Tuesday, August 9, 2011

City of the Lost Stick

I've gone into detailed and loving rants on my love of trains on this blog before, so it should come as no surprise that I immediately wanted to go visit Battambang's main attraction: The Bamboo Train. The train won't be around for much longer, maybe two more months. Cambodia is building its rail network again, and these less than sturdy contraptions on the same track as speeding freight trains is indeed a bad idea.

The bamboo train isn't much of a train. You've got two sets of wheels, balance a bamboo platform on top of it, set in the same type of motor that powers a motorcycle, and off you go. It gets up to a fair speed, maybe thirty something kilometers an hour, and goes through pretty Battambang countryside.

It is less than pleasant when two seconds after you start the rains come down and batter your face for twenty minutes as you fly through them. The ride back was lovely though. It was also the most ridiculously touristy thing I've done in quite a while.

Battambang itself is a lovely town, small and sleepy on a river despite being second only to Phnom Penh in terms of size. I went with my friend Becca for the weekend, and we spent day 1 (after a long nap, those night buses are less than restful) exploring the countryside with new friends and an excellent tuk-tuk driver. Day 2 was spent at the tasty Café Eden, wandering around town and into galleries, and having fresh orange juice from the famous Battambang oranges.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Kampong Speu

My past couple of entries have been about journeys to stunning places, full of amazing things to tell you about. This entry? About an odd place, that was more adventure than good time (granted, riding a moto in monsoon rain for two hours might have heavily contributed to that). Last weekend I went with a few friends off the beaten track. And by off the beaten track, I mean a four hour round trip moto ride to a place not even mentioned in The Lonely Planet. Our destination? A small picnic spot/resort along the river just outside of the town of Kampong Speu where there was a literally a stick to keep nearby monkeys away (and I used it).

Besides the close encounters with wildlife (did you know rabies is 100% fatal? This is what I get for going on trips with friends who work for health organizations), there wasn't much. An adorable wooden suspension bridge of questionable soundness, a temple, and a dozen identical restaurants set up on stilts along the riverfront. After exhausting the sightseeing by crossing the bridge, we quickly sought shelter from the rain in one of the wooden restaurants. Relaxing in a hammock and eating fried noodles after getting drenched is a perfectly respectable way to whittle away a Saturday afternoon, in my opinion.

The place was pretty, and I'm sure on a typically sunny day would have been lovely. As it was, we didn't linger for many hours, and after determining the rain wasn't going to let up we headed home. Including a pit stop at Mike's Burgers, for those that were still hungry. Regarded as the best burgers in Phnom Penh, I regret to inform that as a vegetarian I have no opinion on the matter. However, my friends seemed to enjoy them and the fries were good.

(This cow did not want to be my friend)

Maybe the most interesting part of the day was driving past all the garment factories. I didn't get a photo of this, but we passed by as they were letting out for the day and it was incredibly distracting traffic. Mostly women, but a few men, packed into trailers like cattle, 13 people long and 5 deep all standing squished together. A lot of NGOs here are doing vocational training with women, teaching them sewing skills. Having seen the melee outside the factories though, I have to wonder if that is really the path to a better life here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bamboo Bridge and Talking with Dolphins

This weekend was the King's birthday, a national holiday in Cambodia. So I packed my sunscreen and a book (The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh this time, I thought it was pretty mediocre but it had a couple of scenes set in Kratie where we were going) and headed out with three friends for an adventure. First we went to Kampong Cham, the third largest city in Cambodia according to Wikipedia. (Bonus points if you can name the two that are larger)

There isn't much of a tourism industry in Kampong Cham, the handful of obligatory western cafes along the river, and a few places to rent bicycles. The main attraction for foreigners is the Bamboo Bridge. This bridge looks pretty rickety, and leads to an unfairly picturesque island. There isn't much in the way of railings, and it is a little wider than an average car. The sound the bamboo makes as you ride across it is horrible and terrifying, but the bridge is strong enough for cars and motos to drive on as well.

The most interesting thing about this bridge? Every year it gets blown away in the storms that come with rainy season. And every year after that season is done, the people of Kampong Cham rebuild it. In between the island is only accessible by boat.

After spending a day in Kampong Cham charmed by its quietness, we headed further inland to Kratie. Where there are dolphins! Sadly, I have no pictures of dolphins; they surfaced by brief moments of times to quickly for my camera to catch. The Irrawaddy river dolphins aren't the attractive dolphins that we think of, the flipper dolphins. We watched them for an hour, brief glimpses against the gray of the Mekong river. Instead I offer you this picture of a dolphin statue.

And then back to Phnom Penh, five hours in a cramped minivan designed for twelve people but filled with sixteen and no air conditioning. Mildly worse than the bus ride there in which the women next to us spent most of her time dry heaving.