Trains and Temples of Battambang
As I stumble down stairs after a poor night of sleep, I am hounded by a dozen tuk-tuk drivers all yelling offers of tours for various prices, “Where you go? $15 I show you everything.” I wave my hand back and forth in a dismissive manner, “Guys, I haven’t even had breakfast yet.” This does not stop their attempts to get work for the day, “Ok, when you come back?” I don’t respond, it’s way too early for negotiating with tuk-tuk drivers. As I step out of the hotel onto the street, another dozen tuk-tuk drivers repeat the circus of offers once again.
Once I’ve had breakfast and a much needed coffee, I head into a small corner building with a large gecko logo above the entryway. The young Cambodia at the desk has long black hair that covers one of his eyes before he flicks it to the side with a jarring shake of his head. His English is perfect, “Hello sir, how can I help you?” I rent a motorbike for the day and he lays out a detailed map for me to follow so that I can see everything in one day. Before long, I’m creating serpentine patterns along the highway between the trucks and cars that are lackadaisically heading in the same direction and trying to derail my speed. At 65km/hr the road races by and before long I am on unpaved, rocky back roads. The small train station finally comes into view.
Along with an Australian girl and a French guy who have both been traveling longer than I, we jump on the makeshift train. Long stalks of bamboo split in half and tied together by rope make up the small square bed of the train. The engine looks no larger than a lawnmower, but before long we are speeding along the rails at over 50km/hr. The green marshlands of Cambodia stretch on in both directions as far as the eye can see. The air is full of hundreds of dragonflies and the smell of fresh grass. The track jumps and lurches back down causing a tremor to work its way up my back. Every once in awhile, the bent or poorly connected rails cause the train to shake, but at no point do any of us fear for safety. A shirtless Cambodian man slowly brings the engine to a halt as another bamboo train heads in our direction on the same path. “Now what?” The bearded French guy in his mid-20s asks. The two Cambodian drivers work together to take apart one of the bamboo trains. It takes less than a minute for the axle, wheels, and bed to be taken apart and laid on the side of the track. These are Lego trains. Within moments we are speeding back along the track under the heavy heat of the noon sun.
Back on the rumble of the rented motorbike I zig-zag down Cambodian neighborhoods with houses built of rickety wood beams and tin rooftops. I can feel the sun trying to break through the thick coat of sunscreen covering my arms. Sweat drops feel cool against my skin as the speed-created wind passes by. At the bottom of Bannan Temple are small dark pools filled with lily pads and bright pink flowers. The steps up to the temple stretch on endlessly into the distance. At the bottom of the steps, two snake-like Nagas mark the bottom of the bannister, there scaled skin running up the entire distance of the stone steps. As I take each step, a small Cambodian boy and girl with heart-warming smiles and fans. The young boy fans me as I walk upward. I stop and take the round, red fan out of his small hands and his eyes fill with surprise. He is about to protest before he realizes that I will be fanning him. The two children dance in the cool air that pushes out from the fan as I wave it up and down in front of them. After a moment, we make a bet who can get to the top first. The little boy takes off before a “1, 2, 3” or a “Ready, Set, Go!” My long legs make catching up to him easily as I take the steps two at a time. I slow down just before the top and let him jet out front. Once he catches his breath he performs a victory dance and says something in Cambodian to the little girl, which I would guess is the Cambodian equivalent of “I win, you lose. Neener-neener-neener.” Both of the kids follow me as I take pictures of the large stone structure at the top of the hill. Once, each brick had been laid perfectly on top of each other, but now the damage of time has caused the tops to collapse and create new windows in the temple’s structure.
My last stop of the day is high up on the cliffs of a mountain. The motorbike pulls up the steep hill with ease as I shift back into first gear. A great lesson for climbing the steep hills of life. At the top of the mountain I park the bike in a small shed by the temple. Monkeys jump around and lie lazily next to the golden temple at the top. As I try to film one of the monkeys a cacophony of fear and anger erupt and all of the monkeys collect together in the blink of an eye and move toward me. I decide to leave the monkeys to their afternoon. Next to the temple are steps heading far down into a cave; another killing grounds of the Khmer Rouge. I stand alone in the huge mouth of the cave, bats fly overhead and the echo of each step I take bounces off each of the walls around me. A smaller cave mouth stands on my left. The pitch black of the cave wraps around me as I head towards the golden Buddha in the back. The silence and history work its way under my skin and sends a shiver through my body. I slowly tread backwards out of the cave and spend the next hour sitting in the silence of a place that was once full of agony and brutal murder. My life has been a blessed and sheltered one. For that I am eternally grateful.
Stay: Here Be Dragons – $3/nt dorm, $4/nt private
Eat: Gecko Cafe ($4-$8)
Do: Grab a bike and see the many large statues within the city, then head out to jump on the bamboo train, Bannan Temple, Phnom Sampeou, and then stop at the night circus to finish off the day.
Note: If you would like to see more about Battambang, check out Adventures in Redefinitions Youtube Channel.