Tag Archives: Cambodia

The Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia


Riding the Bamboo Train

Just outside the town of Battambang in North-West Cambodia is the Bamboo Train. Here’s an excerpt from the Lonely Planet:

The bamboo train is one of the world’s all-time classic rail journeys. From O Dambong, on the east bank 3.7km south of Battambang’s Old Stone Bridge, the train runs southeast to O Sra Lav, via half an hour of clicks and clacks along warped, misaligned rails and vertiginous bridges left by the French.

Each bamboo train – known in Khmer as a norry (nori) – consists of a 3m-long wood frame, covered lengthwise with slats made of ultra-light bamboo, that rests on two barbell-like bogies, the aft one connected by fan belts to a 6HP gasoline engine. Pile on 10 or 15 people or up to three tonnes of rice, crank it up and you can cruise along at about 15km/h.

Or if there are only 2 or 3 people, it can reach speeds of 50km/h plus – I’m not sure we went that fast but it certainly felt quick to us as we were seated so close to the rails with the bushes rushing past on either side. Hopefully you can get a sense of the speed from this short bit of video I took.. (sound is sort of recommended).

As there’s only one set of tracks on the ~5km section, there’s the very likely scenario of meeting another tourist-laden train coming the other way. I guess that’s why these trains are easily dismantled, and as I helped our driver take ours apart I found that they’re pretty heavy too!

The only scheduled stop is the little ‘village’ of O Sra Lav whose claim to fame is a brick factory.


The brick factory at O Sra Lav: Brick making machine; local child doodling on the drying bricks; and one of the 3 kilns, made from bricks. From a kiln. Also made from bricks. Which came first?

After fending off the local shopowners offering t-shirts, scarves and refreshments we headed back the way we’d come, on the rickety-rockety, clickety-clackety Battembang Bamboo Train.

Kampot, Cambodia

In researching destinations in Cambodia, we’d read that the southern coast has quite an up-and-coming beach resort, some calling it the ‘Benidorm’ of Asia. We’re not alone in thinking Sihanoukville is not our cup of tea, so we decided to visit the nearby town of Kampot instead.

Described as quiet, laid-back and relaxing, it was just the sort of place we were looking for after the bustle of Phnom Penh. Kampot is probably best known, if it’s known at all, for its pepper – at one time the gastronomic highlight of table condiments throughout France.

As well as relaxing, here are some of the sights and attractions we enjoyed in and around Kampot.

Bokor Hill Station


The old Palace Hotel & Casino. Legend has it that due to its cliff side location, the casino part was relocated to reduce the number of gambling-induced suicides

The biggest ‘attraction’ in Kampot is this old colonial French hill station which overlooks both the Gulf of Thailand and Kampot Town. Consisting of a Palace Hotel & Casino, shops, a post office (demolished), a church and some Royal Apartments, these long abandoned concrete buildings are now covered in moss and lichen which gives an eerie presence.


The old Palace, from the front. Every room is en-suite, and had flushing toilets – the very height of luxury and rare at the time


The old Church. The Palace Hotel (above) was covered in the same red lichen until it was recently repaired and made safe

In a tragic march of progress, the current lease-holder is seemingly unchallenged in their plans to cover the entire hill-top in hotels and housing estates. Fortunately, the building work has yet to start in earnest.

We took an organised day-trip tour and our guide was excellent. Not only in recalling the dates and history of the buildings and the area, but for welcoming discussion about Cambodia’s current political and commercial development which I found fascinating.

It’s also on tours like this that we get to meet fellow travellers, swap tips and tales, and practice our wider vocabulary of conversational English. We had the delightful pleasure of getting to know Rosie and Ed over the course of the afternoon, and if you check out their take on Kampot, see if you can spot us in one of their photos..

Pepper Farm


The eccentric owner of a small pepper farm, who can conduct his tour in English, French, or German

Although we’ve seen pepper growing before, I was still quite excited, and this time we got a full explanation of how they get black, white, red and green peppercorns from the same plant, and how to tell the difference by taste and smell!


Mr Pepper explaining how they produce black, white, red and green peppercorns

Fresh Crabs, and the beach in nearby Kep

The fresh crabs that the nearby town of Kep is famous for deserved its own post. I did look for peppered crabs, but alas, I must be the only one who thought of it as I didn’t see it on any of the Kep riverside restaurant menus.

Kep also has a (very) small stretch of beach, which they’ve bulked up with a recent delivery of pre-bleached sand. It’s a pleasant, quiet spot, and we enjoyed a leisurely stroll to the other end and back. Had we thought to bring our swimming costumes we might have taken a dip!


