A Travellerspoint blog

Offerings to the Black Lady

Asking for safe passage en route to Sihanoukville

overcast 28 °C

Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, Cambodia

With our bus to Sihanoukville departing early in the afternoon we were left with a free morning to explore more of the capital that we had rushed around on our previous visit.

However, our first task was to locate cardboard boxes to pack the various souvenirs we had purchased. As in Yangon a small secondhand market in cardboard boxes exists in Phnom Penh, near the Olympic Stadium. This curiously named stadium has, of course, never hosted an Olympic event. After being used in May 2007 by Ronan Keating, the first time by a major international act, possibly its most famous event since being built in 1964 was the small part it played in the 1966 FIFA World Cup. Unexpectedly, North Korea faced Australia in a qualifier. As North Korea lacked diplomatic relations with most countries, finding a suitable venue for the match proved difficult, until Head of State Norodom Sihanouk, an ally of Kim Il-Sung, said the matches could be held in Phnom Penh. The matches attracted 40,000 fans, with Sihounouk decreeing half would cheer for Australia, while the other half cheered the Koreans. The matches were held on 21 November 1965 and on 24 November 1965 with North Korea winning both (6–1 and 3–1). Because South Korea and all African teams had withdrawn in protests against FIFA, North Korea were thus directly qualified to the final tournament, where they reached the quarter-final.

Easily finding the stores we were seeking some amusement was to be had by the first box we saw - it had shipped from Wortley, Leeds a few miles from home in the UK! Suitable cardboard boxes purchased we were soon back exploring the city spending a little more time at the Russian Market and around the Royal Palace. As in the previous evening small children hawking books, postcards and bracelets were still a constant presence whether walking the streets or taking a break at a pavement café. Whilst their continued presence grew a little irksome, that was simply a facet of Phnom Penh life that one must accept.

Our Mekong Express bus to Sihanoukville was quite the First Class experience compared to our ride with the Paramount bus company a few days earlier. As we departed the traffic madness of the capital, negotiating a large bus around narrow streets, made smaller by a myriad of scooters, cars and other motorized vehicles, cold drinks and a small snack were distributed. The bus also carried a guide who was able to explain the various tourist sights that we were passing. It was, however, sometime before we realized that the long explanations of something of other in Khmer was actually being spoken in English and that the odd words we were able to understand were not as a result of us inadvertently soaking up an understanding of the Khmer language. Listening intently and feeling sorry for the Japanese couple sat across from us, who must have thought their understanding of English very poor, we grasped snippets of information about our journey.

Stopping without explanation a variety of times, before leaving the capital, gave us the opportunity to be waved at and ‘helloed’ by a variety of small children. As the only westerners on the bus we were clearly still interesting to many of the locals.

Halfway into our four hour ride we stopped briefly at the shrine of Ya-Mao - a central personage of a legend local to Sihanoukville and much of the Cambodian coast – or so we think from the broken explanation we received. She is a neak-ta, a powerful ancestor spirit that lords over this part of the country. Known as Ya-Mao, literally the Black Lady, her domain encompasses much of southwestern coastal Cambodia and she is the protector of sailors and other travelers of the area, both on and off shore. Locals from fisherman to taxi drivers are careful to make appropriate prayers and offerings (phallic objects and/or bananas) to Ya-Mao for their safe passage.

Fishing boats that work the area waters hang a hand of bananas on the bridge as an offering to Ya-Mao, and phallic-stick offerings can still sometimes be found on the beaches near fishing camps. We stopped at the best known and most apparent manifestation of the veneration of Ya-Mao – a large collection of spirit houses at the crest of the Pich Nil mountain pass on National Route #4, at the northern edge of Ya-Mao's domain half way between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.

Commanded by our friendly bus guide to stay on the bus she made offerings for safe conduct to Sihanoukville on our behalf, armed with incense sticks and a large bunch of bananas. From our brief stop it was clear that many if not most drivers on Route #4 stop at the shine to make offerings, and like the fishing boats, some drivers, especially taxi and truck drivers display a hand of bananas on the dashboard for Ya-Mao. Veneration of this neak-ta is still very real and very important.

With our offerings made to the Cambodian equivalent of St. Christopher we passed safely over the small mountain range, passing yet more rice fields before reaching Sihanoukville in the early evening.

