I chose the Hotel Royal and really liked the place and its super friendly staff. It offers the usual services of a backpacker hotel, plus “motordup” service to the few sights around. The “free-lance drivers” hang out in the hotel lobby and patiently go through the limited number of sights with every new arrival, in excellent English by the way.
This proved to be already extremely useful at our first destination, the Phare Ponleu Selpak “Circus School” outside the city. Naturally, I had lots of questions to ask the teachers. This project started in the mid 1980s and was aimed at young Cambodian refugees near the Thai Border to overcome their trauma by offering drawing lessons. Eight returning refugees from Battambang continued and further developed what they had learned in these cultural workshops. The school now gives children from poor families access to culture via different artistic activities, including music, drawing, drama, dancing and circus. Small troupes of students perform in villages educating about AIDS, drugs, children’s rights etc… Unfortunately, I missed their weekly circus performance by one day and had to make do with watching them practice.
Then, we continued to the Phnom Sampeau, a small single hill about 20 kilometers outside of Battambang, rising above its otherwise flat surroundings. The view from above is stunning, but it is the sad history of the pagoda and the caves at its top that has turned it into a tourist destination. During the Khmer Rouge regime, the pagoda was turned into a prison / torture chamber. The prisoners were then killed by being pushed through an opening at the top of the cave. There is another cave that drops down from the foot of the one mentioned before. It still contains lots of skulls and bones. Many of them belong to children who were simply thrown down there to starve to death. A simple glass encasing filled with skulls and bones reminds of this unimaginable terror and cruelty.
I was very thankful that this day trip ended on a lighter note, a ride on the bamboo train. This is a unique and creative form of ad-hoc local transport, mainly used to transport wood as far I was able to observe. A little pay off to the authorities allows the villagers to take tourists a couple of kilometers up and back. The vehicle consists of a bamboo platform that is placed on two iron bars, each with two wheels at its end. All this is powered by a motorcycle engine that is linked by a kind of rubber belt to one of these iron bars.
The cart is assembled within minutes, right in front of you. Then you start off at neck breaking speed riding on ancient tracks that were built in colonial times. What you see ahead are two big, dark snakes, each going a slightly different way. In the beginning it all seemed like a visual deception, tracks that neither run parallel nor leveled. The gap between the individual iron tracks is usually a few centimeters in width and height, which keeps you bouncing throughout the whole trip.
After about 15 minutes you stop, the platform is lifted, turned around to position the engine in the right place and then you head back. If you encounter other bamboo trains, these are either taken off the tracks, or if you are close to the stop they are pushed back in your direction. Later they continue their journey. While I was enjoying the ride, I suddenly remembered a documentary on Austrian TV. It was on recent history of Cambodia. Its very last image was this train, which then was run by moving a handle back and forth.