The city of Battambang didn’t sound particularly appealing to me, but the waterway between Battambang and Siem Reap offers what my guidebook describes as “Cambodia’s most enchanting boat trip.” So I took a bus from Phnom Penh to Battambang and prepared myself to be enchanted.
With a day to spend in Battambang before the boat ride, I hired a tuk-tuk driver to show me two of the local attractions: the bamboo train and the Prasat Banan temple. I didn’t know much about the bamboo train, and based on the little bit I’d read I was picturing elaborate bamboo rail cars linked together to form something resembling a real train. It turned out to be a group of individual rail cars made of simple bamboo flatbeds that rested on two sets of metal wheels.
Apparently the French built the narrow gauge track in the 1930s. Regular trains stopped running during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and now it’s only used by the bamboo trains. The operators make money by selling rides to tourists as well as locals who use the trains to transport a variety of cargo.
The rail line has only one track and traffic goes both ways. When two trains meet, one of the operators disassembles his train and lifts it completely off the track. It takes less than a minute.
Bamboo Train Ride (Video)
Disassembling a Bamboo Train (Video)
Maybe not the most exciting ride in the world, but it was unique and interesting. And soon it will be no more – the operators told me that in a year or two the government is going to install a new track and start running real trains again.
In the late afternoon I climbed up to the Prasat Banan temple. Built in the 11thcentury, it resembles the towers of Angkor Wat on a much smaller scale. After seeing the massive, majestic Angkor temples, however, it was tough to get appropriately fired up about such a tiny place. Perched on the top of a hill, Prasat Banan is sold as an ideal spot for sunset-watching, but a larger hill to the west blocked an important part of the horizon and interfered with the view.
Early the next morning I went to the boat dock, unsure what to expect. After my experience with the speedboat in Laos, I hoped only for a roof, a real seat, and a reliable engine. It turns out I had nothing to worry about. Our boat was covered, it had normal bench seating, and the engine chugged along cheerfully the entire way.
View from the Battambang-to-Siem-Reap Boat (Video)
Most of the waterways between Battambang and Siem Reap were populated with riverside huts and floating villages. Closer to Siem Reap we passed through an extensive area of protected wetlands, teeming with birds. (Apologies to my mom for my inability to be more specific than “birds.” Maybe some of them were egrets?). I had my camera out for the entire 8-hour trip and tried to capture a sense of daily life along the river.
I hoped to get some good candid shots, but – despite being somewhat less obvious than usual, given that I was one of many people on a moving boat – my oversized camera still made me very conspicuous to just about every would-be subject. Some of the people who spotted me looked irritated and others looked confused, but most just ignored me, smiled, or waved.
I don’t know that I’d describe myself as “enchanted” when we finally glided into the dock at Siem Reap, but I loved being able to see that part of the country and I definitely enjoyed the ride.