Battambang

The boys enjoyed the Bamboo Train and want to go on it again

It is a long road trip from Siem Reap. and we had booked a boat to take us, but insufficient water levels ruled that out, and by car it was. Two "stretch legs" stops: one to see Buddha stone carving and a second to see them selling barbecued rats and beetles - yes, that is the form of roadside stack much loved by Cambodians, and we were also to see it later in Laos.

In Cambodia, rat meat is not a delicacy, and is more typically eaten by people who cannot afford chicken or pork. They are skinned and barbecued over an open flame for 45 minutes. Served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce, the rat meat, I am told, has a chewy and stringy texture, and tastes surprisingly like bacon. "Our Khmer people have been eating rats since their existence," a local says. "When we eat it, we feel as one with wildlife creatures," he says. "It's delicious."

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We stayed at the Bambu Hotel for 2 nights. The hotel rooms are grouped round a pleasant pool, squeezed onto a tight plot. You really do not want a ground floor room as they do not have any views at all, looking out onto 2 metre high black walls within 1.5 metres of the room. We had a nice 1st floor room overlooking the pool, but the trees were beginning to seriously intrude onto the balcony, which itself had not been cleaned for some time.

Though some reviews on TripAdvisor mention an owner/manager, we never saw him, nor he us, although we were here 2 days and ate both nights. So the hospitality could have been better. The restaurant is fine, with standard food , reasonably cooked. Good, but not gourmet, but the setting is quite charming. Your other alternative would be to take a tuk tuk into town, which is not far, but you would not want to stumble along the streets here after dark. Depending on your requirements, this may be your best option in Battambang

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Battambang does not offer a lot for the tourist. There is the bamboo railway and some quite magnificent ruined temples out of town, but the town itself is devoid of much to interest the tourist. We had a half day guided tour, which proved the point that there was nothing to see. There were only 4 items to show us. First the old French railway station

The first railway line was constructed by the French in the 1930s and 40s to link Phnom Penh to Bangkok, but was terminated at the border only four years intoconsruction when the French Indochinese government suspected Thailand of supporting the anti-French, anti-colonial Khmer Issarak movement. The second line, from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, was completed with the help of France, West Germany and China in the 1960s, with the hopes of boosting port activity and reducing reliance on Thailand and Saigon. But then civil war broke out, and the railway fell victim to heavy artillery damage and the whims of the Khmer Rouge, who destroyed the tracks in several places. In the 1980s some services were resumed, but after decades of neglect and lack of funding, services stopped completely in 2009. Since then there have been efforts made to rebuild and reinstate service on parts of the lines, but currently the only passenger rail travel available in all of Cambodia is on the bamboo railway. 

Today the railway station is an enigma. Restored 2011/2012 with foreign aid money, presumably on the expectation that the Cambodian railways would be renovated as planned by the government. The last two photos below show the station pre and post renovation. But while Battambang train station is in relatively good condition with its shuttered gates and clock indefinitely set to 8:02, the train tracks are overgrown and the building is surrounded by the leftovers of dilapidated warehouses, signaling equipment, and rolling stock. There will not be a train through here for another five years, if ever. An example of the waste of foreign aid.

Our guide's itinerary had him taking us to the station, but he had no idea on what it was, so took us to the old railway line in photo 1 below. Only on my questioning did he take us back the next day to see the actual station, whose photos I had found overnight on the internet.

Remember that the railway station was the highlight of the tour of Battambang.

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The remaining three sights on our Battambang city tour, we could only see from afar, but not visit.

Wat Tahm Rai Saw, or the "White Elephant Pagoda", is a modern Buddhist temple near the provincial museum in Battambang. The temple was built in the mid-nineteenth century and renovated many times, but now the magnificent main prayer hall is in a pretty bad state of repair and was closed when we visited in 2016. The main eastern gate is flanked by near-life sized sculptures of white elephants. One of them carries a young prince worshiped by several women, a scene from Buddha's early life before he became enlightened. Several other statues like this are along the eastern side of the chapel. Along the north and south sides of the chapel are several funeral reliquaries and cenotaphs holding the ashes of [presumably] important people.