With our hotel located high on the hill overlooking Sihanoukville and the Gulf of Siam we spent our evening there feasting on curiously tasty Spanish tapas and planning our explorations the following day.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:19 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Returning to the bright lights of Phnom Penh

A travel day takes us back to the nation’s capital

sunny 31 °C

Battambang to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Bright blue skies greeted our imminent departure from Battambang. Travelling with a variety of treasures, purchased during our time in Cambodia, a private taxi would take us the four hours south to Phnom Penh.

The journey south followed the now familiar scenes of rice fields, bamboo huts and periodically simple towns selling food, clothes and what appeared to be a preponderance of mobile phones. Our driver took great care to reach the nation’s capital as quickly as possible. Frequently, we were overtaking three abreast on the narrow roads. Approaching scooters and tuk-tuks moved to the side of the road as we swept passed slower vehicles. Yet, observing other drivers this is the nature of Cambodian driving. Blow the horn and overtake. Everyone else will get out of the way, hopefully.

Some four hours after leaving Battambang and with traffic barely moving, it was clear we had reached Phnom Penh. A road traffic incident caused the first of many slow downs as we crawled through the streets. Returning to the capital after our time in the provinces, Phnom Penh felt like the bustling and vibrant city that it is, tall buildings and a multitude of vehicles seeming a little foreign. Unlike, when we had first arrived, landing in from Bangkok, everything now felt cosmopolitan and exciting.

Settling into our chic, modern hotel we were soon back out in the city exploring the streets and alleyways we had only time to peruse briefly the previous week. Yet, as in the rest of Cambodia curious sights could still be seen. Fifty or so live chickens hanging by their feet from a small scooter, en route to market, lifted their heads lazily to watch the upside down world pass by. Ten or more locals crushed into a tuk-tuk, taking an uncomfortable ride somewhere and newly arrived tourists still nervous about how to cross the streets, with the never ending streams of traffic.

In the evening we retired to the river front section of the town. A night market was in progress but designed more for the locals than tourists. Promenading along the river front appeared a popular activity. Along with badminton and tai-chi, locals enjoyed fine views of the Mekong, its brown, monsoon engorged waters flowing quickly by. For the tourists small children touted ‘copied’ books, postcards and bracelets their parents cynically knowing that a small child will be far more successful selling to the tourists than they would. Some cheeky, others resigned to the tourists rejection of their wares it was a saddening sight as they worked the streets alongside a variety of beggars with small children or horrible disabilities. Repeating what we had done in Battambang and Siem Reap we once again resolved to make a small donation to one of the many charities operating in Phnom Penh in the hope that donating in this way would make a difference, whilst not encouraging begging.

Tomorrow, we would depart for Sihanoukville but tonight a final cold beer at a pavement bar, watching the night life pass by was sufficient to bring a close to a simple day.

Posted by jamesh1066 02:17 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Busy doing nothing

The monsoon keeps us indoors with only a brief sojourn to the markets of Battambang

rain 31 °C

Battambang, Cambodia

Waking to glorious blue skies, the first we had seen for many days, we avowed to spend time enjoying the weather. Yet by the time breakfast was finished the monsoon had arrived, much earlier than usual. For two hours the rain fell. With no necessity to venture out much of our day was spent gentle relaxing, recharging our batteries from recent travel exertions.

Wat Damrey Sar

Wat Damrey Sar

By mid-afternoon with the rain diminishing we ventured into Battambang for a late lunch and a wonder through the locals markets of Psar Nat and Boeung Chhouk. Wat Damrey Sar provided a brief temple diversion but Battambang is clearly the fourth tourist destination in Cambodia, although the second largest city in Cambodia.

Downtown Battambang

Downtown Battambang

With the famed French colonial architecture visited we returned to our hotel. A quiet evening in preparation for our return to Phnom Penh in the morning.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:56 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Riding a private train through Cambodia

Experiencing the Bamboo Express

sunny 30 °C

Battambang, Cambodia

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.

The Bamboo Express

The Bamboo Express

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!

Trains leave when needed

Trains leave when needed

Our small engine

Our small engine

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.

