Sunday, 21 July 2013

Day Thirteen - Battambang - Cambodia

We got up and had an American style breakfast at our hotel in Battambang before heading out and familiarising ourselves with our surroundings now there was some daylight. We walked the small distance out of the back of our hotel to where Battambang's old railway station used to lie. Now the once bustling railway station clock constantly reads two minutes past eight in a time and era long in the past. Now just beside the station, near the decaying old rails that no longer run parallel, there are a few disused train sheds that represent a time back in the early 1900's when this country was a French colony.

It's sad to think this was once a bustling line that connected Thailand's Bangkok with Cambodia's Phenom Penh. Now these old sheds just provide a shelter for the city's poor and the railway line somewhere for people to walk to the next village. Now grass grows between the paving tiles and roots have made the steel tracks curve. When I was looking at the history of the line it's hard to work out when this line went out of use exactly - obviously in Cambodia the horrific civil war destroyed most of it decades ago but it seems some (very small parts) maybe on the Thai side were in use until 2009. When reading up on the history there is also a lot of talk about it being regenerated to connect this rural town again with Phenom Penh but most of the websites say that was supposed to be by 2013 and there's definitely no sign of development right now! That all being said the defunct old railway has helped the community in some ways which I will come to later!

We went on wandering around the town going past the market and a group of monks all dressed in their traditional orange costumes on their way to somewhere. We also went along the river bank that is home to some beautiful French colonial buildings scatters between the much pooper local shelters.

After that we went back to our hotel and picked up a tuc tuc to take us out into the countryside where the real beauty is in this area. When we made our way out of town we suddenly realised that it's a much bigger place than we though last night driving in. I think the lack of street lamps made it seem at lot smaller in the dark. It's still not massive by any means (especially for the country's second biggest city) but definitely on the large town side of things rather than large village! You can't make any comparison with this city and Phenom Penh either - it's so much less developed and rural and so much poorer. However , it's a happy place with smiles everywhere and again people seem very welcoming and happy to have you here visiting.

We drove through the jungle and rice paddy lined country side down long straight roads lined with poor settlements. There were a number of weddings along the way with loud pumping music blasting out of speakers and children played along the roadside near cows grazing on hay. The land is very flat here mainly due to the huge river that floods vastly across the land. Once in a while there is a hill (or rather a mound) that breaks this flatness up. We stopped at one of these called Wat Banan which has 159 (very steep) steps to climb to reach the temples at the top. Our excellent guide explained the history behind these temples and how it is supposedly the inspiration for Ankor Wat which we will travel to tomorrow.

We climbed up and admired the view over the distance back to Battambang before returning to our tuc tuc to an old part of the railway. We rode most of the journey back before taking a side track to the railway line. We stopped off at an area where the locals have made makeshift railway carriages consisting of a large say 2 - 3 meter Bamboo tray which they lay onto a set of railway wheels. A pull start engine is then mounted on top with a belt connecting to the back set of wheels. This is powered up and you can make your way down 7 kilometres of bumpy, wiggly old railway to the next village.

I had originally discovered this on a you tube video back in the UK which dated back a few year now. The locals have now caught onto the tourist interest and there was a police officer there now who you pay a fee of ten dollars to per ride. That being said it is still a great experience! There is also a village at the other end that you stop at for fifteen minutes that you can purchase a cool can of coke as well as a few novelty t shirts should you wish! I have read some negative blog post and reviews of this railway journey when I just looked it up of westerners complaining about paying or tipping a dollar for the journey. Sure a local did tell us discreetly that we should tip our driver but we would have anyway - I know that the ten dollars I paid to the police officer wasn't going to the locals and I certainly don't mind leaving a tip to our driver so he benefits too. In the UK I'd have paid about thirty quid for a joyless 'fun' train journey like this so I certainly don't mind spending fifteen quid here. It's disappointing to hear people who are not used to travelling complaining about tipping someone who probably sleeps outside in all weathers and has worn the same cloths for months. Try turning the situation around and see how you would act then I say! Rant over but I personally (and Jamie too) really rated the experience.
At the stop off on the journey some local kids also crafter some jewellery made from reeds. By the time I left I had received two rings from handsome young boys, a bracelet and an amazing grass hopper for my hair all included in my ten dollar trip. The local girls also came to talk to us asking questions about where we were from and where we were traveling but by no means pressuring us into anything. Sometime just showing interest in other people lives rather than turning back and running to where you came from is worth more to locals than cash anyway!
We headed back to Battambang and grabbed some lunch of local Khmer food which was delicious and for both of us and drinks less than a few quid! We will be heading back to this bar later as there is a local Khmer band playing and the French ex-pat owner claims he works for the local circus (if we heard right!)
Battambang has been a great experience I only wish like a lot of places we have visited we had more time here. Tomorrow we are off at 6am on a 6-9 hour boat journey across the Tonle Sap lake to Sien Reap - it's a bird spotters paradise apparently so I'm sure Jamie will cope just fine!


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