The Battambang Bamboo Train is probably the most famous attraction in Battambang.
The “railway” was originally a crude method of transporting livestock and goods on former train lines (the trains a casualty of the Khmer Rouge fighting). Nowadays, they transport exhilarated visitors, which I’m sure the chickens and pigs of rural Cambodia are immensely grateful for.
I had half expected the railway to be closed when we arrived; the Bamboo Train is almost as famous for the constant threat of closure as it is for the actual railway. The long-planned, long-delayed railway linking Phnom Penh to Bangkok is due to use these tracks and put an end to the Bamboo Railway for good. I wouldn’t worry – the railway was due for completion in 2009. I suspect the Bamboo railway will be around for a while yet.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the Bamboo Railway. In my mind I was imagining something rather quaint – a kind of kids-playground miniature railway that would putter gently through the Cambodian countryside for maybe 500 meters or so as we sat, safely, in tiny carriages and waved at grazing cows – was roughly my expectation.
Ha. The “trains” (if we must insist on calling them that) are not quite as I imagined. They are more like a magical kamikaze flying carpet on rails. These are not the trains of my experience. There is no buffet cart selling wildly overpriced, lava-hot paninis. There is no Bamboo Rail Replacement Bus Service. In fact, I strongly suspect my Grandpa could fashion one for me back in his garage, assuming he had four wheels, a bamboo mat and a disproportionately powerful outboard motor. He’s handy like that.
Having paid our $5 fare to the dubiously named “tourist police”, we settled ourselves onto a rather flimsy bamboo platform with a cushion for comfort. Our silent Khmer driver whipped the engine into life, and off we trundled down the palm-lined tracks.
There was no puttering. There was no waving at passing cows. We thundered through the countryside at what felt like 60mph. In reality it was probably no more than 30mph, but a thin bamboo mat moving at any speed has a way of making it seem slightly faster than that. There were no seat belts. There was a thin metal bar designed to catch flying bodies in the event of a sudden stop. It was stupidly, wildly unsafe. It was brilliant.
“Are you having fun?” I yelled at Craig over the noise, “isn’t this so much more awesome than you imagined?!”
“Are you kidding me?” he shrieked at an unusually high pitch for him, “those massive jumps the train makes every so often? That’s faults in the track. We are a derailment WAITING to happen. I refuse to categorise this as ‘fun’ until I have safely disembarked”
The railway is a single track, which means you are quite likely to meet another train hurtling towards you at speed. That train will, if you are really lucky, be transporting John Hammond from Jurassic Park.
A fun game of “chicken” ensues (ideally concluding before the moment of impact) which is usually won by the train with more passengers, or the one with a bigger queue of trains behind it. At that point, the passengers of the losing train disembark, and the train is hastily dismantled and dumped by the side of the train tracks until the winning train passes. The train is then reassembled and placed back on the tracks. Sound like a lengthy and tedious process? Not at all – Battambang is where Formula 1 needs to be looking for the pitstop teams of the future. Drivers can disassemble a train and have it back on the tracks in around a minute.
After 7 kilometres or so, we prised our white knuckles from the safety bar as the train/ kamikaze mat of doom slowed to a stop. We spent about half an hour at the “rest stop” (which consisted mainly of stalls selling food, cold drinks and souvenirs declaring you had “ridden on the railway”). There were a few kids selling bracelets, which we refused to buy, but they were nice kids and spoke surprisingly good English.
After our stop and another twenty minutes of faffing around with the trains, we were back on the train and hurtling back towards the start. About 100m away we could see herds of cows ambling across the track – oblivious to our alarmed shrieks. The Battambang Bamboo Train is a LOT of fun, but it is not for those of a nervous disposition.
We visited the Bamboo train as part of a full day tour with a tuk tuk driver our guest house had recommended. Our next stop was Wat Bannan – a temple set atop a hill. The climb up was a struggle as there are nearly 400 steps – no small climb in 33 degree heat!
The temple is in a rather poor state of repair, but still lovely to walk around for fifteen minutes or so. The views across the countryside were, unfortunately, rather blocked by trees though.
Thankful for a rest, we climbed back into the tuk tuk for the bumpiest, most uncomfortable tuk tuk ride ever taken. We bounced over bumps and rocks, and swerved around giant pot holes – bouncing over the rest – along the dustiest road I have ever seen. Aching all over, we were glad to climb out again!
Our final stop was a(nother) long, sweaty walk uphill to visit Phnom Sampeau and a Khmer Rouge Killing Cave which, like the site of the Killing Fields we’d visited previously, was home to many brutal murders. Ever economical, the Khmer Rouge often simply threw their victims (many were women or children) down the shaft of the cave where they were dashed to death on the rocks below. Today, a golden Buddha and a simple pagoda housing the recovered bones pay tribute to the dead.
Further up the hill took us to Phnom Sampeu, a complex of temples with views across the Cambodian countryside.
We arrived just before sunset – the perfect time to enjoy the beautiful golden stupas and roofs, which were bathed in late afternoon light, whilst dodging the obligatory but evil temple macaques.
Back at the bottom, we settled in for the final show of the night – bats! Battambang’s famous Bat Cave is home to several million bats which head out at sunset to hunt. The sight of them all fluttering out of the cave, as if synchronised, is pretty amazing.
As we sat, watching the bats fly over us, I felt a drop of water hit my forehead. “Is it starting to rain?” I asked Craig. It was not. It turns out that, rather like humans, bats have to go to the bathroom soon after they wake up. And they aren’t fussy about who they hit in the process. Stupid bats.
Anyway! If you enjoyed reading about Craig’s ride of terror on the Bamboo train here is a short video. To my eternal regret, I didn’t get a shot of Craig’s face mid-journey.