Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Trains and Pains and No Automobiles

On Saturday, we hired Kim Sok to show us the sights of Battambang once again this year.  He is a 'tour guide / tuk-tuk driver' who speaks impeccable English and is a fountain of knowledge on the area, brimming with facts and anecdotes at every stop.  I knew he'd make sure that Hahn and Kuro, our fellow explorers, would have a memorable weekend.

Mr. Kim

Battambang city is the second largest city in Cambodia, yet it feels much smaller and quieter than Siem Reap.  Certainly the tourist industry is not very large here, and it is a city that is more for, and about, Cambodians, and not so 'Western-driven' as Siem Reap.  Much of the architechture is French colonial, and the city's history is steeped in history, religion and legends. 

On our way out of town, Mr. Kim stopped to show us a statue of Naga, a magnificent sculpture fashioned entirely out of the metal remnants of guns surrendered after years of Cambodian conflict.  Naga is a mythological cobra which is revered as the original ancestor of the Khmer people.  If you click on the link above, you can learn all about the artists, and how the Naga statue was made -  quite a story in itself.

Naga Sculpture made from decomissioned weapons

Battambong litterally means 'disappearing stick' in Khmer.  The name comes from the legend of Ta Dambong, who used the enchanted stick to become king, but lost his power, and his stick, in a battle for the throne.  On our way out to the bamboo train, Mr. Kim stopped briefly to show us this huge statue of King Dambong, the legendary founder of the city.

Statue of King Dambong

The Bamboo Train is one of the main draws for tourists who come to Battambang.  If you click on this link, you'll get a fantastic description and history of this attraction.  It is probably the coolest ride I've ever been on, and was top of the list for things to do on our return trip to Battambang this year.  Briefly, it's a 'mini rail car' made of an open bamboo platform that sits on two sets of wheels extremely close to the ground, which powered by a small gas engine attached to one of the axles.  The rails are narrow gauge, and wavy enough to be noticeable, which makes for a swaying, sometimes hairy ride.  There are no brakes, and these 'trains' really can fly! 
As soon as I can figure out how to download the video from my iPod, I'll post it here

Ready to roll...

The road ahead....and way off, a train approaching from the opposite direction....

Because it's only a single rail, there's an 'etiquette' protocol when two little trains meet:  The heavier train always takes precedence.  With four riders, we were almost always the 'lucky' ones, except at one encounter when the driver barked "GET OFF!".  In only a few seconds, our little train was disassembled and set off to the side of the track until the other train passed.  Then, just as quickly, it was put back together and we continued on our way. 

Disassembled train beside the rails waiting for us to go by...

Our ride only went as far as the first station.  At our 'turn-around' point, we stopped for cold drinks and spent a little time chatting with the entrepreneurial family who had set up a concession stand there, learning a few Khmer words in the process.  It was a delight to feel so accepted and welcomed. 

Mom and twin daughters....

Hahn learning some Khmer words from Grandpa

Flying back on the rails to our point of embarkation, all four of us were pumped.  It had been an exhilarating experience.  If you're ever out Battambang way, make sure you take a ride..... but hurry up!  Word has it the new rail system is coming soon, maybe this year, maybe next, and when that happens, the Bamboo Train will be just another legend.

Enroute to visit Banan Temple, Mr. Kim stopped the tuk-tuk at a fairly new suspension bridge, built high above the Sangker River.  I get weak knees at heights greater than the second rung of a ladder, so walking across and back was about as challenging for me as jumping out of an airplane, but I braved it.  It got a little dicey when a couple of motos drove by, forcing us to stand off to one side, and the bridge bounced & shook with the shifting weight.  Amazingly, I managed to dispel my fears, and marvel at the sights below.  For as far as the eye could see, lush vegetable gardens grew along the river banks.  During the dry season, the river recedes and the peasants take advantage of the fertile soil of the river bed, combined with its proximity to water for irrigation of crops.  Just below the bridge I could see a woman washing out clothes, while her children frolicked at the water's edge.

Moto coming on the suspension bridge

Lush vegetable gardens

Family at the water's edge

Next stop on the tour was Banan Temple, built over 1000 years ago, high atop a hill with a panoramic view of the countryside.  How high?  358 very uneven steps.  365 if you count the seven new ones recently added at the bottom of the hill.  It's a long arduous climb - My quad muscles know every step intimately - oh the pain!.  It was a long arduous climb, and I had to stop a couple of times for a breather -  The old gray mare just ain't what she used to be......

Steps at Banan Temple - lots more are hidden from view...

Banan consists of 5 towers, a similar layout to Angkor Wat, but on a much smaller scale.  The bas relief is quite stunning, but unfortunately the faces on the carved figures have mostly been broken off.  Only the lintel carvings and those higher remain beautifully intact.

Intricately carved lintel

During the 1970's, the Vietnamese army used Phnom Banan as a fortress to battle the Khmer Rouge. (Phnom is Khmer for hill or mountain)  We were warned by our tour guide to stick to the worn paths and to return by the same stairway we had climbed.  When we saw the 'DANGER_ LANDMINES' signs at the top of the hill, we understood why. 

After descending the long stairway, I asked Mr. Kim to direct me to the 'facilities' before we started the long ride to town.  I learned that the facilities are privately 'run', and I would have to pay for the priviledge. I was clearly in no position to haggle, so paid my 500 riel (approx 13 cents). 

(I wonder how much they'd charge to throw in a seat and toilet tank?)

Later that evening, as we walked down the street from our restaurant, back to our hotel...literally down the middle of the street..... we were astonished at the quiet stillness of Battambang.  Not an automobile or moto or person was stirring....This quaint city had silently fallen asleep while we were at dinner...and at 9 pm, all was calm and tranquil.  What a contrast to Siem Reap, the city of tourists that never seems to sleep....

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