Apr 4, 2011

By-Products in Battambang

We arrived yesterday in Battambang after an incident free 4.5hr journey from Siem Reap.  Strange town, or should I say city actually as it is the second largest city in Cambodia with a population of approximately 140,000.  While most streets in the city centre are paved, they are strangely quiet although all lined with multi-storey mostly French-colonial style buildings.  There are again few cars interspersed with motor scooters, tuk tuks, bicycles, pedestrians and also the occasional pony and cart!  After 9pm, the city streets become deserted.  But beyond the city’s limits lay many Khmer Rouge- era legacies (or by-products) to pay respect to as well as a few pre-Angkorian era ruins to explore and that’s what we’re here to do. 

A Battambang Tuk Tuk

One of the many casualties of the Khmer Rouge regime included the railway system. In the 1980’s after the country was liberated it struggled to rebuild yet without much in the way of transport, the local people started to build a ‘Norrie’ which was originally a small railway vehicle first used in the 1960’s to carry out railway repairs.  The locals used parts from the old rail trains which were disassembled by the Khmer Rouge yet left strewn about.  Thus the bamboo train was born made of bamboo and a wooden platform, which rested (unfixed) on the axles of stock wheels powered by a 6HP gasoline engine at the rear.  They say at its peak, more than 1000 of these existed running on the nations 600km of single line track.  They were instrumental in not only transporting food, but also for livestock and people.  Nowadays, it’s mostly a tourist attraction whose future is limited as they are working on getting the train system up and running again.  As the rail tracks are only ‘single’ and the engines only operate in ‘forward’, it means that when 2 norries coming from opposite directions meet, the one with the lighter load must disembark, load and all, the platform and the axel removed, allowing the other norrie to pass.  Then it is reassembled and reloaded.  All this takes a matter of minutes, especially as usually the other driver helps with the disassembly and reassembly.  

Disassembly:  Axel x 2, Platform, Engine and Us

Engine at the Rear

Our Norrie, at Departure (that's the 'boss' on the left in the PJs)

So today we hired a tuktuk to take us to the ‘starting point’ of the Bamboo Train (tourist section).  It’s a strange system now whereby the tourist section is now apparently controlled by 1 person/organisation and has ‘drivers’.  The rate for a ride seems to vary according to the ‘boss’ of the day, anywhere from $5USD to $8 USD per person it seems, kids free, with the driver apparently only receiving $1 per ride of this.  We got a good boss today and only paid $10 for all of us on our own norrie.  At first, both girls held on with white knuckles staring intently down the track as we rolled along the 12km to the destination at the next village.  Having to jump off and disassemble a couple of times, we got to our destination in about 30minutes.  The ride back was quicker as we only met 1 other norrie and by this time, the girls were pros!  It was a very fun experience riding the norrie—very noisy in a metal-grinding-metal sort of way yet clickity clacking at the same time as it rolled along, sometimes jolting you with a sudden ‘thud’ if a section of the track was particularly disjointed.  Maddy described it like a game when 2 norries met.

Maddy:  "Here Comes Another One!"

Tight Grips

Bit Happier on the Way Back

Another ‘attraction’ in Battambang that also arose as a consequence of the Khmer Rouge years:  the Phare Ponleu Selpak circus.  During the 1980’s as many Cambodian refugees resided in camps in northern Thailand, a group of Khmer (Cambodian) children started learning painting and music from a Khmer teacher.  Later returning to Battambang as adults, they became reunited with this teacher and an idea emerged to form a school for disadvantaged children for visual and performing arts, which is the Phare Ponleu Selpak (www.phareps.org).  Three times weekly, its circus school perform for an hour long show to raise funds and awareness.  The older alumni of this school actually perform world-wide.  

So after a big day sightseeing, including riding the bamboo train, we set off to see the circus.  While the show was incredible, probably made more so by the accompanying live music, they had ‘talent issues’ and the show was only 35 minutes long tonight, lacking the more ‘circus’ side of things like clowns and tightrope, which are usually on the schedule.  Nevertheless, we were very impressed with the night’s more ‘political' theme and as it was very acrobatic as well, the girls were able to enjoy it too.

Caught in mid-air

A couple of issues are arising for us at this point in our trip in Cambodia.  Firstly, the lack of any local transportation network is meaning that we are spending quite a bit of money (for us) on tuk tuks in order to get around to see the sights whereas normally we’d take the bus/shared taxi/metro.  As there are a lot of ‘sights’ and they tend to be quite spread out from town, we usually spend at least $8-15USD on sightseeing days just in transport.  Secondly, while many of the sights are notable temples and historic Angkorian-era (around 10th C) ruins, many other ‘sights’ in Cambodia have arisen as a result of the atrocities that the Khmer Rouge committed in the 1970s.  While I had studied about Pol Pott and the regime at university in my 20thC History course and Jim did some 'travel schooling', viewing a short film documenting this era while in Siem Reap, we are finding that visiting and seeing these landmarks is another totally confronting and sobering matter.  Nevertheless, this is part and parcel of Cambodia and we will come to terms with our issues (we hope).