Continued from Part One.
The next day we took a tuk-tuk tour around Battambang. We stopped for tea ("Western tea?" asked 'James', our driver. "Local tea," I told him. It's a hobby of mine to go places and ask for caffeinated beverages such as "tea" or "coffee" without giving any further instruction just to see what I end up with. In this case it was hot, sweetened, green tea.) and went straight on to the Bamboo Railway, which (after some initial misgivings on the part of The Master) was a huge hit.
Last time we took the same tour around town by moto. When we got to the end, we took the "small train" - they hadn't yet reached a consensus on the English-language name - back to town. I remember standing beside a cow shed, watching as a few men lifted wheels and a platform onto the track, and joking that this must be the "small train" coming in to our "station". Our moto drivers agreed, but they laughed too, so it took a few minutes to realise they were actually serious. The "small train" - now known as the bamboo train - is a bamboo platform on two sets of wheels, propelled by a little motor. It runs along a single track and can be put together or dismantled in a couple of minutes. Last time, we met a groups of villagers coming in the opposite direction, piled at least a dozen of all ages on to the same platform, and the two "trains" negotiated to see who would have to be removed from the rails to let the other pass. They had more people, including elderly women and children, together with sacks of rice and other food, but we had two motorbikes, which were deemed less moveable. Everyone pitched in together, though, and their train was soon loaded back onto the track behind us. Then we bid each other farewell before puttering away. Last time, that was the only train we passed on our way back.
There are a lot of tourists and (as far as we saw) no locals using the line now, and a tourist policeman is stationed permanently at one end of the line to oversee the operations. Handicraft and drinks stalls mark both ends of the ride. The policeman shook hands and introduced himself, directed our driver to a parking spot, then gave us the run-down whilst our train was being organised. The kids got on famously with the village kids at the far end of the line, and one girl, not more than 50% bigger than the The Young Miss, took Miss onto her hip and carried her all around the village pointing out all the animals and naming them in English and Khmer. Everyone was delighted with the way Miss mimicked either language with equal "proficiency", as one-and-three-quarter-year-olds will do. They showed us their brick factory and invited our kids to climb the pile of rice husks they use to fuel it and jump up and down with them. The pile of rice husks, it turns out, is springy like a trampoline. They made us grass rings and bracelets. They found The Young Miss a dog who was "safe to pat" and made sure she didn't touch any of the others, even though she wanted to. We bought some cool drinks. It was nice.
The Bamboo train may or may not exist in the near future. There is a big project afoot to upgrade the line so it is safe enough for real trains to run across the country once more, and in the meantime, the roads seem to have taken over as the main form of transit for the locals. It's great to see progress being made for the sake of Cambodia and its people, but I hope there is still employment for those who work on the bamboo train in years to come - and fun to be had for us tourists, too. If you get the chance, you should take a ride. It was a highlight of both trips.
The rest of the tour went just as well. We saw a temple, some temple ruins, villages, a winery (that was new...) and The Young Master (much to his delight) had his first ride on a motorbike. The Young Miss did, too, strapped into the ergo, but she seemed to view it as a rather ordinary event, whereas the Master was so excited about his ride that it didn't even bother him when we visited The Killing Caves at the top of the mountain, and he spent the next two hours breathlessly telling every child under ten years old he could find that he had just ridden on a motorbike, which brought some strange looks from the local kids.
Eventually, the Miss and Master started showing signs of having had enough for the day, so we asked our driver to cut it short and take us back to town, where another quick romp back by the river brought us to dinner time. The next day, we ate a hearty breakfast, took one last stroll along the river and through the central market, then piled into a taxi - with seatbelts - and made our way to Siem Reap.
Siem Reap and SurroundsLast time we went from Siem Reap to Battambang by boat. This service still exists, although the locals who live in fishing villages along the lake and river have started complaining about the speed, noise, frequency, and general disturbance. In any case, it's a long trip in a little dingy, especially in the dry season, and with the improved road situation, it made more sense to take the three hour trip by car. And the car was a much better price!
I was glad the second road trip was the shorter one, as everyone was starting to get a bit scratchy by this stage. Our taxi driver canvassed the local tuk tuk drivers in Siem Reap until he located our hotel, where he dropped us with (no doubt) a sigh of relief. We hit the pool, followed by the hotel restaurant, followed by our beds - all of which helped us feel better, but not better enough. The next day, therefore, we decided it was time to split the party and get out of each other's pockets. The Earl stayed at the hotel with The Young Miss, and they did a bit of swimming, some eating, and some much-needed catching up on sleep. In the afternoon, he took the Young Miss to pick up his bib for the following day's half-marathon around the ancient temples of Angkor.
Wait, did I mention the impulse for the trip originated with The Earl's new-found fascination with running? Yes, he's into running now. He could probably sit down with Serenity and have a good old chat about it. In any case, the idea of running, at dawn, around the ancient temples of Angkor appealed greatly to him, so he decided to step up his game and do his first half-marathon. But first, he took the day off sightseeing to rest up and eat well. Meanwhile, The Young Master and I grabbed a tuk tuk and headed off to Kampung Pluk, a nearby fishing village.
Kampung PlukMuch has been said on message boards about boat safety in Cambodia, and most of it is not favourable. But in a country with stricter safety standards, would they let a four-year-old drive the boat? Probably not - and The Young Master loved it. I asked our boat driver if it was usual for the local kids to be driving boats by four years old and he shrugged and said, "Of course." Some of the other tourists didn't seem convinced, however - one woman in particular looked aghast as her boat passed ours, going in the opposite direction. At our speed (walking), depth (waist, on the Young Master), and distance from shore (less than ten paces) I didn't feel especially threatened, however, and our driver sat nearby, offering verbal and physical course corrections as necessary. We puttered like this for quite some time, until we got to the village on the water.
