The river trip to Battambang from Siem Reap took 6 hours or so, passing through part of Tonle Sap Lake before entering countless narrow channels of the Prek Toal Wildlife Preserve (a birdwatcher’s paradise) and on to sections only passable when the water is high. People along the waterways live in wobbly-looking houses on stilts. Kids go to stilt schools and people pray at temples on stilts. It’s an amazing system with all aspects of life focused on the water. Neighbors visit by boat, people fish from boats and from the shore. Kids play in the water, shouting hello as our boat motors past.
The city of Battambang is known for having some of the best-preserved, early 20th Century French architecture in Cambodia. It’s a very picturesque, riverside town with a laid-back atmosphere, some nice wats, and noteworthy historical sites. It’s also one of the only places left to be able to catch a glimpse of the clever but soon to be gone bamboo train.
The famous bamboo train (Norrie) started in the 1980s, inspired by the small vehicles used by the rail workers to make repairs. Roads were terrible at the time, and people were struggling. The bamboo platforms on wheels were strong, and built for minimum cost. They run along the old, French-era single track. Livestock were brought to market this way, rice and vegetables transported, and people were able to get to clinics they may never have reached otherwise. At first the norries were “poled” by hand. Later, a small petrol engine was adapted to power the cart. From more than a thousand of these original norries, there are now under a hundred left. We were able to ride one on a 12 km stretch from O’Dambang village to O’Sralau and back. Thirty km/hour seemed pretty fast as we bumped along the rails on our bamboo and wood platform. Wooden struts lie on salvaged wheels, and a fanbelt on the axle is attached to the engine. Ingenious! When we came upon another norrie coming in the opposite direction, both stopped, and the one less loaded was taken apart and laid to the side of the tracks while the other passed. The other driver then helped reassemble the first vehicle, and both got under way again. This process happened 4 or 5 times along the journey. This section of track is slated for development starting in the next few months, meaning the era of the norrie will end. We felt lucky to have had this experience.
We rented a motorbike one day and head out through the lush countryside surrounding the city. Traditional wooden houses with gardens, kids playing, cows grazing and corn, spring roll wrappers or peppers were laid out in the sun to dry. We eventually came to Ek Phnom, an 11th century Angkorian ruin. Another Buddhist temple we visited, Wat Somrong Knong was turned into a prison by the Khmer Rouge, and the surrounding area a killing field where 10,008 people were put to death. The old Wat is kept locked up, and a new one is being built nearby. There is a monument to remember genocide victims onsite, filled with recovered skulls and bones and surrounded with bas reliefs telling the horrible, gruesome story of what happened here.
The ruins at Wat Banan sit at the top of about 300 stone steps. There are four temple towers, with the main temple in the middle, similar to the layout of Angkor Wat. The original temple dates back to 1050, and was built as a Hindu temple. In 1219 it was rebuilt using the same stones, but as a Buddhist temple. The whole area below is still being cleared of landmines, and signs to not stray from the path are well-placed.
The hill of Phnom Sampeou has a long history and is the site of Cambodian folk tales and legend. It’s a pretty area with a couple of wats and beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, its more recent history is marred by violence and war. At the top of the hill is a shrine set in a cave dedicated to those killed by the Khmer Rouge at the site. Usually after slitting victim’s throats, soldiers threw people down shafts into the caves below. We were told that based on the bones that were found, they believe there were separate shafts for men, women and children. Bones and skulls are now protected in cages where people can come to pay their respects, light incense and pray. It’s an extremely sad and disturbing place. We negotiated a ride the rest of the way to the top of the hill with a couple of local guys on motorbikes. One spoke a little English, and we were able to sit down and chat for a bit. He pointed out a couple of canons still pointed toward the former Khmer Rouge town to the west, and told about how the area had put up a valient resistance before they were eventually overrun.