I must confess to being a bit of a train geek. I find everything about them quite wonderful; from the excitable atmosphere of busy stations, to the people watching and sheer pleasure of hanging my head (and camera) out of train windows as I whizz past cities, towns and fields of daisies.
And so it was with much delight that I boarded the bamboo train in Battambang, Cambodia.
Well, apart from the Bamboo Train that is. Hidden off the main tourist trail is a charming little town in the northwest called Battambang (not to be confused with the cake). No Battambang is far more delicious than Battenberg.
And rather randomly, its claim to fame is the bamboo train. The bamboo train is basically a bamboo raft with a lawn mower engine stuck to the back of it that hurtles down wonky train tracks that are kind of parallel.
You pile onto the ‘carriage’ and then sit back and let the ‘train driver’ do the work. It’s perhaps the less obvious choice of activity for a luxurious holiday in Cambodia. But one, I am sure you will agree must be tried.
And I can honestly say it was one of the most fun things to do in Cambodia. I am actually a little lost for words – it’s just hard to sum up being ‘rafted’ across what looks like a disused railway at 50 mph.
Every now and then when the rails looked particularly rusty we would be jolted forwards and clutch the little piece of wicker carpet laid under us a little harder.
But then in the horizon we saw oncoming traffic. Hurtling towards us on the same narrow track was another little bamboo raft carrying some bemused tourists.
Slowly we all ground to a hault and stared at each other slightly bewildered.
This was a bit different to the country lanes near my parents’ house where a hardball stare is enough to send the other car reversing 100 yards back to the nearest ditch. Just as I was about to give my best ‘back up, love’ look our ‘train driver’ motioned for us to get off.
Within seconds our carriage (which rides the rails on a pair of dumb-bells in case you were wondering) was dismantled piece by piece and lying on the side of the railway. Here, my friends, is a step-by step guide to how you pass other trains on the bamboo line:
We were off again. Off where exactly I’m not sure. The tracks were laid in the 1930s in French colonial times but all the trains were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s, which led local people to construct the bamboo trains using traditional methods to help get them into town easier. While the trains are still used by some locals today, they have been largely replaced by the growing number of vehicles on the road.
But for us it was definitely all about the journey rather than the destination, as we ended up an hour later where we had begun. But as far as train rides go I think this may just have been the most memorable.
Battambang is home to some of the best preserved French architecture in Cambodia. But more impressive than its urban centre, is the surrounding area. Travelling just 10 minutes out of town will take you into glorious rice paddies and provincial villages that offer a real insight into Cambodian life.
- The bamboo train: Close your eyes as you hurtle down a disused railway line on a bamboo raft with a lawn mower stuck to its back. That’s the best way we can describe the bamboo train – it’s fun, it’s exhilarating and it’s one of the most unique ways of seeing the Cambodian countryside!
- Caves and jungle temples: Around Battambang are numerous caves and jungle temples, including the Killing Cave where many human remains still lie today following executions by the Khmer Rouge. Near here there is also a cave where thousands of bats daily make their grand exit at dusk across the paddy fields as the sun slowly sinks behind the horizon.
- Half-day cycling trip: We’ve partnered with Soksabike, a social enterprise which offer fascinating half-day bike rides around the countryside – taking you into the heart of local industries. Expect to cycle approximately 30km but it’s very flat and family friendly.
- Battambang is a great place to try a cookery course. A good one is Smokin’ Pot, which starts at the market before you spend the morning cooking your three-course lunch. To arrange a course call: 012821400.
- Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus – A circus like no other. This social enterprise supports disadvantaged children develop in the world of arts and music – kids have spent years training for these shows. We absolutely loved it – very funny mimics and seriously impressive acrobats are the name of the game here. The fact the kids are talented but amateurs makes the performance all the more special (and worrying in places!) When the kids ‘graduate’ they perform in Siem Reap but it’s lovely to see them in their training grounds here in Battambang.
Where to Stay in Battambang?
On my travels, I have discovered a few lovely boutique hotels in Battambang that can be viewed here. My favourite (am I allowed favourites? Oh go on then) is Bambu, which is a lovely little place run by ex British brickie.
If you are interested in booking a trip to Cambodia and would like to stay in Battambang please contact me via my contact page (in the ‘about’ menu) or take a look at my travel agency site Fleewinter – which sells luxury holidays to Cambodia.