Off the Rails with Battambang’s Bamboo Train

Rickety Rails. Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Rickety Rails

It might not be far off the ground, or go upside down, but there’s really nothing quite as thrilling as feeling like you might fly off the rails when barreling forward at about 40 kilometers per hour with nothing holding you down.

Battambang’s Bamboo Train, or nori, was first built by the French in 1927, the rails running all the way to the Thailand border. Nowadays, while still occasionally used by locals to carry bigger loads from town to town, the train is mostly used by tourists who come to experience the one-of-a-kind ride.

But to call it a train is a bit of an overstatement really. The contraption consists of a platform constructed from sparse bamboo strips and what is possibly a tractor motor not actually attached to the wheels that it runs on.

There are no seat belts, or seats for that matter, and passengers sit on a straw mat placed at the front for comfort and stability.

The rails are appropriately rickety, thrown down and attached just haphazardly enough that the train jerks at each junction. They are bent, whether from heat, time, or construction, and add a bit of a rollercoaster swerve as you fly through, bushes and branches occasionally swatting at your limbs if you dare to extend them past the platform’s perimeter.Train motor. Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia - YourLocalKat

There’s only one set of rails so when two trains going in opposite directions meet, one group disembarks and the drivers disassemble the platform from the wheels, put it on the ground, remove the wheels from the tracks, push the other train through, and reassemble the first train back together.Taking the train off the tracks. Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia - YourLocalKatIt is a 20 minute ride to a tiny village where you’ll have ten minutes to buy a drink, a souvenir or visit a small rice factory guided by the adorable children for $1, and then you hop on and head back.Tour guide. Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia - YourLocalKatThe Bamboo train is definitely a tourist attraction, but is likely one of the most authentic ones in southeast Asia; unfortunately, with the reconstruction of Cambodia’s railway system, it might not be around in a couple of years. There’s really no danger of having an accident, or flying off for that matter, but rattling through the Cambodian countryside on a flimsy raft of bamboo is really a thrill you have to experience before it’s gone for good.

The Bamboo Train is a $6 tuk tuk ride from the center of Battambang. The train costs $5 per person and runs everyday during daylight hours.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: The Haunting Memory of S-21

From the outside it could be just another high school. It could be your high school. Except that it is fenced in by a barbed wire, surrounded by a corrugated iron fence, and is what remains of Security Prison 21 during Pol Pot’s reign.Highschool. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKat(Note: In case you’re fuzzy on the history, I’ve summarized the context of how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power here).

In 1975, Tuol Svay Pray High School became S-21, the most secret of the almost two hundred interrogation and execution centers in Cambodia where anyone considered a threat or accused of leading the uprising against Pol Pot’s regime was detained.

The classrooms were turned into cells that worked as cages for the prisoners with an iron bed, blanket, cushion and mat, and a bucket for bodily waste. Some classrooms were divided into smaller brick cells; others were kept open for mass detention. A fishnet of barbed wire covered each building to prevent the desperate prisoners from jumping and committing suicide.Barbed wire. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatThe detainees were brought here, their photographs taken, their arrival elaborately documented, often without knowing the reasons for their arrest.

Once at S-21, they were tortured until they not only confessed to their nonexistent crimes, but also disclosed the names of family members and friends that were supposed accomplices.

Structures around the school were turned into interrogation machines; shackles, knives, whips and electroshock were used for torture.Gallows. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatMany of the large cells were left as they were found in 1979, mostly empty with steel beds, some with pillows, some water cans, others chains and ankle bars.

Blown up photographs mirror the rooms they are hung in, a record of how each room was found so many years ago. In black and white, the disfigured corpses lie barely identifiable in pools of blood, but the bludgeoning is obvious. To see it is almost too much to bear; to stand in a room and know what the body looked like right there…is chilling.Ankle bar and can. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatAnother building is filled with small brick stalls where the prisoners were leashed. Row after row, room after room. In one, a green chalkboard still hangs, faded, and I’m transported: this used to be a high school. It used to be carefree.

There are scratches and numbers on the wall and I’m not sure what they mean but at that moment it is the saddest photograph I’ve ever taken, and I can’t hold back my tears anymore.Brick cells. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatThe galleries are in the next building – mostly mug shots of the prisoners, some defiant, some resigned, most just wondering ‘Why?’ Interspersed between them, photographs of people, so many, just lying there, bloody, gauged, dead. And I can’t look anymore.Prisoner photograph. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKat

Why? Why do these things have to happen?

Prisoner records estimate that the Khmer Rouge killed about 20,000 people at S-21, many of them children. Out of everyone that entered, only seven are known to have survived. With a third of Cambodia’s population wiped out, Pol Pot’s regime was responsible for one of the largest genocides in history; ‘keeping the memory of the atrocities committed on Cambodia soil alive‘ as the pamphlet urges, is crucial in preventing them from happening again.

