Battambang and Sihanoukville

After five days in Siem Reap, we were ready to move on, but we had nothing else we especially wanted to do in Cambodia, and eight days in which to do it. We had hoped to spend a few days travelling to a remote temple to the north of Siem Reap on the border with Thailand. The very day we started looking into transport there we heard that the long-running border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over that temple had flared up again, with artillery fired on both sides and military and civilian fatalities. Unfortunately the dispute and the violence rumble on, and Cambodian press is claiming that Thai artillery has damaged the ancient temple.

So we took a boat to Battambang instead. The boat trip was cool, if excessively long, and we saw incredible numbers of birds (herons, oriental darters, cormorants and many more). The first hour or so was spent crossing the Northwest corner of Tonle Sap, the huge lake at the heart of Cambodia. Even just on the tiny corner of the lake we crossed, we lost sight of land all around. The remaining seven hours of the trip were spent slowly winding up the increasingly shallow river to Battambang, a journey that will surely be completely impossible by boat next month, as the dry season continues.

Battambang itself was not a particularly attractive or interesting place, and the less said about the food on offer the better. We spent a day there happily enough, but any more would be unnecessary. The most interesting attraction was the ‘Norry’, or bamboo train. We were sort of imagining a whole engine and carriages crafted from bamboo, but actually a norry is just a small woven bamboo platform balanced on two sets of train wheels, one of which is attached to a simple motor. Cambodia used to have a train network, but civil war and poverty combined took their tool, and no trains run on Cambodia’s tracks at the moment. The norry is something found in many areas of Cambodia, and seems to represent a people striving for normality after an apocalypse has torn apart the civilised infrastructure of daily life. Trains don’t run? We’ll make our own.

In Battambang the bamboo train has become a tourist attraction, with a small route set up for tourists by the tourist authority, with a set fee to travel a short distance, and back again. However, the norry is still used by locals – we passed one loaded with vegetables, and our own norry was jumped for the last few km by a family who were tired of walking. The tracks are warped and bumpy, but it’s a great system. The simplicity of the design means that meeting a norry coming the other way is no problem – one norry is disassembled in seconds, and laid by the side of the track to allow the other norry to pass. The norry will soon be a thing of the past, as a proper train service for both passengers and freight is planned in the near future. While this is a good thing generally, I’m sure the locals will miss the freedom and simplicity of the norry system, and given Battambang’s other attractions, the tourist industry in the town is sure to suffer a major blow.

As Battambang didn’t provide much distraction, we decided to head to the beach for our last few days before returning to Shanghai. We went to Sihanoukville on the south coast – feeling a little silly, as we passed the town on our bikes two weeks ago. It was ok, nice to be relaxing by the beach and reading, although the town itself is really seedy and not very pleasant, and the sea is a little too full of debris. There is a cinema of sorts – showing films of your choosing in small private lounges, so we managed to catch up on some films, which was fun. We hired a motorbike again to get around, and had some issues with it failing to start, and had a flat tire which really made us feel like we were still on the bike trip.

Now we’re back in Phnom Penh, and readying ourselves for a midnight flight to Shanghai tomorrow. The flight is at 11.55pm, and our visas run out at midnight – so we really got our money’s worth from those. We spent most of our last day at the airport, and various markets, and too many bike shops, and really all over the place trying to sort out last-minute shopping, and how and for how much we could take our bikes on the plane. The plan now is to trade in our remaining spare bike parts, and our pump, for two huge cardboard bike boxes, from the only bike shop in town who knew what a bike box was. They’ve even offered to dismantle and pack them up for us. Which is good because we’re abandoning most of our tools in an effort to cut our weight. Baggage limit is 20 kg, and a bike alone is 18 kg. So, much will be abandoned, but hopefully our bikes will return to the motherland, and we’ll be taking bets on how long it is until they get stolen.

To celebrate a job well done, we went out and had our most expensive meal of the whole trip, which was entirely excellent, and really could not be faulted. Except I forgot my camera. Suffice to say – galangal and lemongrass gelato is fantastic. They had fried tarantula on the menu, but neither of us could quite bring ourselves to try them. Only $4 for three. Bargain.

Pages updated: Statistics, Maps

We haven’t updated the pictures yet, but will do so when we get back to Shanghai.

~ by Elephants on February 16, 2011.

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