Beyond Battambang

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There are a lot of times when you travel you have one major focus for going to that area. Obviously you go to Egypt for the Pyramids, Peru for Machu Picchu, and Australia for Ayers Rock. But I don’t think most people have a huge reason for going to Battambang Cambodia. I did though, the Bamboo Railway. Sure this was reason enough for me to take 7 hours of buses around Tonlé Sap Lake, just for this little stretch of railway that was soon to disappear forever. You see, a few years back I was watching The Lonely Traveler on PBS, and they were doing a bit on little known Cambodia. The host went to check out the ingenious way the locals were transporting their goods. Well, for whatever reason, that image stuck in my gut, so here I am now, in Battambang. What I did not count on was how much we were going to enjoy hanging out here.

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We hired Mr. Hoeurn as a guide for our day trip. Well spoken, knowledgeable, and personable, what more could you need. Look him up if you are in town. Our first stop was the statue of Ta Dambung, the Man with the Stick. Ta Dambung was a peasant that found a magical stick, and used it to kill the king. The king’s son fled for fear of his life, and became a monk. Over time Ta Dambung had a dream of someone on a white horse killing him, so he ordered all holy men to be killed. When the order went out for them all to come to the city, the young prince was apprehensive to do so. An old man on a white horse came to him, and told him to use the horse to go into town. Once on the horse, the horse reared back, gave a loud neigh, and launched into the air flying. Ta Dambung seeing the flying horse, through his magical stick with all his strength, but it had no effect on the horse or prince. Seeing this, he fled and was never seen again. I assume at his point the Prince became King, and lived happily ever after. Battambang means “disappearing stick”.SONY DSC

Our next stop was my goal, the famous Battambang rail way. We stopped at the old French Rail Station, a cute colonial style building now housing a few pool tables and lots of guides working on the rail. It started out as an ingenious way to transport goods using the old tracks. The actual train has not run since the 70s, and the tracks were in rough shape. The Khmer Rouge spent a lot of time bombing the rail, and there are still lots of areas in Cambodia with land mines. The locals needing to transport goods came up with an idea of a bamboo platform, a motorcycle engine, and two sets of rims with tank wheels and there you have it, the Bamboo railway was born.

‘The ride is really amazing, like being on a roller coaster with out all those safety standards. There are no height restrictions, no safety bar, and certainly no inspectors. Nope, as with most travel, it’s at your own risk. You end up going a lot faster then you would expect, flying through the fields. I opted to surf a bit, standing up on the platform, doing my best Patrick Swayze in point break. One rough bump easily could have sent me flying for a very rough landing. And lets not forget all the poisonous snakes that hang out on the high grass on the edges. Yep, not the smartest thing to do, but boy was it fun. Bugs flying in to your eyes, little rocks bouncing up, and every jarring bump rocking you to your very bones. There are numerous gaps as large as 2 or 3 inches between rails, giving you a nice slamming sensation. When another Norrie comes from the other direction, the one with a heavier load has the right of way. Everyone gets off the lighter one, unloads all the gear, picks up the platform and wheels, and moves aside allowing the bigger one to pass. Then you set if all up again.

We rode for about a half hour to a small village, where we were met with the standard tourist shops and restaurants. Three little girls came up to us selling us Locust made out of woven grass. They were probably 6 to 9 years old, but they loved practicing English. Of course again you have to worry who is really using these girls to get money, and why are they not in school. But I am going to say they suckered us. They wanted to show us their dads rice farm, and then they went on to give us a description of how everything was done on the farm. They were so sweet and educated, that the tour was better than we have gotten by adults. We asked them why there were not in school and they informed me it was Sunday, duh! They have a teacher come down three days a week to teach them and that is how they learned English. It was hard not to buy the Grass Locust for a dollar from such amazing little tour guides. We then rode the railway back to our starting point.