The magnificent Sala Khaet, the old Governor’s Residence, is the most impressive colonial building, a legacy of the early 1900s with balconies and wooden shutters and grand reception room with a 5m ceiling. In 1905 the last Thai “lord governor”, Chhum Aphaiwong, hired Italian architects to erect this sweeping European-style palace. This Thai governor departed in 1907. The building has been restored with Thai money. The interior and grounds are closed, so you can only admire from outside the railings.

Battambang Museum apparently displays fine Angkorian lintels and statuary from all over the Battambang province, including Phnom Banan and Sneng, and it has multi-lingual signs. However its opening hours are indeterminate - apparently depending on whether anyone could be bothered to open it. We were unable to gain admittance

We had lunch in the Jaan Bal Cafe - this place is truly an oasis. Considering its location in a remote town in Cambodia, the cafe offers extremely good food and service. It is clean, bright and has the owner keeping an eye on proceedings We had their "set" menu at lunchtime, the size and quantity of the helpings defeated me (2 could as well have shared one meal) and it consisted of a large number of well cooked courses The service is friendly and efficient. They do very good smoothies and cakes as well. And I thoroughly recommend this place to anyone in Battambang

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Battambang's most famous tourist attraction is its bamboo railway: ramshackle wooden carts powered by small engines that are quickly assembled to transport people and goods on the neglected tracks. While it used to be a form of transport for local people, nowadays it’s primarily a tourist attraction and nothing more.

The Bamboo Train: (The term "train" being used loosely - a large bamboo platform mounted on train axles powered by a small go-kart engine). Currently it is regulated by Battambang's Tourist Police, with a standard rate of US$5 per person. There have been plans for years to upgrade the tracks for the Poipet - Pnomh Penh trains, which will mean the end of the Bamboo train, but years later there is no sign of the planned new train service

The bamboo trains run from a point 4km from town. The train is technically a norry, a 3m sq. metal and wood frame, covered with strips of bamboo. This rests on two axles with small train wheels attached looking a little like a bar-bell. The rear wheel is connected by a drive belt to a 6hp engine which propels it along at around 15km/hour. It doesn’t sound fast but believe me when sitting on bamboo strips with your bottom inches from a rickety old track, it feels plenty fast enough.

It takes 20 minutes each direction with a 20 minute stop at the village that has a brick factory and kiln (worth a look) and villagers trying to make a dollar from selling tee shirts, food and drink sales to tourists.

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Wat Banan is reached by an impressive flight of stairs (358 steps) which leads up to a dilapidated Angkor-style temple which is still in use as a Buddhist shrine. The steps up are lined with children armed with fans who want to provide some mobile air conditioning for visitors as they climb the stairway. Hoping for, rather than expecting, a tip for their labours.

After a hot climb you finally reach the top - Chris opted out before reaching the summit. The view across the plains to the mountains in the distance is pretty spectacular and would have been even better without the encroaching trees and the widespread smoke pollution which seems to cover the whole of SE Asia these days. Looking down, you get a view of the large lake, built to provide water for the monks in the mountaintop temple.

Henri Mahout, the man who has been (wrongly) credited for discovering Angkor Wat described this place in 1858 as “being full of Buddha statues inside the temple, along with other deities”. Massive looting took place in the 1980s, with statues removed and carvings chipped off when the temple was used as a military base during the Vietnamese occupation, and most of the contents of the temples have now disappeared

The handrail is a Naga (serpent) inscribed with the names of donors who made the renovation, such as it is, possible.The five temples at the top are in a state of disrepair.

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Phnom Sampeu is a high hill with the Killing Caves of the Khmer Rouge. There is also a monastery with two Buddhist Stupas on the hilltop.

About halfway up the hill, a road leads to the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau, now a place of pilgrimage. A short staircase, flanked by greenery, 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 and then thrown through the skylight above. Next to the base of the stairway is the old memorial, a rusty cage made of chicken wire and cyclone fencing and partly filled with human bones. These are the bones of the doctors, teachers, men, women and children killed by the Khmer Rouge here at this cave. At the top of the cave is the natural skylight to which the Khmer Rouge marched people, lining them up, then bludgeoning them and letting their bodies fall into the darkness below.

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And then lunch and a few more temples on the way back to the hotel

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On to to Preah Vihear

Our Cambodia and Laos Holiday

All Our Holidays