Friday, 3 July 2009

Bamboo Trains and Crazy Markets

The town of Battambang in North Western Cambodia in the country’s second largest city. Nestled in the province by the same name the region has a reputation for it’s fecundity, growing (at least according to the guide books and locals) the best rice, sweetest fruit and boasting the friendliest people; an apparent all round Utopia. Like London, Budapest, Paris and countless other cities it is divided by a river, the East bank being the newer up and coming area, whilst the West bank remains more historic with it’s colonial French dwellings and the central market, Psar Nat. Battambang was once Cambodia’s richest province and still retains a sense of that affluence, even the tuk-tuks are larger and grander, their colours seemingly more vibrant. The streets are frenetic with motorbikes converging on the streets from all angles and tuk-tuk drivers call out from all directions, “Hey, where you go tomorrow? See the train? The Killing Caves? Nice Temples!” The abundance of Moto-drivers and tuk-tuks can be accounted for by the fact that Battambang is the fourth most popular city with tourists coming into Cambodia, many drawn by the “Bamboo Train” that runs just outside of the town. Battambang is not all wealth and riches though, and it is a city of contrasts.
We arrived just outside the town by boat at about three o‘clock in the afternoon, having started off in Siam Reap at about 7 AM. The trip to Battambang by boat is a remarkable experience and worth every cent of the $19.00 ticket. Compared to the bus it is expensive - almost four times the price - and the journey time is longer too. But as is so often the way it is the journey and not the destination that makes the experience remarkable and this could not be truer than with this particular stretch of water. The boat departs from the floating village of Chong Kneas (abundant with life and colour) and makes its way South until it reaches main body of the Tonle Sap Lake. Here the sky touches the water at the horizon and the sun strikes the lake invigorating the water with glittering jewels. Interestingly the docking port at Chong Kneas and the village move with the level of the river as the seasons change. Lining the river are domestic dwellings and schools full of raucous children that float upon the river. In contrast to this happy cacophony, elderly ladies row by, water splashing from their oars and hawkers make their way from floating house to floating house, selling steaming food and fresh produce. Motorised boats with families aboard cruise past and the occasional long tail boat shoots past, churning the water into white foam. The whole experience is fascinating, but I suspect the fascination in somewhat one-sided. The Chong Kneas village has become a must on the itineraries of most travellers to Siem Reap, and as such the village is bombarded with tourists (no doubt all complaining that the experience is “over touristy“). We were fortunate enough to see the village early in the morning when it hummed with predominantly local life and it was a glorious start to a glorious journey. There are a few more floating villages along the way until finally, after having cut West across a small part of Tonle Sap Lake, you come to the canals that will lead you into Battambang. These back waters are reminiscent of the canals that we travelled in Kerala, India. On both banks the verdant countryside stretches back as far as the eye can see, with occasional rustic dwellings springing up from time to time. Along the way some of the land is given over to agriculture, whilst much of the area is a protected wetland and supports a wealth of bird life. As we made our trip westwards the sky gradually darkened and became more sullen until, at about two o’clock, the drizzle turned to rain and the remainder of the journey was undertaken behind thick canvas blinds. I was not too unhappy about this though; I had just finished reading an extremely depressing and erudite book on the Khmer Rouge’s “S-21” prison (S-21 by Michael Chandler) and had just commenced “The Great Railway Bazaar” by Paul Theroux. My second-hand copy of the paperback is held together by cello tape and creased and folded. The front page wishes “Robert” a happy birthday back in 1977. It is a wonderful read though, a travelogue that is relevant to us as it takes in parts of India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan and then countless other countries that we will not get to.

The serenity of the journey was shattered upon arrival at Battambang where a desperate gang of tuk-tuk and minivan drivers met the ferry, braying for customers who they could take to the various guesthouses in town. The competition is fierce and the drivers will take you into town for free in the hope that you might use their services the next day to visit the local sights. We suspected that the hotels pay them a commission for bringing in guests, but allegedly this is not the case. Rather they are touting for prospective customers as the low season kicks in and trade begins to dissipate. Times are pretty tough for these guys, but they are by no means the worst off. We checked into the Hotel Royal (US$7.00), close to the central market and had a meal before falling asleep at about nine o’clock. It seems that sometimes on the days that you do the least the weariness is most profound.

