Funerals, Bamboo trains and flooded tuk tuks

Posted on | augustus 9, 2012 | No Comments

I’m preparing for the drive back to Siem Reap today, which will take about three hours. I am very much hoping the heavy downpours will hold off until after I arrive back. Travelling anywhere in Cambodia is difficult enough but it becomes much worse when trying to drive through endless floods. It is incredibly hot with the humidity at 85% but this is not unusual in the rainy season I didn’t sleep well last night even though I am staying at the wonderful Battambang resort. I’ve not really slept well since arriving. I miss my husband and Bendy and there is so much to think about that it makes sleep difficult. As I type I can hear the sounds of funeral music. I know it is funeral music for my tuk tuk guide Dang, pointed this out to me during my trip to the bamboo train. He explained how the sound makes him feel a little frightened.

‘It can last from three days to sometimes longer and wakes you up in the mornings,’ he told me.
I found the sounds beautifully haunting and you can hear them for yourself here.
I don’t know how far away this particular funeral is that I can hear now. It sounds close but then the music always sounds near when it is in fact very far away.
I shall be sad to leave Battambang. I have had an interesting if not catastrophic visit but then it would not be typical of me if there wasn’t some catastrophes involved. My most reason catastrophe involved a bamboo train. My aim had been to visit the countryside while here. Battambang is the capital city of Battambang province in northwestern Cambodia.

Founded in the 11th century by the Khmer Empire, Battambang is well-known for being the leading rice-producing province of the country. The city is situated by the Sangkae River, a tranquil, small body of water that winds its way through Battambang Province providing its nice picturesque setting. I spent some time researching it online and read that a visit to the countryside was something not to be missed. I asked at reception and a tuk tuk driver was arranged. He arrived ten minutes early and introduced himself as Dang and spoke English with a Cambodian/North England accent. I asked him if he had been to England. He looked surprised.
‘No, but I learnt at school and from British people who come here.’
I guessed he must have spent a long time with a Northerner. I smiled and complimented him on his English.

‘I’d like to go into the country,’ I tell him.
He looks thoughtful.
‘Ah, country. You go on bamboo train?’
I had looked at the bamboo train online and thought it looked interesting if just a touch uncomfortable. I turn to the owner of the resort and ask if she can explain that I want to go into the countryside to take pictures. She understands and a long chat in Khmer ensues. Finally she says.
‘We think Bamboo train is good way to see country.’
I’ve been bamboozled. The bamboo train it is then.
‘Come on Lynda,’ smiles Dang.
So I head off for yet another experience. Although as yet I had no idea just how much of an experience it was going to be.
The Cambodian people are the friendliest I have ever met. The children call out to you as you pass by in your tuk tuk and the adults always smile at you. Most tuk tuk drivers are exceptionally helpful and friendly and many are great tour guides. Dang turned out to be one of those. He points out the river explaining that this time last year it was totally flooded.
‘Very bad,’ he smiles. ‘Now I take you to Bamboo train’

So, off I go to the train. Obviously I am expecting a train. Something similar to the train I may board back home in Oxford. How silly am I?
We arrive at the station after driving down very bumpy roads.
‘Very bumpy,’ I say. I am so innocent. I have no idea that the bumpy roads are nothing compared to the bumpy ride of the bamboo train.
Dang just smiles.
I look around for my train.
‘The train not here yet?’ I ask.
He points to what looks like a water raft.
‘Here bamboo train,’ he says gaily and another man throws a large cushion onto it for me. Oh, good heavens, they can’t possibly expect me to go on that. But, oh yes they do.

Dang explains that the journey will last one hour. I try to visualise myself sitting on this train for one hour but it just doesn’t happen.
‘I come with you?’ Dang asks.
This seems a good idea. I climb onto the train, take a deep breath and off we go. I shall never complain a tuk tuk ride is bumpy again. At one point my handbag jumped up several inches and almost left the train but for Dangs quick reflexes. As I cling onto my bag and camera Dang gives me some background on the bamboo train.
The bamboo train is one of the world’s all-time classic rail journeys. The train clicks and clacks along warped, misaligned rails and 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 to 20km. What to do when two trains going opposite directions meet. In the case of bamboo trains, the answer is simple: one car is quickly disassembled and set on the ground beside the tracks so the other can pass. The rule is that whichever car has fewer passengers has to cede priority.

I would dismally remember this on my return as a monsoon raged about us.
Once I became adjusted to the train I actually found my ride quite exhilarating. Thirty minutes later we stop at a village and climb off. It is here that I hear very loud, haunting music and ask Dang where it is coming from.
‘It is a funeral,’ he tells me and shakes his head. ‘I do not like it.’
I find the music deeply moving and he attempts to translate the words for me. We walk amongst the villagers who bombard me with gifts made from reeds. One ties a home made bracelet to my wrist.

I look uncertainly up at the sky as dark clouds float dangerously towards us.
‘Do you think it will rain?’ I ask Dang.
He however does not profess to be the weather man.
‘I don’t think so but I don’t know.’ he answers.
At that moment the wind comes up so suddenly that we are almost thrown off out feet. The men in charge of my train indicate we should begin making our way back. I am relieved. I wait patiently but nervously as they prepare my train.

I am now keenly aware that I am a solo traveller and that any oncoming train will expect me to disembark, have my train removed from the rails and allow them to pass. This is fine and I am very happy to do this except as we begin our journey back the winds grow stronger and the rain begins to pelt down on me. This really could only happen to me. I quickly pull my cardigan off and try to decide which I should protect the most, myself or my camera. Dang looks at me apologetically and I smile although I feel far from happy. The wind is so fierce that I have to duck constantly to stop the overhanging branches whipping me in the face. And then horror of horrors, I see an oncoming train. I want to cry. Dang nudges me softly.
‘We need to get off train.’
The words I had dreading hearing. My slacks are now stuck to my legs and any hope I had of maintaining some kind of decorum is gone in a flash when I see my cotton top is stuck to me also. I look like an entrant for a wet t-shirt competition. Not quite how one should present oneself while in Cambodia. Within minutes my cardigan is drenched and so is my camera. I slide off the bamboo train feeling quite miserable but not as miserable as poor Dang who looks quite guilty.
‘I’m sorry Lynda,’ he says offering to hold the sopping wet camera.
We wave happily to the Chinese people who pass us on their train and climb back onto ours to continue the wet journey back.

The arrival back at the station (which isn’t a station as such, more a muddy area full of motorbikes) produces such a sense of relief that I almost cry until I see how muddy it is. Visions of myself slipping and sliding to the tuk tuk torment me. I mean, why me?
Luckily Dang helps me and I make it to safety.

At last, I think. We can go back to the hotel. I can dry off and have some dinner. Except… Dang’s tuk tuk is soaked and he can’t get it to start. Oh, no. I shall be stranded here forever. Okay, a bit extreme but I feel highly embarrassed dripping away in front of all these Cambodian men. They obviously take pity on me for several of them attempt to start the tuk tuk. Until finally amidst a cloud of grey smoke, it starts. I let out a long sigh and climb in.
I’m all for adventures but this is taking things too far.

AUTHOR: Lynda Renham-Cook
E-MAIL: lynda [at]


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