens afoot. Even this proved to be too much of a mental effort, I saw the Khmers entering hammocks for a nap and decided I needed one too after the mentally exhausting chicken observations. I headed back to the guesthouse for a nap.

I believe I am getting into a bad habit of afternoon naps. The midday heat here makes one feel like doing nothing else. The Khmers tend to retire to hammocks under their stilt houses. My next destination won’t be condusive to breaking my new habit. I am taking a boat out to an island off the coast tomorrow. If its what I think it will be like, my biggest decision should be whether to lay on the hammock on my back or stomach. Hopefully this won’t prove to be too mentally taxing in the tropical heat…………….

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3 Responses to “Uniquely Cambodian”

  1. Gashwin Says:

    They do to ride on the roof in trains in India! It’s just not that common in the west. I’ve seen it, very rarely, even on Bombay’s suburban trains (where it is extremely foolhardy to do so, because of the electric pylons overhead, and the relatively rapid pace of the trains). I’ve been on a roof myself, in Bihar. Bihar, as you might have heard, has its own laws of space and time. 🙂

    Fascinating about the trains in Cambodia. You ought to take a lot more pictures than you do. 🙂

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  3. Preeti Says:

    Once more I am extremely glad to be vegetarian. Congealed blood in soup. Bleh.

    Have to agree with Gashwin – I’ve seen folks riding atop trains too.

    Lucky you to be enjoying warm weather, and the hammocks, and the afternoon naps. It’s “winter” here in BR.

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  5. Llew Says:

    Hi Barry, and belated happy new year!
    Been a while since I checked up on your ‘blog. I was doing a bit of planning for Sarah’s and my trip back to New Zealand and my thoughts turned to you, so I decided to have look.

    Sounds like you’re having a great time! The train in Cambodia sounds amazing… I just saw once freight train in Kampot, but none of my attempts to actually GO anywhere on one worked out.

    I’d also just been reading about the increased development on the Cambodian-Lao border. Hope the boats still run up the Mekong from Kompong Cham… The ride on the boat roof was sooo nice.

    Anyway, just thought I ought to say hi 🙂


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