And when I say "on", I don't muck around. Most of the buildings were on stilts, and some were floating. We saw the police station, doctor's clinic, town hall and temple. There was also a school, with kids outside, waist-deep, playing a game of water-soccer, whilst others came or left by canoe. There were houses and houseboats, floating piggeries, and enclosed fisheries. We stopped in the "restaurant district" and swapped into a canoe, which wound through and around the mangroves. Then we returned the way we'd come. On the way home, The Young Master asked to stop and "help" some boys who were fishing in a creek using a net. They let him hang around, but in the end I had to point out that he was half their age or less and that braving the current and trying to wind and cast the net was harder than it looked. He returned to the hotel disappointed that he hadn't been able to go fishing.
MarathonWe were hoping to watch The Earl run his half-marathon on the Sunday morning, but it was not to be. My plan was to let the kids wake up at their normal time and eat breakfast before heading out to the sidelines. However, for the first year ever, the organisers decided to close off the course to traffic, leaving our tuk tuk driver stranded where he'd dropped The Earl off by the famous Angkor Wat. We were forced to potter around the hotel grounds until he turned back up again, which didn't take long. The Earl not only finished the run (he was afraid he wouldn't be able to) but finished in the top half of the runners, making a time he was happy with.
After a swim to cool off and a spot of lunch, he and The Young Miss took a nap together again, whilst The Young Master and I went into the central market for some souvenir shopping. The Young Master found another friend at the market, and bought a gift for his classmate back home. Then we all joined up next to the river, where The Young Master found a man casting the same type of net as the boys had been using the previous day. He asked if he could have a go, and the guy showed him how to wind the rope around his thumb and gather it in his hands, but he was really too little to hold it all together, much less throw it out. In the end, he accepted that even the local kids don't start using that kind of fishing gear until they are much older, and contented himself with "helping" the man retrieve fish (or debri) from his net after he'd hauled it back in. We bought sandwiches from a street seller for dinner, and returned to our hotel to rest up for our big day at the temples.
Temples of AngkorOh, the temples. They are certainly an impressive site, although also a much more cultivated one these days. The first difference we noticed was at the ticket booth. Last time, we found a single booth, manned by two people, beside a dusty road. Now there is a bitumened slip road containing about a dozen booths with staff everywhere. The grass is green and tended, the icecream vans have proliferated, and the whole enterprise has become safety and conservation-conscious. This is all great news, but it didn't impress The Young Master, who immediately decided he wanted to return to the hotel. I must say, I was surprised at this - I thought the temples would have a certain "wow" factor all their own, but I guess he hasn't hit his Indiana Jones phase yet. I thought he'd like hearing the stories told in carvings, like enormous, stone, picture books, but I musn't have been telling them right. Luckily, I had a flash of brilliance and drew up a list for a scavenger hunt*, which seemed to interest him enough to keep us going until lunch time, when he finally worked out how to express what was troubling him: in a nutshell, he found the temples kind of spooky. Once we worked this out, we were able to come up with a simple compromise - he would just stay on the outside. He was happy to do this, and romped around the ruins happily like he would in any old park, whilst The Early and I took turns having a closer look, and occasionally discussing an exterior feature of interest. The Earl and I were glad we'd seen everything in reasonable depth before - it took the pressure off this visit, and we were happier to potter around in a way that suited the kids.
Both of them slept very well that night. The next day we took a swim and then packed our bags for home. Our flight didn't leave til evening, so we took a stroll around the Royal Gardens, a walk along the river, and grabbed a bite to eat before piling into a couple of tuk-tuks for the airport. The Siem Reap International Airport was our last big double-take, having been completely overhauled since its days as a dusty building with a bit of an immigration bench and a handful of moto drivers waiting around outside. (In fact, Siem Reap seems to have relatively few moto drivers these days. The ones who tout for tourists, at least, have all gone and bought trailers for their bikes, thus upgrading themselves to the status of tuk-tuk drivers - a rarity on our last visit.) In any case, it's not so modernised that you can't still stroll across the tarmac to your plane, which we did with that mixture of satisfaction and reluctance which marks the end of a great trip.
Next Up: Observations about travelling with young kids in Cambodia.
*This is our list for the scavenger hunt. Each of the speaking members of the party contributed to the list. We found everything except the danger sign (I guess they've replaced their danger signs with actual safety measures since our last visit), and it took us the whole day to do that. Even The Young Miss found a couple of items, although I'm not sure she was aware they were part of a game.
Lots of the finds opened up discussions about history, culture, or the local environment. For example, the water wheel provided a lesson in both local agriculture and Buddhist symbolism. The statue with the head (most of them are now headless) provided an opportunity to discuss the history of the temples and ancient kingdoms. And there was an interesting discussion about how the trees grow like that.
- Working water wheel
- Statue with its head still on
- Boat (we saw one being used by a bridal party on their wedding photo tour of the temples)
- Fishing net
- Fishing rod
- Carving of dancers (apsaras)
- Tree growing out of ruins
- Tree that forms a tunnel with its roots
- Aeroplane (actually seen after we left the temple grounds - they weren't flying over the temples)
- Carving of wheel
- Carving of elephant
- Hot air balloon
- Flowing river
- Giant face on gate
- Big stone lion
- Danger sign
- Stone bridge with stone railing