Thursday, March 29, 2012

Battambang and the Bamboo Train

submerged buffaloes
The next stop on our big adventure was Battambang. It's Cambodia's second largest city, although you'd never know it by visiting it. The city is on the south side of Tonle Sap, about 40 miles as the crow flies from Siem Reap. You can take a boat across the lake, but we decided to ride, so the distance is more like 100 miles. We got on the road fairly early, beating our way through the morning “rush hour” traffic of Siem Reap. The scenery included lots of rice paddy, lots of very dry fields, lots of flat land, and some water buffaloes and cattle. I did stop to take some photos of the water buffaloes that were submerged up to their snouts in what appeared at first glance from the road, to be just another green field. With the ease they moved through it, it must have been watery rather than thick mud, because one of them more or less bounded across the field toward another buffalo buddy. The ride was otherwise, fairly uneventful, with the exception of the strange whizzing noise (it makes me think of one of those clown whistles or something out of a Spike Jones and His City Slickers orchestral song) my bike made a couple of times. I have no earthly idea what it is. Colin thinks it may be a front wheel bearing. All I know is that it startles me when it happens, it happens when I am going about 45 mph, and that it stops when I slow to a stop and then start riding again.

Colin with his krolan
About halfway to Battambang, we stopped at one of a long string of roadside stands to buy a snack for lunch. At each of the stands, women sell bamboo tubes of various sizes which are filled with a combination of sticky rice, black beans, and coconut. This mixture is packed into hollow lengths of bamboo and a wad of leaves is stuffed in the open end as a seal. The bamboo is then cooked, or more like, smoked, over a fire for approximately 90 minutes. They then peel off the really burnt outer layer of bamboo, leaving the rice concoction in just the thin, inner layer of the bamboo. It's called krolan, and it is supposedly a favorite snack in northern Cambodia. The rice is very glutinous on its own, and when you add coconut milk to the cooking process, it really sticks together. To eat it, you peel the bamboo away from the rice and pop bits of it in your mouth. It's slightly sweet, slightly salty (I assume from the beans?), and chewy. We like it too!

We arrived in Battambang in the early afternoon and followed the GPS directions to the Royal Hotel. I went in to check out our room options and found myself pulled to select an utterly palatial room with a queen bed, comfy chairs, wood furniture, a fridge, A/C and a turbo ceiling fan, and a private balcony. The man at reception offered it first at 20 USD per night (very pricey for Cambodia) then at 18 USD when I hesitated, compared to 15 USD for the smaller and much less posh regular A/C room. We settled on 17.50 per night, and Colin settled in while I walked around the corner to check out the local market. I returned with fruit and some delicious iced coffee to snack on. Later in the afternoon, we went out for a walk along the river.

loading the Symbas for a train ride!
Battambang doesn't get a whole lot of attention in the world traveler market, which is a shame. It's kind of a lovely city, the people seem rather easy going and friendly, and there are some good Angkor-era ruins nearby. The reason we, and I believe most people, venture here, is to ride on the nori, or bamboo train. If you hadn't noticed, we look for opportunities to put our bikes and ourselves on or in unique transportation situations, and the bamboo train sounded perfect. All it is, is a platform made out of bamboo slats which is set on a pair of bogeys, one of which is belt-driven by an industrial engine. This setup runs on the old single track and is used by locals to transport goods and people to and fro. 

We're ready to roll
Since they are not tied to a “schedule,” the noris are bound to run into each other on the tracks. Problem, right? You would think so, but no. As single cars, and being so lightweight and simple, when they meet on the tracks, the one carrying the lighter load simply unloads and disassembles the nori, moving in off to the side of the tracks to allow the other to pass. Once the one has rolled past the disassembled nori, the driver stops and helps put the other one back together before continuing on its way. Cool, huh? You bet! The bamboo train these days is largely used to transport tourists up and down maybe a ten-mile section of tracks, but the locals do use it as well. 

playing chicken on the tracks with oncoming train
Colin and I rode our motorbikes out to the station and purchased one-way tickets for ourselves and our bikes from the tourist policeman. Then, two men lifted each of the bikes onto a nori, and we hopped on in the front, and off we went. It was an absolute kick in the pants!!!! the morning was sunny and hot, and the breeze felt great. 

disassembling the train
 The train only moves at maybe 10 mph, but it feels like you're rolling at 45 mph. No section of track is straight, and many of them don't actually even meet, so you bump and clank and clatter past cows, over really rickety, partially rotted away bridges, through the trees and shrubs. Shortly after we started moving, Colin and I were already plotting how to make one of our very own. We both smiled and felt like little kids the whole time! We are now in love with a new mode of transportation. We did meet two other oncoming trains on our journey, and both times, we won, being the heavier load. We watched as the passengers got off, and the drivers of our train and the oncoming one took off the motor, then set the platform to the side, then took the bogeys off the tracks. Our “engineer” got back on and we moved past and stopped again, while he helped reassemble the other train. It was awesome!

the view from the top of Phnom Sampeau
Sadly, our train ride came to an end, and two men rolled our bikes off the train. We rode down the dirt roads through fields and farms, to find Phnom Sampeau, which is a mountain with a temple complex about ten miles south of Battambang. We followed the GPS directions and soon found ourselves at the base of the hill. When we were flagged down by the parking attendants, my GPS said we were still more than a mile from the top of the hill. The parking attendants insisted that we were not allowed to ride up the hill and that we had to park our bikes. I gestured at all the other motorbikes and cars that drove by, but apparently, farang can't ride up the hill, because of course, there are handy motorbike taxis for you to take. Grr. Instead, we locked our gear and helmets to the bikes and walked up the hill under the noon sun. As my dad would say, only mad dogs and Englishmen... . We slowly trudged up the hill and eventually made it to the top. We stopped to see a wat partway up the hill that had some cool caves attached before reaching the Was Phnom Sampeau at the top of the hill. Here we were treated to panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and some pretty temples to boot.

the hidden valley
We also climbed down the steps to the hidden valley at the top of the mountain. I don't know how many steps it was down into the valley, but it seemed like twice as many on the way back up. Between the heat, humidity, and all the walking, we were both well and truly knackered. We decided to take a break and eat a watermelon before we walked back down to the bikes. For our return journey, we took the steps down the mountain, of which there were supposed to be more than 1,000. Once we made it back to the bikes, we were hot and tired. We rode back into town to cool off at the hotel and work on Thailand plans.

No comments:

Post a Comment