Battambang, Cambodia: The Bamboo Train

I must confess to being a bit of a train geek. I find everything about them rather fascinating; from the excitable atmosphere of busy stations, to the big clocks hanging from high ceilinged railway halls that make for strangely intimate meeting spots across the world – and the people, oh the people watching on trains is a favourite past-time.

My favourite train is the Eurostar, and so it felt like an appropriate way to begin our overland adventure to Vietnam six months ago. There’s something rather Parisian about the whole affair; champagne and air kissing under the huge arched ceiling of St Pancras – and when you cross through to departures you can’t help but feel like you’ve discovered a whole new side of the train station that is invisible to commuters.

It’s nothing short of marvellous. And don’t even get me started on the fact that really it’s like a giant submarine that’s hurtling along the ocean. If only they’d put a few windows in the tunnel for a spot of marine watching.

No train, I thought, could surely be better than the Eurostar. For no other train is taking you to the fairytale land of Croissants, bloody steaks and fine Bordeaux.

But, the other day I caught a train in Cambodia that forced me to re-evaluate.

Well I say ‘caught a train’ as if it was taking me somewhere but it wasn’t, not really. See there are no passenger trains in Cambodia. The streets are heaving with tuk-tuks and motorbikes but there is not a train in sight.

What do you mean this doesn't look like a train?!

What do you mean this doesn’t look like a train?!

Well, apart from the Bamboo Train that is. Hidden off the main tourist trail is a charming little town in the northwest called Battambang (not to be confused with the cake). No Battambang is far more delicious than Battenberg.

And rather randomly, its claim to fame is the bamboo train. The bamboo train is basically a bamboo raft with a lawn mower engine stuck to the back of it that hurtles down wonky train tracks that are kind of parallel.

You pile onto the ‘carriage’ and then sit back and let the ‘train driver’ do the work.

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And I can honestly say it was one of the most fun things we’ve done on the trip so far. I am actually a little lost for words – it’s just hard to sum up being ‘rafted’ across what looks like a disused railway at 50 mph.

Every now and then when the rails looked particularly rusty we would be jolted forwards and clutch the little piece of wicker carpet laid under us a little harder.

But then in the horizon we saw oncoming traffic. Hurtling towards us on the same narrow track was another little bamboo raft carrying some bemused tourists.

Oncoming traffic on Bambu Train battambang

Slowly we all ground to a hault and stared at each other slightly bewildered.

This was a bit different to the country lanes near my parents’ house where a hardball stare is enough to send the other car reversing 100 yards back to the nearest ditch. Just as I was about to give my best ‘back up, love’ look our ‘train driver’ motioned for us to get off.

Within seconds our carriage (which rides the rails on a pair of dumb-bells in case you were wondering) was dismantled piece by piece and lying on the side of the railway.

Bambu train battambang dismantled

STEP ONE: Remove the carriage from the tracks, piece by piece.

Bambu train battambang dismantled

STEP TWO: Let the traffic pass and then get bemused tourist to try and put the carriage on backwards.

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STEP THREE: Haul carriage back onto track…

STEP FOUR.... And relax.

STEP FOUR…. And relax.

We were off again.¬†Off where exactly I’m not sure. The tracks were laid in the 1930s in French colonial times but all the trains were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s, which led local people to construct the bamboo trains using traditional methods to help get them into town easier. While the trains are still used by some locals today, they have been largely replaced by the growing number of vehicles on the road.

But for us it was definitely all about the journey rather than the destination, as we ended up an hour later where we had begun. But as far as train rides go I think this may just have been the most memorable.

A ride with a view.

A ride with a view.

 

A Dummies Guide to Surving Sleeper Trains across Europe

Chugging along rolling countryside, watching green fields turn into slums, and slums grow into cities – there is hardly a more pleasant way to travel. So far, just six days into the big trip, we have already spent about 72 hours on trains.

We’ve sampled everything from posh trains with fancy buffet cars to rickety, smoke-choked carriages where even conductors are puffing away beneath the ‘No Smoking’ signs. We’ve sat, cooped up with strangers in couchettes, swigging wine from the bottle watching the world go by in Hungary, while rationing our last bottle of water meanly travelling through Bulgaria in the baking sun – and we’ve encountered many an unsmiling passport officer at borders, where the trains seemingly sit for hours on end.

Matty, the Mongoose and I will often glance up from our reading, journal writing or travel planning activities to exclaim excitement over the change in landscape, prompting all three of us to rush to the open windows and hang our heads out like panting dogs in a hot car. The phrase ‘travel is about the journey not the destination’ must have been coined by a train enthusiast.

And perhaps the best bit, for me at least, is snuggling down in my little train bed in one country, falling alseep to the reassuring chug of the train, and waking up in another country altogether.

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Matty showing you how it's done on our Budapest to Bucharest sleeper train

But, there are you things you need to know before embarking on such trips. So, without further ado here are my handy tips for inter-railing across Europe on sleeper trains.

1) Shop, shop, shop! Buy all your provisions for the journey before you get to the station – you can never be guaranteed of a buffet car… as was the case on our 17 hour journey to Istanbul from Bucharest. Upon boarding a two-carriage train with just a small picnic for lunch, we realised the only facilities on the train consisted of a man in a white vest selling flat, warm fizzy water. In desperation this saw me buy Bulgarian Levs from a stranger and Matty and Donagh leg it across a random Bulgarian station mid-journey, with just five minutes to spare to get provisions.

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They returned with this. And let me tell you Flirt Vodka will liven up any journey.

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Matty and the Mongoose train feasting at a previous, better planned picnic

2) If you spy any rich-looking westerners, struggling with their over-sized suitcases, offer to help them. They will probably tip you, which will help buy those much needed drinks in the buffet car.

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In fact, the tip was big enough for three large Weiss biers on our Munich to Salzburg train. True story.

3) Take lots of photos…

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Train photos are cool. Here’s some of me and the Mongoose taken by Matty…

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And a few more snaps…

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4) When you go into the sleeper car, space is tight and you’re often sharing it with six people. Get everything you need for the night out of your rucksack before putting it into the luggage shelves above the top bunks – once it’s up, it ain’t coming down. Wash bag, towel, PJs etc…

5) Once the bags are up, sit down on the lower couchette with your roomies for the night- ask if you can push the middle couchette up to avoid having to hunch. You never know, they may just give you the best tips for your next destination… and at least it will avoid the whole carraige bunking down for bed at 8pm.

6) TAKE EAR PLUGS. TAKE EAR PLUGS. TAKE EAR PLUGS. Did I mention, pack some ear plugs? The snoring can be phenomenal… personally I think snoring tests should be carried out before tickets are issued and the snorers should be made to sleep together in a tiny little couchette where they can snore in harmony like a six-piece nasal band, making the kind of music nobody else wants to hear.

8) Open your eyes and enjoy… the train will take you through communites and parts of countries you would never otherwise come across. It’s magical.