I didn’t see the last building. I couldn’t. But what I learned I will definitely never forget.Numbers. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatContinue on to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

Back to the eventual end of Pol Pot’s reign.

Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum is on the corner of St. 113 and St. 350 in Phnom Penh city. Tickets $2.

Photo of the Week: Garbage or Corruption?

This is the scene in the market of Damnak-Changaeur, a four-block-square town on the road north from Kep, Cambodia to Vietnam.

The mess of Damnak Chang'aeur market, Cambodia - YourLocalKatNot somewhere you’d want to buy fresh meat from?

A local store owner explained:  The government in Cambodia is corrupt. It is so bad, that it doesn’t care about the ‘little people,’ and consequently doesn’t bother having the market cleaned up.

That could be one man’s opinion, but the lack of maintenance is evident: the mess that’s left when the market closes at 10am remains throughout the day until it gets somewhat tidied by the sellers as they set up again at three in the morning.

And that’s a reality.

After the market, Damnak Chang'aeur, Cambodia - YourLocalKatBut besides a few gathered garbage piles, the culture in Cambodia is to litter (plastic, paper, mussel shells) and expect someone to tidy up. Is it too ‘western’ to expect pro-active action? Is the government completely to blame?

Other Things to do in Phnom Penh

One of the complaints I heard during my short stay in Phnom Penh was that there was nothing to do in the city other than drink. But Phnom Penh offers a long riverside for strolling, cafes and lounges for relaxing, and the options and venues below for nights out, too.

1. If you’re feeling posh, Nagaworld is a hotel and entertainment complex that oozes glitz, and the lobby is first and foremost a sweeping casino. You’ll find everything from Roulette to Baccarat, old standbys like Texas Hold ‘Em and Blackjack, as well as a few foreign games in between (note: no Craps!). Different tables have different minimums so you can choose your level of fun.

Ferris wheel, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKat2. DreamLand – You can’t miss the 45 meter ferris wheel looking out onto Chaktomuk River. Inside this amusement park, there’s also a maze, coaster, a dinosaur garden, a variety of shows and more. Open 9:00-22:00 everyday. Tickets start from $2USD for ‘big kids’.

3. Whether you’re in the mood for action or education, one of the four main movie theaters is sure to please. Expat-favorite Flicks screens blockbusters and classics at three different theaters for $3.50 a day. Open-air MetaHouse plays Cambodian and international documentaries for free almost everyday. And premiere theatres Legend Cinemas and Sabay Complex both feature Hollywood and Asian blockbuster movies starting at $4.

4. Check out some live music. The Show Box by the Toul Sleng Museum sporadically puts on shows, as do other venues like the FCC, the Local II and MetaHouse (above). Check the Leng Pleng Gig Guide for more info.

So, what is there to do in Phnom Penh? The question is – what are you in the mood for?

Photo of the Week: The Only Thing I Liked About Kampot

Kampot is a small riverside town in the south of Cambodia, 60 kilometers east of Sihanoukville, known best for its pepper plantations and fruit farming – namely of the durian fruit.

 

Looking towards Durian Monument. Kampot, Cambodia - YourLocalKatIn fact, the streets all came together at the bizarre looking Durian Monument  – a tropical cocktail in statue form centered on an unnecessarily large roundabout.

Durian Monument. Kep, Cambodia - YourLocalKatOn paper Kampot screamed quaint, charming, and riverside French architecturey; in reality, the durian statue glared down from the deserted and dusty central roundabout obliterating whatever charm the town might have had left.

Bird infestation on a structure in Kampot, Cambodia - YourLocalKat

The roads leaving the Durian statue were wide, too wide for the town and gave it an odd sense of space; there was just too much of it, and it made the town feel quite the opposite of quaint.

French architecture lined the street towards the riverside in that rundown lovely kind of way, the decrepit structures and peeling paint casting a sort of creepy unconventional beauty filter on the town.

Green shutter, green palm. Kampot, Cambodia - YourLocalKat

Even the riverside wasn’t particularly alluring-

except for the blue structure that hung off the sidewalk and disappeared into the sky.

It didn’t stand out, but rather blended in so well with the powder blue yonder and the light blue water that its seamlessness was splendid to look at.

Powder blue horizons. The Kampot Riverside, Cambodia - YourLocalKatIt retained a sense of serenity that Kampot likely had in earlier years, a sense of calm that frazzled expats still maintain it has.

Maybe you will, too.  Or maybe you’ll feel Kampot’s haunting sense of a charming paradise now long lost.

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Note: Kampot is the go-to town for people from Kep as it is only 25 kilometers away and has necessities that Kep simply doesn’t like a pharmacy, a minimart, electronics stores, a book exchange place and a handful of decent restaurants (Captain Chim’s) and cafes (2 Sisters). Also, with ATMs lacking in the area, Kampot is the place to go for its decent Canadia branch, a bank that doesn’t charge any transaction fees – bonus.