The train rattled and jolted as it speed with a deafening sound along the warped single gauge line through the undergrowth, scraping my bare arms as I sit crossed legged as it clatters on, slowing down ever so often to allow a cow to wander across the track or to wait while a farmer loads sheaves of emerald green rice stalks piled high.
Battambang’s trains are no ordinary trains. Cambodia is still a very poor and undeveloped country after the murderous Khmer Rouge regime literally took them back to year zero in the late 1970s.
You wouldn’t believe that sleepy, provincial Battambang is the country’s second largest town. Battambang consists of the usual charming Cambodian semi-neglected style of dusty, quiet streets and old, yellow French colonial buildings including a train station long abandoned.
As the country tries to recover from the days of the Khmer Rouge the ever optimistic and gentile Khmers came up with an ingenious way to get people from place to place in a land with little infrastructure, roads or cars. The bamboo train.
They utilised the warped, rusting old railway tracks from the days of French rule and constructed the ingenious bamboo train or ‘norrie’ as they call it.
They fit bamboo slats on top of the old wheels and axels from abandoned rolling stock add a motorboat like engine and can transport people, goods and even animals on the bamboo train between the villages and towns in the luscious, bucolic Cambodian countryside.
It’s heavy work though as when another bamboo train or ‘norrie’ is coming the other way on the single track they simply stop the bamboo train and dismantle it by taking off the bamboo platform and the motor, dismantling the wheel axels and lifting it off the track whilst the other bamboo train passes.
The Khmers are great at building imaginative statues at roundabout or intersections so that people who cannot read can still understand directions and Battambang takes it one step further will all kinds of statues including real and mythical creatures and divinities to keep you entertained.
The most famous is a statue describing the legend of how Battambang got its name. It is of Ta Dumbong, a cow herder who found a magic stick and used it to usurp the king and Battambang means ‘loss of stick.’
Battambang’s pleasant colonial riverfront is showing signs of recovery and the quirky uniqueness makes Cambodia ideal for exploring by motorbike.
Exploring around the Battambang region is worthwhile. The roads are far from ideal, be prepared for a bumpy, dusty road but the idyllic countryside scenes make up for it with wooden stilt houses, lazy cows, dusty roadside shacks and stalls selling all manner of things while smiling children play nearby. If you don’t feel up to riding a bike then you could hire a tuk tuk to take you around for the day.
I came across a crocodile farm where I saw hundreds of huge crocodiles, destined to be handbags, meat or medicines, basking in a swimming pool in the sun and then held a baby croc.Well, i wasn’t going anywhere near the full size ones!
On the outskirts of the town the scene became more rural as I zipped through villages and rice fields I saw fishermen’s stick huts and visited a historic old house with an impressive veranda and lined with dark teak that was once used as a communal kitchen house under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Venturing further I tried my luck crossing a rickety old creaky suspension bridge jumping out of the way as local zipped along carrying large loads on their motorbikes across the narrow, wobbling bridge and then tasted some quite peculiar wine at Cambodia’s only vineyard.
Afterwards we got lost after being directed up the wrong dirt track and bumped and skidded around cross country getting even more lost and ending up outside a secret military base.
Thankfully some farmers pointed us the way to the road where later we came across a dam built by forced labour by the brutal Khmer Rouge which is now a popular picnic and swimming spot and Wat Banan a ruined ancient Angkor style temple and an active pagoda.
One of the highlights was a temple called Phnom Sampeau. The temple sits on top a hill with some mischievous monkeys, great views and a sobering history after the Khmer Rouge used it as a prison and killing cave.The views from Phnom Sampeau are stunning but watch out for the naughty monkeys
At the bottom of the hill we witnessed maybe a million of bats all emerging from a cave at once as dusk fell.
Back in town we surfed the street food stalls by the river before having the strangest experience at a khmer nightclub that resembled a village hall or working mens club where we were welcomed with open arms and practically forced into joining a Khmer line dance to some incredibly high pitched karaoke.
Battambang is a glimpse into the charming, Cambodian way of life and the beautiful countryside surrounds have plenty to explore but the bamboo train alone is reason enough to visit Battambang.
It may be loud, uncomfortable and noisy but it really is an experience to ride this unique bamboo train whooshing and clattering through the undergrowth.
As Cambodia continues to develop it is replacing the old rail tracks and planning to get trains services running again in the next few years. The bamboo train track at Battambang is one of the last still in use and is open to tourists but it’s days are seriously numbered. Charming, unique Cambodia is changing fast, go and see it while you still can.