Experiencing the Bamboo Express
01.09.2011 - 01.09.2011 30 °C
As we were visiting Battambang for the primary reason of riding the legendary Bamboo Express this was the first stop for our tuk-tuk. Like the Naadam festival in Ulaanbaatar and the nat festival in Mandalay this simple train of two bogeys and a platform made of bamboo offers travelers a unique travel experience.
Known within Cambodia as the norry these trains still transport locals and their produce around the countryside. Our Bamboo Express would travel only a short distance to a brick factory at speeds of 30mph on a single 1m gauge track. With a rail network originally built by French colonial settlers and apparently seeing no maintenance work since our bouncing journey over warped rails that were rarely joined together well and in places had six inches of track missing was certainly unique – reminiscent in terms of ride comfort of our 16 hour train ride through the Myanmar countryside some weeks earlier!
With the railway largely abandoned since the Khmer Rouge regime effectively shut it down theoretically a scheduled train service runs once a week in Cambodia. However, with both the track and its surroundings overgrown we saw no sign of this. For locals, therefore, the unscheduled norries offer a frequent, cheap and relatively fast means of transportation. Rudimentary in design they are powered by a small 2-stroke engine that is simple levered into a position where the belt drive to the bogey wheels is sufficiently taught to provide forward momentum, although originally they were propelled by hand using punt poles. Lacking brakes or any reverse capabilities this is surely the most informally operated train service in the world.
Simple, light weight construction allows for the steel framed, bamboo floored ‘carriage’, held in place by passenger weight and gravity, to be lifted off the track along with the two bogey wheels and the unsecured engine. Previously, the Norrie with the least amount of passengers and cargo would be removed from the rails, allowing the oncoming to Norrie to pass. For our trip it appeared that the down track Norrie always had right of way.
After passing a peaceful and beautiful landscape of rice paddy fields, albeit one that we were disturbing with our noisy 2-stroke engine we arrived at a ‘station’. The station was little more than a few bamboo stalls selling cold drinks to the handful of tourists that were travelling the line in the monsoon season. From there we could make an informal tour of a brick factory where countless red clay bricks were formed and fired in kilns that were powered by dried rice kernels. When firing the bricks rice kernels are shoveled into the kiln 24 hours a day for fifteen days by two operators working 12-hour shifts. It will then take 10 days for the bricks to sufficiently cool before they can be removed and sold for around $.30cents each.
Touring the factory and village, we were followed everywhere by small children begging for donations. With the volume of tourists that will pass through the village and their desire for sweets rather than rice the entreaties of hunger were clearly tourist show. Amusingly as we continued our walk resolute to ignore their demands the requests for ‘one dollar, OK?’ diminished first to 2,000 Riel (around $.50cents) and finally 100 Riel. A dollar amount so small it took a short while to calculate. In this difficult situation travelers are always advised not to succumb to the begging but to donate to a local school or charity that will support all children evenly. Hopefully, using a donation to purchase more appropriate items than sweets! We agreed amongst ourselves to make such a donation and returned to our private Cambodian rail carriage.
By now our carriage has been lifted off the tracks, turned around and was ready for the return journey. Passing rice fields a group of local workers flagged down our platform. Riding until a bridge over a small river they offered welcoming smiles and nods despite our lack of common language.
In the 1980s and 1990s due to the civil war in Cambodia trains were led by an armed and armored carriage; the first carriages of the train were flatbeds used as mine sweepers and travel on these was free for the first carriage and half-price for the second. Apparently, these options were popular despite the obvious risks.
In February 2008 a project was announced to rebuild the railway lines from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh to Poipet and on to Sisophon and the Thai border (a stretch completely destroyed by the Khmer regime). This was due to be completed at the end of 2009. As of May 2011 this project has only been completed from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville.
Yet, whilst this technology upgrade will benefit the country, the Australian company that purchased the rights to operate trains in Cambodia for 30 years, will ban the ‘Bamboo Express’. Naturally, this is disappointing. We only hope that some enterprising local ensures an unused branch of the railway continues to be available to the norries but just in case it is not we suggest riding your own private railway carriage through Cambodia as soon as possible.
