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The Bamboo Railway

In the 1930s, the French colonial government built a railway from Phnom Penh through Battambang to Poipet on the Thai border.  During the decades of war and revolution, it deteriorated until the last trains finally stopped running in 2009.

Local entrepreneurs quickly saw an opportunity to use the abandoned rails for a tourist attraction.  They built light platforms of bamboo and mounted them on two axles.  A six hp utility motor provides the power and drives one of the axles with a vee belt.  The motor sits on a slide mount and the driver applies tension to the belt with a stick.
 

We pay five dollars each, are invited to sit on a cushion on the platform and the driver pulls the rope to start the engine.  The little carriage slowly clatters off down the rails, through the rural Cambodian countryside.
 
 
Within minutes, the carriage gains speed until we are bucketing along at a death-defying 30 km/h or so.  The roadbed is uneven, the rails are warped and the rail joints are misaligned.  We bump and sway and there is a loud crash each time we pass over a rail joint.  It is wonderful fun!
 

Inevitably, we meet a carriage-full of tourists coming the other way.  Not to worry -- the two drivers jump off and proceed to dismantle our carriage.  Two of them easily lift the bamboo platform off the axles, the motor is set on the ground and the two axles are removed from the rails.  The other carriage creeps past and the two drivers quickly reassemble ours.  We climb back on and in minutes are once again on our way.
 

 


About five miles down the track we reach what was once the next station on the railroad.  We detrain, have a cold drink and walk about to view an abandoned brick kiln.  After twenty minutes we are invited back aboard for the return trip.
   

 












Truly a unique experience and about as much fun as you can have in Cambodia with your clothes on!

 

Battambang

Battambang is a lovely place.  A small, provincial city in the northwest of the country, it is quiet and laid-back and very pleasant.  To be fair, there isn't a lot to do and we spend quite a bit of time just strolling around the downtown and sitting in shady cafes, drinking cold beer.  What's not to like about that?

 
Battambang is an easy going rural town serving as a hub to surrounding farms and villages, it bears witness to an earlier time.  There are many older colonial buildings that add a certain charm.   With plenty of choices for meals, we once again find a favourite.  The Ambrosia Cafe is not very big but serves a nice little meal, without the inevitable rice.  I can't reconcile the size of Khmer food servings with these little tiny people.  There are more impoverished beggars here a we still see many of the war and landmine victims.

 
Here too, there is a lot of construction and the inevitable dust and debris that accompanies it.  Much of the soil in Cambodia is very red and a thick coat of red dust blankets sections of the town.  Even the dogs are red. 
 
We get a tuk tuk driver to take us out of town.  He pulls over at one of the numerous roadside vendors selling food and snacks.  While we have tasted many exotic delicacies such as water lily stems, pickled limes, and fried morning glories, it is here that we are introduced to barbecued rats!  Even Bob gives them a pass....and I was worried about eating barbecued dog and red ant soup!!!  These little critters look quite a bit like cuy or guinea pig that we enjoyed in Peru and, to be quite fair, these are not our common sewer rat.  These are rice rats, a different species:  Rattus argentiver.  They live in the rice fields and are considered a healthy delicacy due to their free-range lifestyle and largely organic diet.  We are amazed to learn that tens of thousands of rice rats are trapped alive each day and exported to neighbouring countries, mainly Vietnam!    We are told they taste a bit like pork -- we still pass.
 
Roadside grilled-rat vendor

We carry on to our destination:  Phnom Sampeau.  This is a small limestone mountain that thrusts up out of the flat countryside.  It has a spectacular Buddhist temple complex at the very top, but it is also the site of the Killing Cave (and we thought we were finished with the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities).  The road to the top is too steep for tuk tuks, so we transfer to the backs of two handy motorbikes.  After marvelling at the ornate splendour of the temples, we descend a set of steps into a beautiful limestone cavern, complete with stalactites and stalagmites.  There is an ornate reclining Buddha statue and a stupa to commemorate those who were killed, but there is also  the old memorial: a wire mesh crate full of bones and skulls.  Our guide directs us to look up and about a hundred feet above our heads there is a skylight -- a small opening in the roof of the cavern.  The Khmer Rouge took their captives up to the peak of the mountain, made them stand beside the opening and then smashed their heads with clubs.  The victims fell though the opening;  if the blow from the club didn't kill them, the 100-foot fall to the floor below made certain of it.

