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Cambodia Adventure, Continued 25 February 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Travelling.
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We decided to head down to the floating village on the Tonle Sap. Tonle Sap is a gigantic inland lake and river system which during the dry season (when we were there) runs west, and which joins the Mekong, contributing to the water flowing through the Mekong Delta.

During the wet season, though, when monsoonal rains and snow melt from the mountains in China make the Mekong swell enormously, the Mekong Delta becomes so saturated that the tributary in fact has nowhere to deposit it’s waters, so the Tonle Sap river first stops up, then starts flowing in the opposite direction, back into the Tonle Sap lake! So the water level rises during the wet season by up to eight metres every year, meaning that people living in the area have had to adapt.

Cue the idea of a floating village. As you would know, we have seen many floating villages already around Vietnam. Unfortunately, the lack of novelty, strongly combined by a super dodgy racket which controls the tickets sales to the village, meaning that prices have inflated to $20 USD per person (with no competition either allowed or possible) made for a less than enjoyable experience. In hindsight, we wish we would have skipped the village all together.

We did get to see a crocodile farm, though.

That afternoon we spent shopping in Siem Reap, getting massages, and generally being lazy, drinking cocktails by the pool at the hotel.


We had booked a bus trip to Battambang the next day, because I wanted to go on the bamboo train. Being nerdy as I am, I love trains, and I really could not pass up the opportunity to go on this one.

The bamboo train (or the norry) is a unique little tourist attraction which is unlikely to be around for much longer. This is because of the rail history of Cambodia: the line that connects Phnom Penh to the Thai border is of extremely bad quality, mainly because it was laid a long time ago, and the country has been too poor and war ridden to upgrade it. Passenger trains stopped running long ago, and the goods trains that are still chugging along the tracks that have completely buckled from the heat have a top speed of about 20 km/h.

However, the locals living on the tracks have taken to use it to transport people and goods with make-shift bamboo trains: placing four wheels on two axels, covering it with a flat bamboo contraption, and using a motorbike engine with a fan belt to propel the vehicle forward over the rails. The tracks are used to go both ways – so when you encounter oncoming traffic, the two drivers quickly assess which train has less passengers (norrys carrying motorbikes get precedence). When it has been decided who ‘loses’, the passengers of that norry have to descend, the norry is quickly dissembled by the two drivers, the other bamboo train is let through, the drivers reassemble the norry again, and they both go on their merry way in opposite directions.

It is great fun (or so I thought at least), feeling the wind in your hair and hearing the rhythmic steel on steel every time the contraption goes over a joint between the rails. I spent most of my time grinning like a village idiot, or at least until I got flies stuck in my teeth and all over my arms (the sunscreen was a bit sticky). Slowing down for cattle crossing the rails, we both looked at each other and smiled – I had now done and seen all the things I had on my list of things to do and see in Cambodia, and it was only day 4!

The train lines in Cambodia are currently being upgraded, however, in an effort to connect Singapore with Bangkok via rail, so this little gem is doomed to disappear in the not too distant future. Get in while you can!

After the norry adventure, we continued to Wat Banan.

Wat Banan was built on top of a hill in the 10th Century, and is claimed to have been the inspiration for Ankor Wat. It is a punishing ascent to the top – 359 steps (and the steps are quite large, so it takes quite some effort to get up there) which are so steep for the first bit that you cannot even see the Wat at the top.

But once you get up there, it is an amazing sight – the Wat is wonderfully red and the views all around are magnificent. The temple hill is pretty much the only hill in the surrounding countryside (except for the other hill which we climbed later that day) and you can really see far around. We could also hear a ceremony going on somewhere down there, which filled the temple site with drumming and chanting.

Unfortunately (for me), the temple is still in use, meaning that there was incense burning everywhere. I felt like I would suffocate, especially after being winded from the hike up there. But I managed to find a beautiful little spot where there was no smoke at the other side of the temple, where I could sit and overlook the five towers that remain (in a semi collapsed state) and there are still quite a few carvings that remain as well. I wondered what it would have looked like in its prime, but could not imagine it. It was beautiful all the same.

After climbing back down (I had to zig zag to minimise the impact on my knees – to much laughter by the locals) we bought sugarcane juice to quench our thirst. I love sugarcane juice, and buy it in Vietnam all the time. But I have never had any with dead floating bees in it, though.

The ride from Wat Banan to the other hill – Phnom Sampeu – took us through Cambodian countryside that was parched and dry, but I am sure it would be splendid during the wet season, with rice fields stretching as far as the eye can see.

Phnom Sampeu is famous for the horrors that played out here during the Khmer Rouge regime, and because I know full well the evil people can be capable of, I chose not to go to the ‘killing caves’. Instead, we hiked to the top via a set of stairs, and had a look at the temple at the top of the hill. But by this stage, I was somewhat templed out, and was more interested in looking at other things. We found a set of stairs that led down into a natural crevice in the mountain, where at the bottom you could see two more statues. Descending the stairs, you could feel the stinging odour of guano enter your nostrils. At the bottom of the crevice, we were surrounded with high limestone walls on all sides.

All of a sudden, a large, white bird – my first ever owl in the wild! – makes a quick circle above our heads and then disappears, ready to go hunting in the waning sunlight. Walking back up out of the crevice on the other side, we see a little, bushy-tailed, red squirrel scurrying over the rocks, and there are monkeys coming out to eat the offerings made by humans.

We walk back down to the bottom of the hill to see the bats leaving the cave for the night. It is an interesting experience, because they are literally all flying in about a metre-wide highway of bats – thousands and thousands of them, causing the gray evening sky to go black with flitting bodies. The tuk-tuk driver showed us how they change direction when you clap – the sound waves make them move away from the clapper.

The way home was on an unsealed road, and the dust was unbearable. Luckily, we had stopped to buy scarves before heading back, so we both wrapped our faces entirely up in the scarves, and sat there looking like bandits on the back seat back into Battambang. Even with the scarves, we were completely covered in red dust when we were back in the hotel, and a shower did little to get it out of my pores, because the white towel was far from white when I was finished scrubbing it all off.

Battambang itself is not much to speak of, so I won’t. But I will mention the little restaurant called The Smoking Pot where we went for dinner – and had expatty hamburgers with chips, just what we felt like after spending days eating the local cuisine. It is a quaint little restaurant, and we very much recommend it if you do go to Battambang. But don’t go to Battambang for it, because unless you like the idea of the bamboo train, there is nothing much else going on in the second largest city in Cambodia.


1. Lizeth - 3 March 2010

The bamboo train sounds like great fun!

2. taumeheagehaf - 22 March 2010

i honestly adore all your writing way, very attractive,
don’t give up and keep writing simply because it just simply nicely to follow it,
looking forward to looked over far more of your posts, cheers!

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