2013 Travels: #4 Battambang

Riding with the Wind. Bamboo Train at Battambang.
Riding with the Wind. Bamboo Train at Battambang

After settling down in Siem Reap for almost a week, I was ready to move. I headed Southwest by bus to the former colonial town of Battambang. Battambang used to be a trading town and a trading hub between Thailand and Phnom Penh. When it was absorbed into the Indochina, the French initiated urbanization projects in the town. Roads were built, buildings were erected. Like most of the country though, Battambang has suffered during the turbulent times of Khmer Rouge. Even though it was liberated in the 70s, Battambang wasn’t too far away from the remainers of the Khmer Rouge. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that peace has finally settled into the region.

Heritage Building in Battambang
Heritage Building in Battambang

From looks of the town, you would not have guessed that it’s the second largest city in Cambodia. The atmosphere was relaxed and slow-paced. You could stop by a cafe and people watching to kill time. Visit Buddhist temples scattered around town. Download a free map and hunt every colonial building. There’s not a lot to do here, but maybe that’s the charm. Being a former trading hub, you could find traces of Chinese and Thai influences woven into fabric of daily lives here. There used to be a thriving Chinese community here, hence it’s unsurprising to find Chinese temples as well as Chinese charms everywhere.

My Guide, Phearon
My Informative Guide, Phearon

For one of the days in Battambang, I took the bicycle tour with a local tour group Soksabike. It had good reviews and uses local guides, so I thought why not join a group of people to explore the countryside? I arrived at the meeting point early in the morning, my guide introduced to me as Phearon. He was a university student and I supposed most of their guides are around the same age who are part-timing to improve their English and earn an extra income. He told me that I was the only participant that day. That’s nice, a personalized tour.

We kicked off a tour by biking out of town into the rural parts. The pleasant thing about biking here is that kids would always wave and scream “Helllooooo!!!” at you. We made a number of stops along the way at local family businesses. I got to see how dried banana snacks are made, how a rice wine distiller looks like, try some tasty local fruits (Yup, Cambodian fruits are really good. The fruit shakes? Even better!) and bamboo sticky rice. The rice wine stood out for me. While wasn’t good, it gets to your head quickly. Really strong stuff, don’t underestimate it.

I found out that night that Phearon was going to the circus organized regularly by a local art/cultural school. Phare Ponleu Selpak, a social school set up to provide underpriviledge chilren an alternative way out by training them into artists and performers. The unique thing about the show was that the performers are just regular local kids, whom you might even bump onto the streets. The show naturally was far from perfect but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

Preparing for Departure
Light Rail Transit. Driver Preparing the Generator for Departure.

Another attraction here that I wanted to try was the Bamboo train. Cambodia used to have an extensive rail network. However, it was abandoned during the warring years and most of it were left unattended, even until today. Since the tracks were still around and useable, the locals have devise a method to utilize it. They used to build a platform using bamboo, assemble it with a generator and wheels and place it on the tracks as a makeshift transportation means. Since it was simple to assemble (And disemble), it was a cheap and fast way to get from place to place.

Of course, with highways built and some rail routes being brought back from the dead, the norry (Or known as “Bamboo Train” to us foreigners) is facing an extinction. But thanks to tourist interest, some folks at Battambang has decided to keep the unique feature alive.

Yes, it is a tourist trap.

It takes you to nowhere. Stops in middle of nowhere for a break, where there are souvenir and drinks vendors conveniently placed. “Cold drinks?” It’s ok if you don’t want to buy, but the vendors, most if not all of them, will whisper “Remember to tip your driver, they don’t earn anything,”. That was a strange one. Then kids will offer to show you around their village. It was harmless enough, until it was at the end and they started to ask for tips too (I felt really really bad at that point because they were really sweet but I had to make my stance and say goodbye without giving anything.)

I knew it was that kind of experience beforehand but I still desperately wanted to try.

I went with an American girl from the hostel and once we got there, we paid the local “tourist police” a fee (USD$5 or 10, couldn’t remember) . Our assigned driver started to assemble the train. In less than 5 minutes, we were on the platform. The driver starts the generator and off we went. The platform was constantly vibrating and the road could be bumpy. It wasn’t nice for my ass but what really took me by surprise was how fast it was! I mean, really fast for something this small! It was FUN!

Actually, considering how desperate the tuk-tuk drivers in Battambang were, maybe you could symphatize with the vendors that operate the bamboo trains. Plus, if the government does revive its plans to resume the Battambang train line in the future, that’s one less revenue stream for the locals. As long as it’s still available, who wouldn’t milk the opportunity as much as possible?



On March 2013, I bought a one-way ticket to Siem Reap and travelled to various places for 5 months. I returned home in September and decided to blog all the memorable stories and photos. I believe it’s the best way to conserve these memories and also share them with my friends. All posts are tagged to the category 2013 Travels, should you need to browse the entire series. 

I was in Cambodia from March 4 to March 20. Most of the shots were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M5, with either the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens or the original Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. They were shot in RAW and processed, edited in Adobe Lightroom. Others shots were taken with my HTC Desire HD smartphone. 

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