In the light of day, the room at La Villa is quite nice, sizable to the point of being cavernous. We have a balcony with a view of the river and a bathroom with a huge cast concrete tub. I wish we had more time here to enjoy the hotel (the pool looks lovely too) but we have to get moving to try and do some things we’d planned on doing yesterday before getting stuck on the boat.
Our room rate included breakfast, which we took in the garden. Then it was time to pack it up and wait for Mr. Kim. We left our bags in a corner of the lobby and waited for the tuk tuks with Nora and Mark to arrive. Once they did, we were on our way out of town to where the Norry trains run, about a 20 minute ride. Along the way, we pass the big statue representing the city of Battambang, the guard Dambong, holding the magic staff (the Bat Dambong) from which the city gets its name.
Next up was a ride on the Bamboo Train (aka the “Norry” train). I hope my explanation below will do it justice, but please watch the video I put together for more details and to get a feel for what it’s like to ride the rails so close to the ground.
Cambodia used to have a train system which ran throughout the country. When the Khmer Rouge came to power the entire country’s infrastructure fell apart and the trains pretty much stopped running. There are supposedly trains which run infrequently now, but I’ve never seen them or met anyone who has ridden on them. Once the fighting stopped, the locals did whatever they could to move people and goods from village to village and thus the Norry trains were created.
These were also called “bamboo trains” because they are made of a simple bamboo platform atop two axles with wheels on the track. The “conductor” used to push them along with a bamboo pole. Later, some enterprising person attached a simple moto engine to the axles and that’s what they use today. It’s still the two axles with wheels and the motor is run by a single belt. Our Norry driver can be seen in the photo at the top of this post.
There are rules of the rails here. When two trains meet on the track going in opposite directions, the one with fewer passengers or weight in freight has to get off and disassemble their Norry. This takes about 2 minutes total, with everyone helping including the other Norry driver and passengers. The heavier train then passes, and the process is repeated, with with the driver of the other train stopping to help reassemble the one which was taken off the track. This happened multiple times in the course of our 7 kilometer ride. There’s only one situation where the heavier Norry does not take precedent, and that’s when there is a monk on board. Monks trump all.
There’s been some talk of a train system being rebuilt to link Cambodia to Thailand and Laos for tourism and trade, but it hasn’t happened yet. We heard while we were there the Norry trains would not be running much longer and that all the drivers had been paid a severance to stop working. However, it’s hard to imagine them stopping even if real trains start running. They will simply learn the schedule and get off the tracks before the train comes.
Our trip was really, really fun. On the way out, I sat in front and it was exhilarating to be so close to the ground and moving quite fast. The view was rice fields and palm trees. At our stop, there was a little snack bar where we had a drink and visited a brick kiln. Then we got back on the platform and went back to where we started. If you get a chance to do this, do it! But cover up, the sun is hot and the mosquitoes are rampant. I used my krama to wrap around my head and protect my face from the sun.
After the train ride we got back in the tuk tuks for a quick tour around Battambang with Mr Kim. One stop was a visit to old Chinese style house, called Ancient House. The woman who gave us a tour was the granddaughter of the the original owner and spoke French. After that me made a stop to buy special sweet oranges for which this area is famous. The skin may be green, but the oranges are well, orange inside.
Our last stop before heading back to Siem Reap was for lunch at the White Rose restaurant. This place is known for a wide selection of fruit shakes. My noodle soup was only ok, but the noodle curry everyone else had looked wonderful. All in all, Battambang was interesting and I would have liked to have visited the big central market and spend a couple of days exploring the countryside. Next time.
We took a taxi back to Siem Reap which took 3.5 hours. After the first hour we had to change cars and drivers; apparantly we were “sold” to another driver, a typical tactic of the local taxi mafia.
For dinner we stayed at the Seven Candles Guesthouse where the PLF held a “thank you” dinner for all the volunteers, both foreign and local, who had helped out with the beginning of the school year. The family splashed out with wonderful food, including almost 50 lbs of grilled beef which was gone by the end of the night.
After dinner, we took a quick trip downtown to do a little shopping at night market. If you have a chance and are interested in high quality cotton and silk hand made scarves, search out the stall below. The scarves and other items are all hand loomed in a local village nearby and not machine made polyester. They do cost a bit more, but they’re worth it. I bought a couple gorgeous raw silk scarves, each of which took a full day to weave. This stall is located by one of the far back corners of the market.