Overgrown track on the Bamboo Express

Overgrown track on the Bamboo Express

Our driver - without brakes or steerage

Our driver - without brakes or steerage

Rice field panoramas from the train

Rice field panoramas from the train

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.

Going off the rails when we meet another train

Going off the rails when we meet another train

Riding the Bamboo Express

Riding the Bamboo Express

The brick factory

The brick factory

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.

Inside the brick factory kiln

Inside the brick factory kiln

Limited technology

Limited technology

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.

Rebuilding the train

Rebuilding the train

Easy turnaround

Easy turnaround

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.

Enjoying the ride

Enjoying the ride

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.

Hard at work in the rice fields

Hard at work in the rice fields

Picking the grapes

Picking the grapes

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.

Right to left the tasting gradually improved

Right to left the tasting gradually improved

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.

Prasat Banan

Prasat Banan

Trey picks up a hitchhiker

Trey picks up a hitchhiker

Pause for reflection

Pause for reflection

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.

A good reason for not exploring off the beaten track

A good reason for not exploring off the beaten track

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.

Phnom Sampeau

Phnom Sampeau

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.

Looking down from Phnom Sampeau

Looking down from Phnom Sampeau

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.

Entry to the Killing Cave

Entry to the Killing Cave

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.

Memorial to victims

Memorial to victims

Reclining Buddha inside the Killing Cave

Reclining Buddha inside the Killing Cave

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.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:17 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Whipped in our seats on a picturesque boat ride

Taking the scenic express boat across Tonle Sap Lake during monsoon season

overcast 31 °C

Siem Reap to Battambang, Cambodia

Picked up at 0615 in a large minibus we were soon heading back to Tonle Sap lake to catch the ‘express’ boat to Battambang. Or at least that is what we had hoped for when we boarded the bus. For the next half and a half we toured the guesthouses and hotels of Siem Reap picking up a variety of strange looking passengers who would be joining us on our six hour boat ride. There were the obvious long term travelers (like ourselves) but with henna tattoos and braided hair. The 2+2 family out for two weeks of adventure travel in Cambodia with their brand new walking boots and Columbia shirts and the couple from Luxembourg (well they had flown Luxair recently!) both dressed smartly, his wife wearing pearl earrings! A veritable mélange of wanderlust travelers.

Travelling flooded roads to the Lake

Travelling flooded roads to the Lake

The early morning tour around Siem Reap, however, offered us a final opportunity to say goodbye to a city we had so enjoyed visiting. Neither of us felt it would be long before we returned.

Our Express boat to Battambang

Our Express boat to Battambang

Following the same route south to the Lake that we had a few days previous we were soon boarding the small, wooden boat that would take us across Tonle Sap Lake, passed the floating villages and up the Stung Battambang river. The early part of our journey would follow the path of the tour boats we had elected not to ride a few days earlier, which was nice.

Typical Lake boats

Typical Lake boats

Reading reviews of the journey on line, before booking, the boat is renowned, for hard wooden seats, a noisy engine and frequent breakdowns. At least we got lucky on the wooden seats, ours had some padding. Pushing back from the dock we had barely started our engine before the crew realized that the wire rope steering linkage had sheered. As we drifted towards a row of moored boats no one seemed too concerned. Gently bumping into them, no more than 50ft from the dock our driver was soon stripped down and jumping into the Lake to fix the problem.

Local supermarket

Local supermarket

With the rate that the breakage was fixed we assumed that this was a common problem. The day was to prove that assumption correct. With our steering mechanism fixed we were soon onto the Lake. Sat next to the engine the noise put on end to all but essential conversation. Exposed to the air to aid with cooling the cacophony and volume of sound was somewhat intense.

Fellow passengers

Fellow passengers

Retired boat

Retired boat

Floating houses

Floating houses

In a short time we were speeding passed stilted houses on the edge of the lake. As we progressed across the Lake these morphed into floating houses, schools and shops, able to move, vagabond like, around the Lake as the season and associated water levels required. Travelling in August the Lake was at least some 6ft over its ‘normal’ level. As we reached the far side of the Lake the shoreline was barely discernible. Bamboo huts consumed by the water and large deciduous trees gallantly pushing their upper branches through the swollen waters of the Lake all emphasized that we were passing over rice fields rather than a typical Lake or river. At times, as we entered the river system the usual path of the river could be discerned by the still visible tops of trees, lining its banks. Yet, with the banks consumed by water we typically left the path of the river to head in straight lines to accelerate our journey. Using compass navigation points, rather than following the river, allowed a typical journey of ten hours during the dry season to be completed in 6 hours typically.

