24th February 2014
Battambang’s a great slice of provincial Cambodia. One of those places where you can fill a day with lots of attraction-ettes – both cultural and culinary! Tucked away down French colonial streets set around an art deco style market we found the best noodle soup – and Jaan Bai, a new training restaurant where we enjoyed our best meal of the trip. All bases covered!
But before igniting our taste buds with the likes of shrimp with chili jam and fresh Kampot pepper we took in the sights sounds and smells in and around the small bustling provincial capital. We started the day with an exhilarating ride on the bamboo ‘train’ – a simple bamboo platform balanced on a couple of sets of wheels. Add a boat motor and a smiling Khmer operator and you’ve instant fun – at 30km’s an hour!
However these ‘norries’ that fly through the countryside are not just for fun – they also tell the story of Cambodia’s troubled history. When the French woke from their colonial slumbering they commissioned more than 600 kilometres of track to connect the port of Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) with the provinces. These bamboo carts, originally hand powered using long poles, were used to service the track. During the civil war, both the Khmer Rouge and government forces used bamboo trains to transport men and equipment to the front line.
With infrastructure nonexistent following the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, the bamboo trains proved invaluable as survivors travelled the country looking for relatives and properties; several thousand were said to be operating in the 1980’s. A whole network of ‘semi official’ stations, guards and operators sprung up. However a contract to renovate the old colonial rails was recently sold to an Australian developer, so the bamboo trains will soon fade into Cambodian history.
Later we visited the bustling central market and made a fascinating visit to a well-preserved 1930’s colonial house. Here our articulate French-speaking host revealed the tragic story of her family’s suffering under the Khmer Rouge. We also ascended a few hundred steps to the five sacred towers of Wat Banan temple, a peaceful spot with lovely views over the Cambodian countryside.
However, as we ‘desserted’ on sticky rice, mango, coconut and sesame we decided that not even the spectacular dusk exodus of a couple of million bats from the cave at the foot of Phnom Sampheu topped the thrill of our ride on the bamboo train!