It’s no secret that Cambodia’s roads can be a little bit hairy. It’s not just because the general rule that you drive on the right hand side seems to only apply when it is convenient, but also because life happens – right there on the side of the road.
So whizzing along the major highway heading out of Siem Reap and towards the Thai border and then to Battambang was, at times, a bit hair-raising, although to be fair our driver was reasonably cautious, cruising along at about 100 kilometres an hour. But still, the drive took us through small towns with villages and markets set up just metres from the road. Farmers and children walked their cows along the side of the road, motorbikes laden with pigs, chooks, eggs, bamboo or the entire family weaved around obstacles and veered off in all directions. Old trucks with no cabs, loaded to the hilt, chugged along and flea-ridden dogs snoozed in the dirt on the side of the road. Not to mention the chooks foraging and scratching for some sustenance. Getting to Battambang was an adventure in itself.
To be honest I didn’t really know what to expect from Cambodia’s second largest city. It is a big sprawling place with few high rises. And driving into the region it looked prosperous compared to Siem Reap’s surrounds. People were driving tractors and towns and villages looked bigger, with better quality houses. But the city itself seemed kind of empty. It lacked bustle and vibe.
Battambang (pronounced batt – um – bong), is about 170 kilometres from Siem Reap by road and is slightly south-west across the Tonle Sap lake. We arrived by private taxi at about 10am, which gave us plenty of time to check in then head out to see some things. Since we were splitting up for our second day we decided to do the famous bamboo train first.
Yep, this is it. There’s not much to it. The Khmer’s apparently call it a norry. Bamboo slats are laid on a frame that is a few metres wide and about three metres long. This frame is set up to run on a metre-wide rail track and it’s powered by a small engine. Fortunately they added cushions for comfort because it was bumpy at times – neck jarring at others as it bounced and jostled along the narrow line. The uneven metal tracks with joins that don’t quite align ensure it is a less-than-smooth ride. And in places the rickety rails take you over rivers and creeks with drops beneath you.
It picked up a bit of speed as it rattled along with the clickety clack, clickety clack of an old fashioned train. There was just a bit more of a breeze than you usually get on a train and no protection from the rain. Luckily we only had a few spits and not a downpour.
The train journey starts at O Dambong and runs for about 3.5 kilometres through rice fields and rural landscapes. When we got on board we were warned that the train makes a half-hour stop at the small village O Sra Lav before its return journey and we should expect to be mobbed by a group of children, trying to sell us things. It can be confronting and exhausting facing down these tenacious little urchins, but as luck would have it not a single child greeted us. We had a quick wander around before jumping back on board. The village lacked life and it seemed to rely heavily on tourists from the train for its survival. A few restaurants and a number of market stalls were all selling the same things.
The Joker helped the train driver turn the bamboo platform around so it was facing in the direction we were heading and we all jumped back on board. It’s a rustic but pleasant ride through the countryside – just brace yourself for the jarring jolts. It is a unique experience. If you’re a train lover then this is one train trip like no other and you should add it to your list of train journeys to do. While I loved the experience, we’ve ticked it off the bucket list and we probably won’t rush back and do it again.
Cost and getting there:
- The bamboo train is about five kilometres from Battambang and took 10 or 15 minutes to get there in a tuk tuk. It’s a pleasant drive through the back streets of town.
- The tuk tuk cost $5 for a return trip, though you might need to negotiate this.
- The bamboo train cost $5 per person for a return trip, which is about 15 minutes each way with a stop in the village at the end of the line.
Getting to Battambang from Siem Reap:
We took a private taxi from Siem Reap to Battambang, which works out quite affordable for four people. It cost $40 and took about three hours. You are picked up at your door and dropped off at your hotel. It is good to have the name, address and phone number of your hotel handy.
The bus is, reportedly, not a bad trip from Siem Reap. It costs about $7 (price may vary by $1 or $2 depending on the agency you book through) and also takes about three hours.
The boat from Siem Reap is supposed to be a beautiful trip. The time it takes varies depending on how much water is in the lake and surrounds but it can be up to eight hours so you can make a day of it. I am unsure of the cost.