Julie on Kep beach

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, by bus from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and were immediately surprised by how many obvious differences there were between the neighbouring countries:

  • Buddhism is much more obvious in Cambodia with monks in saffron robes everywhere and the temples have beautiful ornate roofs
  • Our first introduction to the country’s cuisine was ladies selling deep fried insects from large trays on a ferry that our bus took (we didn’t try them…)
  • the language is written in a cursive script which to our untrained eyes looked completely indecipherable in contrast to Vietnam’s romanised script which looks as if you ought to be able to say it even if the pronunciation is very difficult
  • Transport around the city is by tuk-tuk, a motorbike towing a kind of covered trailer (lots of fun!)
  • Cambodia seems visibly poorer than Vietnam with people sifting through rubbish on the streets, and far fewer street lights


Phnom Penh is a small city and you can cover a lot of sights by walking, much to the disappointment of the many tuk-tuk drivers who accost you every few steps. We found two good routes, one in our Lonely Planet taking us from Wat Phnom in the north to the Independence Monument in the centre, and one published by Khmer Architecture Tours taking in a range of different building styles throughout the central area of the city.

20131125-152452.jpgLonely Planet walking tour (clockwise from top left): inside Wat Phnom, Independence monument, detail of the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship monument, Phnom Penh’s railway station (currently unused but apparently there are plans to upgrade the tracks and restart rail services)

20131125-143454.jpgDifferent building styles in Phnom Penh (clockwise from top left): Old royal villa from 1900-1910, ‘Hiroshima House’ is an example of Japanese De-Constructivism in Wat Ounalom, the 1960s former US Operations Mission building, the old Peugeot car factory and sales office (1935-45) was a favourite of ours

20131125-125158.jpgThe impressive art-deco Central Market was built in 1937

National Museum

Cambodia’s National Museum is located in a beautiful traditionally styled building right in the centre of Phnom Penh. It houses a good selection of Khmer sculpture taken from temples around the country as well as some wood carvings, ceramics and archaeological artefacts. The galleries are arranged around a lovely courtyard garden.

20131123-172026.jpgJulie in the courtyard garden

20131125-141541.jpgExhibits inside the museum

Royal Palace

It’s not possible to visit the palace itself as Cambodia has a king and, naturally, he lives there. However, access to some of the surrounding buildings, as well as the magnificent Silver Pagoda which stands in the palace grounds, is allowed.

20131125-125137.jpgUs outside the huge Throne Hall in the grounds of the Royal Palace

The Silver Pagoda takes its name from the 5000 silver tiles (each weighing 1kg) which cover the floor of the central temple. These are mostly covered by carpet so that they don’t get worn out by crowds of shuffling tourists, but it is possible to catch a glimpse of them around the edges of the room. The pagoda also contains other precious relics including golden and diamond encrusted Buddha statues!

20131126-120230.jpgSilver Pagoda (clockwise from top left): Stupas in the pagoda’s grounds, sightseeing monks taking photos of each other with their phones, wrought iron gate, silver floor tiles, you have to take your shoes off to go inside

20131125-141555.jpgTreasures inside the Silver Pagoda

Tuol Sleng Museum and Killing Fields

These two sights give an insight into Cambodia’s troubled history during the Khmer Rouge regime. We knew they wouldn’t be an easy visit but it was definitely something that we both wanted to learn more about. Tuol Sleng was our first stop. This former school building was used as a prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured people accused of opposition to the regime. Once they had confessed to whatever was required they were executed, without exception. Very little has been changed as regards the structure of the building and it’s possible to see the individual cells crudely constructed of bricks in the former classrooms.

20131125-152526.jpgBarbed wire was stretched across the open balconies of the Tuol Sleng prison to stop inmates committing suicide

Our guide told us of the terrible practices that went on inside the prison as well as some of her own tragic personal story. She was about 10 years old when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country and her father, who was an army officer, as well as two of her siblings were killed before she, her mother and one remaining sister escaped to Vietnam. It was incredibly moving to hear the stories from someone who had survived the terror.

20131127-104318.jpgThe chilling prison regulations

Around 20,000 people were processed through Tuol Sleng during the 4 years that the Khmer Rouge were in power and only 7 are known to have escaped alive. On arrival prisoners were logged and photographed. Many of these photographs are on display inside and some Cambodians have found out what happened to their loved ones by seeing the photographs here.

20131125-152515.jpgInside Tuol Sleng (clockwise from top left): cells were built inside the old classrooms and walls knocked through, display of photographs, barbed wire on the balcony, busts of Pol Pot the Khmer Rouge’s leader

Choeung Ek is the site of the extermination camp (Killing Fields) associated with Tuol Sleng. When prisoners were to be executed they were loaded into trucks and brought 15km outside the city to this site where they were killed and buried in mass graves. They were often bludgeoned to death to save bullets. Nowadays the site is peaceful and green but you can see the undulations in the ground where the mass graves have been excavated and the huge memorial stupa where exhumed skulls and other large bones are kept. The audio-guide which is included in the ticket price is excellent including interviews with a former prison guard as well as normal Cambodians who lost family to Choeung Ek.

20131126-121106.jpgMemorial stupa, mass grave site, skulls inside the stupa

As we’d expected it was a hard day. We learnt things about the regime which were almost unbelievable in their horror, leaving us to reflect on how humans can behave in such ways and making us realise how lucky we are to have lived in a peaceful time and place.