Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Travel: What to do in Battambag - The Bamboo Train and Phnom Sampeau

In my last post on Battambang, I wrote about how blissful it is to just explore and soak up the city, without the stress of having to see the sights. Winding down after Siem Reap, I wiled away the hours visiting the night market, checking out the street art and eating a lot of delicious food. After I felt quite at home in Battambang, I finally decided to explore the sites: the bamboo train, the Killing Cave and the bat cave. Yes, the bat cave. More on that later.

The Bamboo Train
Word on the street and several websites and blogs is that the bamboo train is going to get shut down any day now. This is not true. I took a beautiful tuk tuk ride through the countryside, down some very bumpy dirt roads and through some tiny villages full of happy, smiling children to O Dambong. This is where the bamboo train – or norry – begins its journey. The ‘train’ is a 3m square wooden frame covered with bamboo slats powered by a lawnmower engine. It takes approximately 15 seconds to dissemble the train, super useful when you’re travelling on a single track line.
The bamboo train runs on an old rail system left in disrepair by the French. The train goes about 30 mph through the countryside; the rail lines are almost overgrown and you’re fairly likely to see a cow or two en route. The thirty minute journey is really breathtaking. At first I was a little scared; that little train goes surprisingly fast and I‘d seen some pretty huge spider webs! But I loved speeding through the countryside listening to the hum of the engine and click clacking of the train wheels against the tracks. The scenery was spectacular, it felt so peaceful to be whizzing through the lush greenery.

We soon arrived at our stop at O Sra Lav, which is a teeny village with a couple of stalls. As a tropical rainstorm started just as we approached O Sra Lav, I ducked into the first shop for a brief respite from the warm, heavy rain. As the rain continued to fall, I got talking to the shop owner, who told me about her family – her parents and her young children, who were the same age as my nieces. She told me about the hardships she had faced; she used to be a train driver until she opened a tiny stall, over the last 4 years she gradually increased the size of the stall as she had more children and learnt English by talking to people.
While I enjoyed talking to her and getting out of the rain, a lot of people have written that they felt under pressure to buy food or souvenirs from the stalls when they had their mandatory break. I did, however, get asked to tip the driver by the lady at the stall. I explained that I had already paid for the train but she said the drivers only get a couple of dollars, the managers get the rest. She was quite insistent. On the journey back, I thought about what she had said, whether it was true and whether I should tip.

This is the downside of Cambodia; overinflated tuk tuk rides, being hassled and pressure to give a tip. If you’re the cynical type, Cambodian’s see ‘rich tourists’ and want to rip you off. But I figure they need the money more than me, so I tipped the driver a couple of dollars on top of the $10 I paid for the train – this is the price per train so if there are two of you, it’s $5 each plus the tip, snacks etc along the way. 
A video posted by Reena Rai (@reena.rai) on
 The Killing Cave at Phnom Sampeau
After a short siesta, my driver and I headed about half an hour out of the city down a wide motorway surrounded by lush rice fields. Soon we came to a little village at the foot of Phnom Sampeau with a few shops. I bought a $3 pass for the temples at the tourist office and hopped on the back of a motorbike with my guide. The mountain is pretty high and really steep so I recommend getting a guide with a motorbike. My guide was only 18 but knew the history of the mountain, the beautiful wats and the Killing Cave. He also served as protection against the Macaque monkeys which roam the mountainside.

Our first stop was about halfway up the mountain. I wandered around a modest Buddhist temple, which my guide told me used to be a prison during Pol Pot’s regime. During the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge gathered thousands of people from across the country and held them in makeshift prisons like this.

The people held in this makeshift prison were first held captive then tortured before finally being bought to the Killing Cave. The cave is a short walk from the wat. The narrow walkway was carved through blooming shrubs and trees with low-hanging vines. This area of the mountain is so serene and peaceful, juxtaposing with its horrific history. It’s eerily beautiful.

At the end of the path, there is a wooden staircase leading down to the bottom of the cave. I stopped at the top of the stairs. I didn’t know what to expect in the cave but I already felt heavy, as if I could feel the history of where we were, of the people who had died here.
As you descend into the cave, you can’t help but notice a huge golden Buddha reclining across one half. Next to the Buddha, there is a small case containing the skulls of those who died in the cave. It’s really difficult to understand this – I’d never seen a skull before let alone dozens piled on top of each other.
At the other end of the cave, there’s a natural skylight at the top of the cave. This is where the Khmer Rouge soldiers took their prisoners and either bludgeoned them to death or threw them down into the cave. At first, the Khmer Rouge targeted politicians and government officials, then doctors, teachers and anyone with a professional job as well as children.
At the foot of the staircase, there was a chicken wire cage full of bones. Like the case of skulls, I found it hard to understand that these were real bones of people who were killed at the cave. Thousands of people had died here. As hard as it was, I think it’s so important to understand Cambodia’s history rather than appreciate its beauty. The Khmer Rouge regime came into power less than 40 years ago, everyone Cambodian I met had either survived first-hand or was the child of someone who had survived.

The pavilion and temple at Phnom Sampeau
Continuing up to the top of the mountain, we stopped at a simple pavilion with tremendous views across the countryside and all the way back to Battambang. I shared the view with this gorgeous Macaque.

There is an incredible temple at the top of the mountain, I don’t think it has a specific name but it’s a wonderful place to explore and reflect on the Killing Cave.


The bat cave
Back at the bottom of the mountain, just outside of the village and high up in the mountain is a cave. You can see it as your tuk tuk passes and you know to look for it. At sunset, thousands and thousands of bats fly out of the cave turning the rainbow coloured sky black. Locals say there are a million bats but no one really knows for sure. I've not got any pictures of the bat cave, I'm sure you can appreciate how difficulty it is to perfectly capture a stream of bats flying out of a cave at dusk!

On the way back to Battambang, my tuk tuk driver stopped in a rice field so I could catch the sun before it disappeared. It wasn’t a ‘statement sunset’ on an incredible beach or at the Angkor template complex, it was simple, unassuming and so Battambang. As I watched the tangerine sun melt into the lilac sky, I tucked this memory away as one of my favourite moments in Cambodia. 

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