From the Bamboo Express our tuk-tuk sped us to another aberrant sight in Cambodia, a winery, the only one in the country. With grapes beginning to ripen on the vine we sat down to taste their 2008 vintage. The bouquet emanating from our glass was unlike anything I have ever smelt coming from a bottle labeled wine. One labeled ‘warning noxious chemicals’ maybe but not wine. With an aftertaste that lived up to its bouquet this was definitely a wine for sharing, taking to those dinner parties where everyone brings a bottle and you desperately try to ensure that you do not drink the bottle you brought. With Cambodian wine you probably would not get asked back to many parties. I would worry what damage an accidental spill might make to the hosts newly varnished table. From the red wine we moved on to a similar brandy. It remains indescribable. Fortunately, their grape juice was very tasty whilst the ginger beer had an excellent kick to it, which I suspect was specially formulated as it was the only drink capable of removing the Cambodian red wines aftertaste! A novel experience. Just a shame we did not have space in our luggage for a case of that ‘interesting’ red.
From the winery a couple of temples would complete our southern loop of the beautiful countryside around Battambang. Hiking exactly 358 moss covered stone steps to Prasat Banan as the afternoon monsoon fell we, not unsurprisingly, had the entire hill to ourselves. Given the ferocity of the down pour not even the hawkers would venture out. Yet, armed with our trusty saffron colored umbrellas we made the ascent in short time to find an 11th century temple reminiscent of the layout of its more famous counterpart, Angkor Wat.
Wondering the often crumbling temples, magnificent views over the flat, rice field landscape were blocked by thick vegetation. A single red sign with a skull and cross bones clearly marked ensured we did not plunge into the vegetation in search of a better vantage point. No need for us to become human mine detectors.
Back in our tuk-tuk with green canvas screens battling to resist the incessant rain we continued towards our final stop of the day – Phnom Sampeau. Reaching the fabled limestone outcrop that supports this complex of temples would require a forty-five minute ride along a muddy, pot holed track through well watered rice paddy fields. As we progressed the rain ceased allowing us views of the delicious countryside. Scenes unchanged for hundreds of years, with oxen ploughing fields and workers using only their hands and sickles passed by. A single diesel machine working one of the fields looked incongruous in this timeless panorama. This was subsistence farming at its most basic. For as our driver was to tell us given the amount of rain the field workers today would be out in the evening collecting tasty frogs, snails and snakes as these are considered Cambodian delicacies.
Stopping for a simple Khmer lunch of rice, chicken and lemongrass before our ascent to Phnom Sampeau we were able to observe more monkeys. Fortunately, these were not as brazen as those we had observed on Mt. Popa, a few weeks earlier. For this hike our only difficulty was a lack of signage. Heading up but with no knowledge of the temples location it was perhaps good fortune that had us follow the correct moss covered, stone step to the top of the outcrop.
From the temple complex gorgeous views could be taken in of the Battambang plains. Rice fields extended all the way to a distant Battambang, some 8 miles away.
By asking a variety of people, some who offered the correct directions, we finally located the ‘Killing Caves’ on our descent. These are yet another somber reminder of the gruesome recent past in Cambodia. An enchanted staircase, flanked by green moss covered walls, leads into a cavern where a golden reclining Buddha lies peacefully next to a glass walled memorial filled with the bones and skulls of some of the people bludgeoned to death by Khmer Rouge cadres before being thrown through the overhead skylight. As we entered the dark cavern we could barely see into the glass walled memorial. Yet, as we were leaving the presumable caretaker returned opening the glass doors and turning on a light to illuminate the remains of man’s inhumanity to man.
Our descent from the temples and caves was straightforward and more importantly dry. Returning to Battambang night was already falling. Supper was taken in Battambang but at nowhere remarkable. This was certainly not the culinary diverse Siem Reap but our day exploring the countryside outside Battambang had certainly been eventful.