The Bamboo Railway may be on its last days now. From what I can see tourist mainly use it now. The Cambodian government is also putting money into repairing the rails so that they can begin to run normal train lines again. Of course it is the logical thing to do, for the infrastructure of the country. But as a salute to ingenuity of the Cambodian people, I would leave a 30 miles section of track up to continue the Bamboo Railway, if for no other reason than all the money you can make in tourist dollars.
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The greatest part doing a day trip is getting out to the gorgeous countryside to see how all the Cambodians live day by day. You don’t come across too many tourist driving through the villages here. We drove past numerous tents decorated with flowers blocking half the road, with everyone dressed in their best gear, for weddings. Every table had a bottle of whiskey on it, and we were told that they sometimes would go on for two days. Our guide was not married because he could not afford the lavish cost to host a wedding. The music was blaring to say the least, but it sure was a festive time.

There were numerous houses that had what looked like thin dinner plates drying in racks. Our guide stopped at one of the house for us, and we got to see the process for making the rice paper wraps used in spring and summer rolls. It was too breezy for them to fire up the furnace that day, because it’s really a delicate process, the rice paper being made so thin that it’s transparent. Once it’s made crepe style, its put on giant drying racks in the sun. Which is why it looks like paper plates hanging everywhere.

The next business we stopped at was making home made rice noodles. Every part of the rice is used in the process. The fuel for the fire is made up of the rice husk, which is burned in clay ovens. A thick paste is made and then put in a large tin can, with holes in the bottom. Using slightly smaller can with a wood handle, the batter is pushed through the small holes in a steady stream in boiling water. It only takes a few minutes for the noodles to be ready to serve. She also had a nice bowl of fish soup simmering away, so we could have our breakfast phó, though I have never been a fan of fish soup.

Well our next stop really cemented my feelings for fish soup, because the smell was overpowering. Yep, it was time to see how they make the famous ingredient, Prahok, better known as Fish Sauce to us. We rounded the corner and the first thing you see is thousands of red strips of meat drying out on the side of the road. The colors and patterns were quite beautiful actually, making a lovely roadside mosaic. I can’t say how sanitary it was with all the vehicles driving by kicking up dust all over them. There was a large warehouse on the other side of the road where a few woman and three young kids were working hard. There were piles and piles of fish everywhere, in all kinds of different sizes. The older woman were chopping the fish heads and bodies up, and tossing them in a pile. I guess they were also descaling them. The little girls were going through the tiny fish, sucking on lollipops as they did it, sorting them out. The smell was beyond words. Chop! Chop! Chop! Heads were rolling everywhere. After spending a day in the sun, being salted and spiced, the fish parts are put in plastic bins to ferment. You can have some ready to go in 20 days, but the really good fish sauces might be fermenting for three years. Out here, Jamison does not hold a stick to a good fish sauce, and Chefs around the world buy their fish sauces here.

Our next stop were the ruins of Wat Ek Phnom. Built in the 11-century temple, is a true ruin. Very little if any work has been done her to preserve this lovely temple. Walking through the ruins is a risk in its self, as you pass under stone lintels that are hundreds of pounds, wondering if today is going to be the day that is collapses. There were three buildings still standing, and a large lintel with the Churning The Ocean To Milk frieze on it that is still visible. This place is incredibly peaceful, with barely anyone around. I spent a good hour drawing the ruins, surrounded by large lizards dashing through the rocks. There was a young man who had polio crawling all over the ruins, hoping for some tips. A guide who showed up told me that he is here everyday, and he uses what little money he makes to stay alive because his family abandoned him. I did a drawing of him, and though he did not seem to understand any English, we chatted like we understood each other. I left the drawing with him and a little extra money to help him get by. As much as I don’t believe in tipping, some days you see people who really are in need, and its hard not to try and help a bit.3-3-2013

Well, I have to say I loved this day trip so much, and this is not the end of it. But sadly, you will have to wait for the next part, because it was just way too cool to put at the end of this already exciting blog. So next Sunday, tune into why the Bats are in Battambang.

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