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Backwaters to Battambang...

Cruising into Cambodia...

sunny 32 °C

Siam Reap brought Angkor Wat and Angkor Beer and Angkor Beef Roast (well maybe that is not branded Angkor… yet) and after our Christmas decadence we took off from the home of the Cooks to explore the rest of Cambodia with no real plan but a fistful of dreams.
We decided to head to Battambang. This was initially because it has a hilarious name but we found there was much more to it.
Searching out our transport options we were faced with a choice...

1) A three hour bus journey
2) An eight hour boat journey through floating villages on the Tonle Sap River and across the Tonle Sap Lake

No competition when there is some boating on offer. We boarded our craft with 32 seats and set up in a tiny double seat. Then 30 other people boarded the craft and took their seats. Then 142 other people boarded the boat and set up on the roof, the deck, the luggage area, the engine… The boat started a descent closer and closer to the lake water. Fear set in and the boat departed loaded to the brim with locals and tourists. We survived the trip through the channels and lakes of Cambodia’s waterways (hurrah!) stopping at floating convenience store/restaurant (which incidentally also nearly sank with the pressure of the boat unloading it’s human cargo) and saw some beautiful sites along the way. Sitting on the front bow of the boat sunning yourself as you float through lovely scenery makes the fear of sinking much more tolerable.

When making your way through channels in the water growth you suddenly start getting whacked from branches at either side. Prepared as always the driver puts a 9 year old local boy behind the wheel (suddenly a beer is also needed at this point to fend off the fear of sinking as sunshine is no longer enough) while he starts pulling down tarpaulin at either side to fend off the encroaching undergrowth. It is all very reminiscent of the old school ride that my mum remembers from fairgrounds in the olden days…. I believe it was called the Caterpillar where the tarpaulin is bumped around and pushed in and people shout and squeal and try and get out of the way of the walls. I remember mocking when my mum explained this ‘rollercoaster’ to us as kids, but experiencing it in Cambodia is actually pretty terrifying. Arriving in Battambang we were elated at our survival and I think whatever we found in the town we were going to have to love it after the journey.

Luckily what we found was a small and quiet but relaxed and friendly little town (which is apparently the second largest city in Cambodia… we saw little evidence of this development). The town is a former French settlement and is full of crumbling remnants of colonial times. The whole town appears that it has been slightly forgotten and this creates the charming backwater atmosphere. However, the threatening signs of development are showing with building sites and the odd posh hotel springing up and as this little town has so much potential I fear it could be a very different in a few years.

Now Andrew has been missing his kitchen… creating his masterpieces and in the process using as much cutlery and crockery as possible and, setting new records for washing up with each meal. To combat this bout of kitchensickness we decided to book onto a cooking course and spent the morning cooking up a storm in Khmer curries and eating our treats. By the third dish before 1pm we were fully stuffed and instead handed over our LokLak Beef treats to the homeless so we will never know whether that one was as good as our previous spicy concoctions. However, we have the recipes so who knows whether someone at home will get treated to that on our return!

Products of Cooking Class
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It was at the cooking class that we picked up a leaflet with a picture of a man holding a crocodile on the front and without pausing for breath Andy was already negotiating with a Tuk Tuk driver the fare and entrance fee to get involved with the crocs. This strange business-cum-tourist attraction is a gate down a back road with no sign. A quick call from the Tuk Tuk driver and a surly looking youth turns up on a scooter and wants a dollar in order to take you behind the gate. With crocs in mind we took our chances and entered the man’s lair. What we were faced with was approximately 1000 crocodiles around two pools with walkways and tiny barriers around them. Some of the crocs were 20 or 30 years old and were absolute beasts. They are kept to sell for meat and their skins and are caught directly out of the Mekong or bred at the farms.

Concerned as to the lack of health and safety and the sheer amount of crocs that were looking excitedly as if we were lunch I hesitantly asked what would happen if I fell in…. The response: “Maybe two minutes of pain”. Annie: “Before?”. Smiley Tuk Tuk cum Guide without breaking the Cambodian grin: “I had a German Shephard puppy that I loved that slipped and fell in. There was nothing left of it within 30 seconds…. So. Do you want to hold one now?” Annie: “No Thanks!” Andy: “I do!” Luckily the croc that was pulled out was a baby one rather than the three meter long beast. Andy had a smile for the rest of the day. I was pretty pleased that Andy waited until after we left to speculate about how good the crocodile farm would be to dispose of a human body if you robbed and murdered someone.

Crocs up Close
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Now it has come to our attention that Cambodia has a strange collection of tourist attractions. They have the basic obvious choices, the temples to draw a crowd and some overpriced museums, night markets and floating markets stay favourites with visitors. However, they also have the bizarre side shows, farms, circuses and miscellaneous. After the crocodile experience I thought we had had our strangest bit of the day. I did not bet on the weird and wonderful entertainment that was the infamous Battambang Bamboo Train.
Before setting off to have a sunset trip on the Bamboo Train I thought I knew what we were letting ourselves in for. The principle of the ‘train’ is a small railway line that bamboo platforms travel up and down to transport rice from the paddies to trade in the town. It connects one remote settlement and saves the farmers a ridiculous amount of transport time and costs. Caught up in the image of this trip on a bamboo platform through rural Cambodia we were imagining one of those contraptions from the Western Frontier of the Wild West with two people taking it in turns to push their lever to get the platform to slowly work its way along the railway lines. Thinking the trip would be a languid and slow meander we did the obvious thing and bought ourselves a beer to drink on the platform as we chatted and looked at the scenery sitting crossed legs on a wooden square in the sunshine.

Fat Chance.

We did not notice that our 1.5m square bamboo platform mounted on railway tracks had a pretty powerful motor attached to the back. Stuff the beer , you needed both hands to hold on as we set off at a speed that was faster than most busses that I have travelled on in Cambodia. Add to it that the locals have found that it is not absolutely necessary to connect the train rails to each other exactly at the right angle as long as you go fast enough for the momentum to reattach you if you raise off it. It was a thrilling and hilarious sprint through the countryside, so low to the ground and on a bizarre contraption that I’m not sure could entirely handle the pressure. Andy insists that that train was actually a lot scarier than most of the actual big rides he has been on in his time. I am suspicious that this is just a ploy for him to force me to go to Blackpool Pleasure Beach when we get home…

Bamboo Train
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I will not dwell on our trip to the Cambodian vin yard but to say that there is a reason that you have never heard of Cambodian wine…
We finished the trip off with watching the mass exodus of over 30 million bats who fly out of a cave in the mountain at precisely 5.45pm every day in a mass formation before dispersing over the surrounding area. The locals sell it to you as the bats following a strict routine every day following the same time and patterns. You get this image of bats with Casio watches counting down the seconds to the minute they can fly out on cue in perfect synchronisation. What actually happens is at exactly 5.45pm every night a few of the kids from the town bring gongs, with a tone that sounds terrible to a bat, to the mouth of the cave and bang them causing them to get a little peed off and take off into the night to find an altogether quieter joint in which to go sit and produce ammonia. I think if I was a bat I would stop going back to that cave to be put through that every night. I’d find a nice quiet cave without the noisy neighbours. That being said, watching the waves of bats move across the sky was impressive to say the least.

Satisfied with Battambang and that we had literally done all the activities the town has to offer, New Years Eve and a Beach Party beckoned and we boarded our bus to the Southern Coast….

Posted by Annie Thornton 07:07 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia river battambang bamboo_train floating_villages Comments (0)

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