Battambang

28 Aug

Orestes and I departed Phnom Penh on the day of the national elections, and headed north towards Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city. I found the bus ride to be quite entertaining. Due to the elections, there were no express buses, so our bus stopped a zillion times to pick up and dispense passengers. In some locations it stopped completely, in others it merely paused and the people boarding would jog alongside, hop on, pay the fare, and squish their way into a seat. Some people came on board with huge bags of clothes, fruit, etc., while others had nothing. The inside of the bus was decorated with curtains in a crazy pattern, and random wall decor that clashed with the curtains, while a small TV in the front of the bus played zany kung fu movies dubbed into Khmer. I was pleased to note that many of our fellow passengers had ink on their index fingers, meaning that they had taken the time to vote. All in all, it was an interesting cultural adventure that reminded me a bit of the chicken buses in Guatemala (although there were no chickens).

Battambang itself is fairly small, and it is completely surrounded by sparsely populated countryside. I really wanted to explore the more rural side of Cambodia, so I dragged Orestes on a bike tour with a tour company called Soksabike, which supports small businesses and promotes eco-tourism. By random coincidence, after I sent in my booking form, I received an email from Katie, a fellow field hockey player at Skidmore. It turns out that she lived in Battambang for quite some time, and helped found Soksabike and its affiliated cafe. She still is cced on the booking forms, and wanted to say hi. Small world; I love when things like that happen! The bike tour turned out to be amazing, and was one of my favorite things we did in Cambodia. Our tour guide, Phearon, was super friendly and knew a lot about the area. We visited many local industries, including a rice paper factory, a cohort of women weaving scarves, a rice wine factory, and the Bamboo Train. All told, we rode about 50km around the countryside; it was hot, sunny, sweaty, and fabulous. The rice paper “factory” was really a single family production that manages to produce around 2,000 sheets of rice paper a day. Same same for the rice wine factory. We got to sample all of the wares, and I tried my hand at making rice paper and using a loom. The little old man who ran the production pronounced my rice paper acceptable, although thicker than the standard.

The final stop on the tour was Battambang’s Bamboo Train. The word train is used rather loosely here, since the “train” in question is a platform made of bamboo slats set atop two sets of wheels aka a norry. Add an outboard motor/fan belt situation and one can barrel along down a set of rickety tracks at speeds approaching 15kph. Cambodia no longer has functional trains since the Khmer Rouge destroyed the majority of the tracks installed by the French, but in a few places, these norries are used as alternative transportation, albeit one occasionally impeded by wandering cows. During the Khmer Rouge, the norries were also used as minesweepers in front of actual trains – the norry tickets cost less than a real train ticket, so they were popular despite the obvious dangers. The biggest adventure on our norry ride was almost running over a lounging snake. The snake barely slipped its tail over the tracks as we passed, and Phearon and our norry driver grew really excited, stopped the norry, and ran back along the tracks to try to find said snake. No such luck, but it was a brief thrill. Also, since there is only one set of tracks, when two norries meet, the one with fewer passengers is forced to quickly disassemble, let the other norry pass, then put itself back together to continue on. We met only one other norry, and we had the majority. : ) As a side note, I found the bamboo train particularly entertaining because Anthony Bourdain, my favorite chef turned eccentric TV travel host, once rode the bamboo train while filming a show about Cambodia. Awesome.

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2 Responses to “Battambang”

  1. Colleen August 28, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

    FUN pics! Looks like a great time! 🙂

  2. Elaine McCormick September 26, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    Very entertaining! Looks like you have a fabulous time. Love Ya!

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