Battambang

After Siem Reap, I could have taken a bus directly back to Phnom Penh before flying out to Indonesia, but decided that I really needed to see somewhere else in Cambodia before running off - after all, I'd come a long way, and had only really seen the Angkor temples. Battambang seemed like a good option - a quick peruse of the Lonely Planet said that there were a few good sights, so that was decided. There are two routes from Siem Reap to Battambang - bus or boat. Naturally, having endured far too many long distance buses recently, I opted for the boat option. Advertised as a 6-7 hour trip, it seemed like the perfect chill-out antidote to the excesses of Siem Reap. The route would spend about an hour crossing the corner of Tonle Sap lake, and then head up river to Battambang. The lake section of the route was a bit stop/start, as the water levels were a bit low - a couple of times some of the crew had to jump out and push us off mudbanks, which wasn't confidence inspiring, but was amusing. Heading up river, things started to slow down. Large clumps of floating greenery began to fill up the river, making the boat's engine cough and splutter whenever we drove over a big clump. Eventually though, the entire river was just a sea of leaves, and we couldn't make any constant headway. Slow down, stop, reverse, charge, slow down, stop. Repeat. And again. And again. The whole journey eventually took slightly over 12 hours! It's wasn't a complete nightmare though, as there was plenty of amusement to be had as we (well, the boat crew) fought through the dense foliage. A slight competition with another stuck boat to see who would make the most headway, buying some barbecued fish from a boat passing the other way, and watching kids do what kids do on a long slow journey - mess about and have a laugh!
Floating wedding venue

Floating wedding venue

Plant-clogged river

Plant-clogged river

Another stranded boat

Another stranded boat

I finally dragged myself into the hostel as the sun was setting hoping for an early night after a long long day. This wish was not to be granted, however - a quiz night invitation, a group of very friendly residents and staff, and copious beer kept me up until 3am! I was sensible though - when it was suggested that we head into town at 3am, I went to my room 'to get some money'... Needless to say, I was asleep within a minute of closing my door! I will confess that once I'd arrived in Battambang, I barely referred to the guidebook at all, with the result that I didn't actually see much of the town. I went for random strolls, but without any real idea of what I was seeing (apart from the French colonial influenced architecture). I did know that there was a local NGO-funded performing arts school (Phare Ponleu Selpak) which had it's own mini-circus, and I spent a fantastic 90 minutes in their big-top watching the performance. Imagine 14-16 year old kids who are aiming to join Cirque de Soleil (some might actually do) tumbling, dancing, balancing and being strange, accompanied by an incomprehensible Cambodian-dialogue story, and you're there. They were very impressive, confident, funny, and acrobatic - just brilliant!
Aerial silk dancer

Aerial silk dancer

Chair balancing at the circus

Chair balancing at the circus

The final sight I had on my list was the bamboo railway. I'd heard about this from a couple of other backpackers in Australia, and it sounded like an unmissable experience. The section of railway used is a remnant of the system built by the French during their colonization - though since then the line has degraded to such an extent that trains can't use the line any more. The locals, however, designed tiny twin-axle... well, carts, I suppose... driven by a tiny engine on a 3m bamboo platform - these are used locally to move goods up and down the line, but tourists probably comprise the bulk of the traffic on the line now. Hurtling along on a tiny platform down rickety, bumpy rails, flying past confused looking livestock - its great fun! The unique part of the trip is how to deal with nori (the Cambodian word for the trains) coming in the opposite direction. The noris stops, and the drivers lift the platform of one nori off its axles and put it to the side of the track. Then the axles are moved off - the intact nori moves past - and then they rebuild the dismantled train. After about two minutes delay, both trains are heading off again. Very clever.
Taking the train apart

Taking the train apart

Bamboo railway, Battambang

Bamboo railway, Battambang

Kids making bamboo insects

Kids making bamboo insects

An unexpected highlight was at the turnaround point, about 4km down the line. The nori stopped at a station where (unsurprisingly) there were a couple of stalls selling souvenirs. There were three kids who were weaving bamboo leaves into rings, flowers and insects - they were impressively dextrous, and I ended up taking three grasshoppers back with me. I bought them a few drinks to share, and took a photo of two of them, who seemed really excited to see themselves on the screen on my camera. Happy times. Anyway, I had a bus to catch to Phnom Penh, so got back on the nori to head back into town, and off to the capital. I'd like to visit Battambang again, though with a bit more research perhaps - the town seemed to have a lot more to it that I just didn't see...
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