After a busy week contemplating the majestic Angkor Temples, we wanted to see more of the unspoiled rural Cambodia. Battambang seemed like the perfect place! The plan was to get there by boat for the way in and a local bus ride for the way back. Battambang however surprised us with a much more funky transportation experience.
If you visit Cambodia right after the raining season (from September to mid-October), the water level in the Tonle Sap lake is so high that you can do most of the travel from Siem Reap to Battambang by boat. It’s a great journey that will take you through several fishing villages. We liked it so much that we’ll write another article about it (stay tuned, it involves swamps, snakes, and a boat collision).
Battambang is a pleasant provincial town, mixing French colonial style and traditional Cambodian architecture. Angelina Jolie is the local star. The actress is indeed said to have purchased 6,000 hectares of land west of the city for the WildAid’s Maddox Jolie Pitt Project. She was unfortunately nowhere to be seen.
After dropping our bags at a hostel in Battambang, we met with Andy and Tom, respectively an English teacher and a monk student who also happened to be scooter-taxi drivers and tourist guides. They kindly offered to take us for an afternoon ride and we happily jumped on their bikes.
As we stepped on the roads, it quickly became clear that there are hardly any traffic rules around there. Driving in the city was rather chaotic. Vehicles were coming from all directions. Finding our way through was like playing Russian roulette. But somehow we managed to get out of the city in one piece.
We spent the afternoon driving across traditional villages, fertile farmland and beautiful rice paddies.
After a bumpy ride through numerous pot holes and bumps and an improvised detour to fix a flat tire, we arrived at a local farm owned by Andy and Tom’s friends. After a warm welcome and a visit of their garden, we all sat down to enjoy some locally brewed rice wine.
45 minutes later, we were back on the bikes, heading to a rail crossing where Andy and Tom wanted to show us a surprise.
Since destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime, the Cambodian train system has remained very basic and rather unreliable. So Cambodians living and working along the tracks came up with a simple but ingenious form of transport: the bamboo train! Zipping across the beautiful countryside of Battambang, the bamboo train, also called norry, consists of a small motorcycle engine-powered bamboo platform placed on a pair of metal wheels on axles.
The bamboo train carries anything and everything from goods and people to…cows and motorbikes!
Our bamboo train reached up to 40km/h in full speed which felt fast considering there was little to hang onto and the rails hadn’t been repaired in decades.
While Simon and I were wondering what would happen if another norry, or worse a real train, were to appear on that single track. Our driver told us that we would quickly find out! And we did indeed! Five minutes later, the light of a big train could be seen running on to us!
The traffic rule is simple: “Bigger Gets Right of Way”. When two norries meet, the one carrying the fewer number of passengers, scooters or livestock has to give way. Clearly in that case, we had to move!
That’s when we realised an interesting fact: bamboo trains have no brakes! Oops! Our drivers could only cut the power off and hope that the platform would stop in time. Thankfully, the team had mastered the art of timing and we quickly jumped out of the norry to remove it from the rails. 40 seconds is all it took to stop, disassemble, and lift the structure from the tracks.
The other train passed peacefully, riding at a walking speed with its passengers waving at us from their seat on… its roof!
We re-assembled our bamboo train on the tracks in a couple of minutes, and continued our journey. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset over rice paddies as the night came falling down.