Western governments, and the U.N., continued to support these monsters until 1992!
 
Buddhist temple at the top of Phnom Sampeau

 

 

 
Steps down into the Killing Cave

 
Skylight at the top where victims were clubbed and then fell to the floor of the cave
 
Reclining Buddha in the Killing Cave                   
 

On the way back, we visit a crocodile farm where they are raising hundreds of Siamese Crocodiles, a species that is nearly extinct in the wild..  These critters are every bit as homely as we expected.  They  sleep with their mouths wide open in the heat for ventilation.  There is a huge export market for the animals.  Other farms buy breeding stock and the mature animals are sold for their hides and for meat.
 

Crocodiles are raised in large pens -- quite a bit like a pig farm!

 
Sleeping with jaws open expel heat

 
They look more like alligators than the familiar crocodiles

 
We pass on an offer to hold a baby.  The handler's finger is bitten
when when returning the little critter to the tub
 

We catch an express van back to Phnom Penh.  This is a 15-passenger van that travels at a furious rate of speed down the congested two-lane highway.  Overtaking on blind corners, swerving to miss tuk tuks, dodging tractor-trailers (and the occasional cow), it's all part of daily life.  At just over 100 km/h, the back door of the van springs open and two pieces  of luggage tumble out and roll down the asphalt.  Unfortunately, one happens to be Susan's backpack.  Luckily the road behind us is clear of trucks and busses.  We turn around to retrieve the items and resume our journey.  Miraculously, apart from minor road-rash, her backpack is unscathed -- even her camera still works!  The driver is mightily relieved!

We go back to our AirBnB room in PP and Sally is there to greet us.  It is like coming home again.

In the morning, we tuk tuk to the bus station and board a van for Sihanoukville.  Six more hours of death-defying displays of driver creativity,  derring-do and moments of sheer terror and we disembark in the port city of Sihanoukville.

After two weeks of hard traveling, we think we have earned a few days in a beach resort.
 

 Sihanoukville

Sihanoukville, named after then-king Norodom Sihanouk, is located on the Gulf of Thailand in the southwest corner of Cambodia.  It was hacked out of the jungle in the late 1950s to create a deep water port and now has evolved into Cambodia's premier beach destination.  Long stretches of incredibly fine sand, shaded by coconut palms and casuarina trees stretch south along the coast.  Following advice from friends, we take a longish tuk tuk ride to the gorgeous Otres beach which is a bit less hectic than better-known areas closer to the city. 

Through AirBnB, we find Wildside Villas in Otres Village and settle in for a few days of relaxation after our recent travelling exertions.  This is a lovely spot:  the villas are small two-story structures of varnished wood and thatch.  The bathrooms are on the ground floor and the bedrooms above.  The balconies around the bedrooms are connected by wooden bridges and overlook the small pool and the bar.

 

Our villa

 

Wonder what the poor people are doing today....

 

Otres Village is a very laid-back sort of a place; backpackers are everywhere.  We always wonder where all the old hippies from the 6os went;  now we know where at least some of them ended up!

 

The beach is a fifteen-minute walk along a quiet road, but we aren't hard-core beach worshippers and this suits us just fine.  It is indeed a beautiful beach with long, mostly empty stretches.  There are also parts lined with cheap restaurants and small low-key resorts.  The water is about blood temperature. The sand is the finest we have ever seen.