The following morning we were sitting in a café having breakfast and an alarmingly sugary cinnamon bun when a couple from the boat approached us and asked us if we had left a book on the boat. We had, I had left the S21 book behind in a no doubt sub-conscious effort to forget about the brutality of the pages contained within. After shooting the breeze the couple, called Patrick and Barbara from Switzerland, decided to join us on a tuk-tuk ride to the Killing Caves and the Bamboo train. Patrick pulled out but Barbara came along and we made our way to The Killing Caves, about fifteen miles outside Battambang. The caves were a Khmer Rouge killing ground back in those most horribly benighted times. The sick and elderly who had outlived their use to the regime, along with any perceived enemies of the state (intellectuals, people who wore glasses or anyone that just grumbled too much) would be marched up a steep hill and made to kneel at the top. They were then beaten across the back of the head and neck with an iron ox cart axle, hopefully killing them. To be sure of the deed though, their throats were then slit and the corpses thrown into the limestone cavern below. This was of course the Khmer Rouge and bullets were deemed to expensive for the extermination of supposed enemies. It is not a very cheery journey to make but we went into the cave which now houses a reclining Buddha and some Buddhist Nuns. Above is the skylight where the bodies were thrown into and in the cave itself is a memorial of about 200 skulls, nestled behind thick glass. Our intrepid guide on this occasion was a high spirited twelve year old boy who claimed to speak English at the base of the hill, but whose repertoire of English rapidly dried up as we ascended the hill. He was a very sweet child, and it felt a little eerie to hear a twelve year old laugh and joke about death and murder. It was a happy irony that was wasted upon him that if he been born a generation earlier then it could have been his bones that lined the glass casings. It is a sad thought, but in Cambodia, whenever I see an effervescent young, pig tailed girl or smiling, curious eyed boy on the back of a motorbike for example, I wonder about the children killed in those brutal years. And when I look at the men and women my age and older I shudder when I think of things that their eyes must have witnessed.

The next part of our trip took us to happier grounds, the legendary Bamboo Train. The bamboo train runs along two warped steel rails that are in no way parallel to each other. Although there is only one set of tracks trains runs in both directions. So when another train approaches from the opposite direction there is a Robin Hood and Friar Tuck type scenario whilst the drivers of the trains decide what to do. The genius of the system is that each “train” consists of two axles, a small petrol (?) engine and a three metre long bamboo mat that rests upon a wooden frame. As such the train can be quickly dismantled to and taken off the tracks to allow the other train to pass. The ride jolts along at what feels to be breakneck speed, traversing bridges and cutting through rice fields on either side. The journey is about half an hour in total is an absolute blast! And the best part is that it cost us just $2.00 each, though local scams can see some people paying triple this.

For the remainder of our time in Battambang I explored the town mostly. The market was just one of the examples of the contradictions that I saw. Outside the market on its perimeter walls, vendors sell fresh fish, hauling it from buckets of water and filleting them there and then. Wooden carts attached to motorbikes and full of hunks of meat line the front entrance. The meat is sliced and diced on the wooden mud guards above the cart wheels and flies buzz lazily from fish to meat to freshly skinned hanging chicken in the background. To the right side of the market are the fruit vendors where about two kilos of fruit cost us $1.50. And inside the market, to my huge surprise, were rows of orderly glass cases, filled with gold chains and bracelets and staffed by bored looking Cambodian beauties. The chaos and carnage outside is replaced by shimmering jewellery.

Again, more contrasts: On the East Bank of the river are the new developments and plush new houses; a grand new fountain (filled with plastic bags and rubbish) commemorates the public Garden of SAR Kheng and two emaciated labourers trim the grass of the side walks with antiquated lawn mowers whilst three children play Piggy-In-the-Middle nearby. The promenade is ordered and maintained and pleasant in the late afternoon sun. And then I pass a landmine victim slumbering shirtless, face down on a stone bench, his legs terminating abruptly beneath each knee. Further down a mad woman shrieks at me and beats her chest and another man who does not seem to be all there follows me closely before seizing my hand and shaking it manically and disappears (laughing wildly) into a crowd. At dinner that night at a side walk cafe Nipun and I watched as a couple of beggars pilfered the left over food from the table next to us. They approached us and we gave them some fruit which they gratefully received. And yet overall most people in Battambang seemed to be doing ok. In a country where there is no social support systems there was a generosity that was obvious to see between so many of the Cambodians, giving out food to beggars and money to those who had lost limbs to mines. Battambang was an interesting town, and as I reflect, maybe we should have stayed longer.

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