Life on the river

Life on the river

Friendly greetings

Friendly greetings

Floating stores

Floating stores

Yet, moving away from the course of the river frequently took us into areas of thick vegetation. Initially, attractive green blankets of water hyacinths and lotus flowers blocked our way. Yet, with sufficient power from the engine we were able to push through, leaving a trail of chopped plant debris behind as our long tail propeller cut through the mass of floating vegetation. Infrequently, the prop would be jammed by an excess of plant matter but this was soon cleared.

Reeds block the propeller... once again!

Reeds block the propeller... once again!

The engine fails...once again!

The engine fails...once again!

Cutting through the water hyacinths

Cutting through the water hyacinths

Watching village life, unchanged for many years small, naked children would shout loudly for our attention. Waving frantically, offering us loud greetings a returned wave was typically met with shrieks of hysterical laughter or even louder shouts of ‘Hello’. This was a scene that was to be repeated at every village we passed en route to Battambang. Parents encouraging their small children to look at the strange western people passing by. In some villages we slowed to allow small canoes to ferry local passengers to the boat. If seats below deck were not available they would sit on the roof, happy I guess to be travelling to Battambang under diesel power, rather than their own.

Local travellers join our boat

Local travellers join our boat

The typical local welcome

The typical local welcome

Progressing up the river, towards Battambang, the wetland soon morphed into water consumed shrubs and small trees. Clear paths, no wider than our boat, formed narrow corridors for the various canoes and powered boats of the lakes. For our relatively large boat they were extremely narrow. Even with the thick red silk sides of the boat fastened down branches, leaves and a variety of insects were flung, whipped and snapped against the side of the boat. At times complete branches inundated the boat violently whipping any passenger not able to duck in time. For over an hour we tried to dodge being whipped by branches whilst simultaneously avoiding the relatively limited oncoming river traffic. A number of times our wire rope steering mechanism broke causing us to crash at a variety of speeds into the surrounding wall of shrubs and trees. Yet this seemed of no concern to the crew. Certainly, this was no more than a daily occurrence.

A family affair

A family affair

Life on the river

Life on the river

Our boat makes the journey from Siem Reap to Battambang each day, returning the following. A second boat, that we passed during our journey, makes the correspondent journey every other day – providing a daily service. Later we were told that whilst the other boat does not breakdown as frequently it does have hard wooden seats. After 7 hours (including breakdowns) our bottoms was thankful for the small amount of padding provided.

From what we could surmise our crew lived and slept on the boat. Rolled up bamboo mats for sleeping and a small bucket of live Amok fish for eating were travelling with us. A strange life for them with family, presumably, only seen every other night. Yet with a nearly full boat I would guess it is a profitable life or at least it is for whoever owns the boat.

Floating village shop

Floating village shop

As we approached Battambang it was clear that comments about this being one of the most scenic boat rides in Asia were apposite. Floating villages, wetland vegetation and the of course the knowledge that we might breakdown at any moment had allowed the trip to pass both quickly and pleasantly.

Personal transport

Personal transport

Disembarking the boat some six miles short of Battambang, due to the high water levels, we were not, however, sad to leave the thunderous booming of the uncovered engine. Ears ringing we boarded a tuk-tuk bound for our hotel and the city of Battambang.

Tuk tuk for the final part of our journey to Battambang

Tuk tuk for the final part of our journey to Battambang

With little daylight left to explore we spent the early evening wondering along the river. Golden stuphas rose sporadically alongside the brown, fast flowing water of the Stung Battambang river. The centre of the city proffered some excellent colonial French architecture, along with a narrow grid system of backstreets to explore. Yet, within the city there are a limited number of ‘must-see’ tourist sights. Happy that we had seen some of the city we settled for an inviting French restaurant for supper. With the city generally deserted of tourists, due to the monsoons, we had no difficulty securing a table and enjoying a little western food.

A brief walk returned us to our excellent hotel, on the east side of the river. Tomorrow would see us exploring more of the countryside around Battambang.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:50 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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