 

One day we sign up for the Three Islands Boat Tour:  $15.00 each for the whole day.  We are picked up at our place, fed breakfast and loaded into one of their long-tail boats.  The small diesel roars to life in a cloud of black smoke, the anchor is pulled up and we are off towards the small islands that lie just off shore.  We anchor close to the first little island of Koh Tres and jump overboard for some snorkelling.  It isn't a great success.  The masks are very well-used, there are no flippers and the water is quite murky.  There is some coral but it isn't very spectacular.

Three Islands Boat Tour

On the way to the next island, the motor suddenly revs up -- but the boat slows down!  We seem to have lost the propeller off the end of the long-tail drive shaft.  Never mind, we have a second motor that we haven't been using.  Oh! oh!  it won't start!  (Dusty Watt, where are you when I need you?) No panic -- the skipper and the mate pull out rusty wrenches, detach the drive unit from the dead motor and attach it to the functioning motor.  Soon we are roaring across the Gulf of Thailand once more.

Emergency repairs

 

Eventually, our boat pulls into beautiful Koh Ta Kiev -- a quintessential tropical island.  A narrow beach between the dense jungle and the water has amazingly soft, white sand.  Sadly, as is common in many parts of the world, it is littered with plastic waste.  The plastic water bottle is a plague on humanity!

 

We wander into an idyllic primitive resort.  The accommodations are literally tree houses built of bamboo and thatch.  The bar is filled with somnolent tattooed and dreadlocked backpackers.  Behind the bar the cook is just removing fragrant loaves of bread from an outdoor wood-fired oven.

Tree house accommodation

 

Fresh, hot loaves of bread

 

A little down the path, we follow signs to the Drunken Pencil Bar and Art Studio.  At first it seems abandoned, but then we hear stirrings in the second story well above our heads.  We clamber up a rickety wooden ladder to find an expat Englishman tending bar.  He seems delighted by our visit.  A cold Cambodia beer and a few stories later, we descend the ladder and make our way back to our boat.

 

Ladder to the bar.  We wouldn't want to climb down after TOO many drinks!

 

There is a little barbecue on the boat and the boat boy grills chicken for our lunch.  Along with a salad, fresh baguettes (the most important legacy of French colonialism), it is delicious!

 

On the way back, the motor performs flawlessly and we stop for another snorkel at Koh Cha Luh island.  The water here is clearer and shallower and we are able to see some nice coral.

 

Around 4:00 pm, we disembark at Otres Beach after a fine day.

 

Cambodia -- Land of Smiles

We are genuinely sad to be leaving Cambodia.  Such a beautiful country, populated with gentle, friendly, happy people.  We have never been smiled at so often.  They are patient and we never see anyone angry.  This is the obvious reason why their chaotic traffic works so well.  Each driver defers to the next and everyone is able to guide their tuk tuk, scooter, huge truck or bus safely through the maze of vehicles.  At home, it would instantly deteriorate into an immoveable grid-lock of honking horns, waving fists and  red-faced drivers.

 

We are sitting in an elegant riverside terrace restaurant in Phnom Penh, having lunch and waiting to board the fast boat down the Mekong river to Chau Doc, Vietnam.

Elegant terrace restaurant -- probably dates from colonial days

The river boat is long and narrow with comfortable seats like a bus.  It is fast and smooth and the breeze blows through the open windows.  About four hours down the river we pull into a dock and clear out of Cambodia.  A few minutes later, we pull into another dock and go through Vietnamese immigration.

Fast boat to Chau Doc

There is an enormous amount of marine traffic on the Mekong River.  Strange looking vessels carrying dirt from dredging operations which seem to be almost continuous.  Barges carrying hundreds of shipping containers and huge river cruise boats three and four decks high that look like old Mississippi steam boats.

Dredging operation with a drag-line loading into a typical river barge

 

During the next hour, we turn into a side channel and eventually disembark at the bustling riverside town of Chau Doc.  We are just overnighting here and catching a bus in the morning to Can Tho.  We plan to spend several days in Can Tho and use it as a base to explore the Mekong Delta.

 

View of the neighbourhood from our hotel room  in Chau Doc

Our Cambodian adventure is over and our Vietnam adventure begins.

 

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