Battambang – The Movie

The Cambodian northwestern town of Battambang is connected by road and railway to the capitol Phnom Penh, which lies about 200km southeast. Taking the train would be a no brainer for a railway buff like me. However, all the locals will advise you to take the bus instead. Trains on this line run only once a week and they are painfully slow – requiring 14 hours for a trip that takes “only” five hours when using the bus.

Temple near the Killing Caves at Phnom Sampeau

Although, I would have felt a bit adventurous on this one (meaning: taking the train), the odd schedules really prevented me from taking this mode of transport. So I went by bus to Battambang and once arrived there, I immediately hired a moto driver to take me to the Bamboo train station for a ride. Bamboo trains are vehicles which consist of a metal frame with bamboo slats that sit on two axles with wheels. The engine is a standard moto engine and the breaks are a wooden stick on which the driver applies pressure to the wheels.

Ok, now I do anticipate what you really want to see from me: The short movie I took while riding the Bamboo train in Battambang:

These kind of trains are very common on the railway track between Phnom Penh and Battambang, since they serve the local community with a quick and efficient way to haul goods and people for short distances between towns. There is usually enough time to quickly disassemble the bamboo slats from the frame and remove the wheels from the track – should the scheduled train become an obstacle. And when Bamboo trains encounter each other on the single track, the one with more passengers/cargo has priority. The process of disassembling is a snap and takes less than a minute.

Unfortunately, the railway track is currently being upgraded by a foreign consortium and there will be a better railway service on this line by the End of 2009. The locals already know that the Bamboo trains will be forbidden on the new track and therefore this will be a thing of the past by then.

The next day, I did hire a motorbike – this time a 250cc Enduro (I couldn’t spot the make, but it looked like a Yamaha). I was told that the road to the “Killing Caves” and “Phnom Sampeau” (about 15km West of Battambang) should be done preferably by using such a bike. My smile was way too big for my small face when I first heard the sound of this little bike. Somehow they managed to make it as loud and vibrating as my trusty old 650cc “Honda Dominator”.

The trip to “Phnom Sampeau” was definitely requiring an off road bike. There was a bit of road left among the deep potholes. And do I need to tell you how much mud from the day’s before rain was still left on the way out? So, I arrived covered from foot to knee in mud – but still smiling like a ten year old. Even having to put the chain twice back in place during the trip was more fun than anything else. The guy renting out the bike probably never heard of having to apply oil to a bike chain. I applied what I had: Suntan lotion. Which helped a bit. But now I am out of suntan lotion – which is definitely bad for me and I look forward to the next sunburn.

Battambang Railway Station Platform

My post about Phnom Penh was telling more than enough about what I think of the history of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot Regime. Therefore, I do spare you with the gory details of the “Killing Caves”, located on top of the mountain “Phnom Sampeau”. You probably guess what had happened there between 1974 – 1979. Other than the mass-murdering history, this little mountain has an absolutely breathtaking view over the flat landscape, featuring abundant rice fields. Also, there is a small temple, which originally was constructed in 1964. This temple was restored in 2003, after having been nearly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

Going up the hill is actually an exercise, similar to the one I did back in China on the Hua Shan, although there were “only” 700 steps to the top here. And I had an Enduro bike at hand. I politely asked the police man cashing in the entrance fee to the mountain, whether I would be allowed to drive up the mountain. Call me Swiss (or uptight), but I didn’t want to break any potentially religious or otherwise complex laws by using a motorbike to drive up to the temple. “Sure, no problem. You good bike. Must drive up.” was his reply and he pointed to the place where a small road would lead up the mountain. I fell twice on the way up, but it still was so much fun. Especially the part when arriving on the top, near the temple where I got blank stares from four other tourists who had been taking the stairs – and who were clearly annoyed by the noise of my bike.

Driving back to the city of Battambang afterwards was more of a timing exercise. I wanted to make sure to arrive before the daily rain (starting usually at 4pm). Although already covered in mud and having a bit of a bleeding knee, I really did not want to get stuck in the mud outside of town.

Besides all these fun attractions, I did visit a couple of temples downtown Battambang and went to check out the Battambang railway station. This actually looks like an abandoned place. People are squatting the railway buildings and there is little evidence, that there are actually real trains arriving and leaving this station.

On the boat from Battambang to Siem Reap

One of these indications is the timetable – unchanged since 2005 – stating that the trains depart Phnom Penh at 6.20am on Saturday’s. The trains to Phnom Penh depart Battambang on Sunday’s at 6.40am. Note that there is no indication whatsoever about the arrival times. It definitely helps to pay attention to details: On a small chalkboard in a corner, there was some English scribbling underneath the Cambodian writing: “Passenger train, Sunday 24.8.2008 – No”.

Heading further on my journey, I did chose to take the boat (instead of the bus) from Battambang to Siem Reap / Angkor Wat. On this leg, the road is in bad shape and the boat ride is absolutely scenic (read: stunning). Recommended to anyone traveling between these two cities.