Posts Tagged With: train

Pursat and Battambang, Cambodia

We stopped here in Pursat cos we had a little time to kill before we were due to meet friends who were joining us in Siem Reap. So we popped into Pursat for a couple of days to get a sense of what Cambodia was like away from the tourist hordes. This place is off the tourist route, so much so that when Jill asked the hotel in Phnom Penh to get us a bus ticket to Pursat…they asked…really, are you sure. And again afterwards when heading to the Battambang hotel they kept asking if we were coming from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh…when Jill said Pursat they said “no really, are you coming from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh”.

So we hopped a bus and did the 200kms to Pursat, which was quite a calm and uneventful journey. We got delivered at a rest stop about 2km from town and started to walk to our hotel but the heat of the day, and a vacant tuk tuk got the better of us (mainly me) and I paid a buck to get driven to the hotel rather than lugging the backpacks in high heat and high humidity.

IMG_4261  IMG_20141124_093930  IMG_4267

Jill had us booked into the flashiest joint in town…4 stars…had it actually been 4 stars. It was actually on a par with the 2 star place we stayed at in Phnom Penh. The main difference was that this place had a very nice swimming pool, a feature we used regularly over the 3 days. We went out on the first evening and poked around town (such as it is) and ended up eating at a little roadside joint. A nice meal and some Angkor beer for under $10 for both.

The next day we hit the tourist sites…20 minutes later we were finished. A temple, a market and a garden. We were back to the hotel for a swim and we found the only restaurant listed on trip advisor. It was a pizza joint of all things…and the pizza was good. Not Cambodian good…actually good. We have dipped our toes into the odd western dishes intermittently on this trip and have been disappointed every time…until now. This place served good pizza and the owner was lovely as she hung out chatting while we waited for our food. We found out she was a school teacher by morning and a restaurant owner in the afternoons and evenings. At the end of our meal she offered to give us rides back to our hotel on the back of her motorcycle…but we assured her we could make the 700m walk. In all honesty after a big feed the walk was welcomed.

IMG_4263 IMG_4264 IMG_4266 IMG_4268

Our hotel managed to get Jill into a rage as she sought two bus tickets to Battambang…4 requests and 2 days later still no tickets. She ranted, she raved, she swore, she asked for the manager (who had conveniently gone home)…and we walked down to town (5mins) and got the tickets ourselves…from a woman who spoke zero English…but could still provide better service than the hotel. The next day we took our $3 bus ride to Battambang.

We were picked up from a dirt patch opposite the servo (which passes as the bus stop) by Bodan (pronounced Bowrain) who was to be our personal guide and tuk tuk driver for the next few days. He dropped us at our 2 star joint which was immediately better than our 4 star one (but minus a pool). The owner was waiting to greet us and could not do enough to help. We locked in a 4pm trip to the Bamboo train and dinner afterwards.

IMG_4280 IMG_20141126_165828 IMG_20141126_170449

The bamboo train is a series of small bamboo rafts, for want of a better term, that sit on two railway axles, powered by a law mower engine that run along the out of service railway tracks. Originally this was for transport and goods movement but is now almost entirely for the tourist. There is one track, so if a competing raft comes in the other direction one or other must cede the track. To do this, both drivers pick up the raft, dump it on the side of the tracks, move the wheels and after one has passed then ( hopefully) the other driver will help the raft that ceded back onto the tracks.

WARNING: Jill’s video may induce epilepsy

This was fun. Jill has developed a love for all things train and this was yet another experience for the train journal. As we left our hotel at 4pm this was designed to be a sunset trip with a 30 min tuk tuk ride followed by a 20 min bamboo train ride to a village manned solely by stores (grass huts more than stores) for tourists and a 20 minute bamboo train ride back (pausing for some sunset photos across the rice paddies). I repeat…this was fun.

IMG_4285 IMG_4288 IMG_4295 IMG_4296

The next day we locked in with Bodan for a day exploring the southern areas around Battambang. This included the odd temple, fishing village, bat caves, winery and Wat Banan a run down group of 5 temples atop a hill with about 500 stairs that needed climbing. The best bit was cruising around the real Cambodia in the back of a tuk tuk. The day saw us heading about 50k out of town so we passed actual villages and villagers going about their daily business (not the tourist version at the end of the bamboo train).

The highlight of the day (other than the general immersion in the local lifestyle) was the visit to Phnom Sampeu. This is a series of hilltop temples, a monastery and two Buddhist stupas. The other thing of note was that it was the location of three Khmer Rouge killing caves, which is exactly what you might imagine (especially after reading the Phnom Penh post). These were deep crevasses where people were forced to kneel at the top, were killed and were kicked into the crevass. The one I went into was one where over 10,000 bodies were found.

IMG_4313 IMG_4314 IMG_20141127_111015 IMG_20141127_111831 IMG_20141127_131750 IMG_20141127_133314 IMG_20141127_133602 IMG_20141127_134955

The next day Jill booked us into a local cooking class run by a young Cambodian guy, French trained, chef in his own business (Coconut) that was staffed by his family. A classically trained chef being aided/overseen by his mother (who at times takes the mortar and pestle off him) is funny to watch. He may have all the skills but mum still sometimes knows best. We made 3 different local dishes (spring rolls, Fish Amok and Beef Loklak) and a desert and they were all incredible.

IMG_4329 IMG_4331 IMG_4333 IMG_4332

From here Bodan picked us up and we went touring the north of the city to Wat Ek Phnom an 11th century temple that is hanging on by its fingernails. This place will be rubble before too long. On the way we stopped at some local village businesses like the rice paper factory (underneath somebody’s house) and the fish sauce and fish paste factory. It is said you should never let people see how laws or sausages are made…this goes triple for fish sauce and fish paste.

IMG_4340 IMG_4345 IMG_4344 IMG_4352

These items have distinctive smells…but at the factory (a shanty shed with no walls) watching the filthy conditions, the man kicking the fish into piles, the vats of compressed (by big rocks) salted fish, the 15-20kg catfish having their heads chopped off (to be sold to the crocodile farm down the road), the shrimp, the ass fish that were too small to be eaten. Some things you just never needed to know…this was one of them.

IMG_4334 IMG_4338 IMG_4336 IMG_4337

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bago, Myanmar

We left Mandalay on yet another train journey…the last train journey I was conflicted but after a second nightmare journey all I can say is NEVER get on a train in Myanmar. It is without a doubt the worst experience that you can have. This one was every bit as bad as the last one but did not have the human interaction to rescue it. Our trip began with using half a can of bug spray to kill the 200+ spiders in our sleeper cabin…and the broom from the toilet to rid ourselves of the multitude of webs etc all over our room. Add to this the jumps, bumps and body wracking bits from before and this was another 15 hrs of hell.

We got off the train in Bago in he early hours of the morning to find that English and transport were not as prevalent out in the sticks. We tried to get a cab or a ute or whatever passes for a taxi or transport…we ended up as two fat westerners, with luggage, on pedal trishaws, being driven around by 50kg skinny Asian guys…who had no idea where our hotel was. After a couple of false starts, a rider change for Jill, and me walking up the hill of the bridge cos I was too heavy we got to our hotel.

IMG_3728 IMG_3733 IMG_3736 IMG_20141107_071414

The main reason for coming to Bago was that it was a good launching point to head to the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda more commonly known as the Golden Rock. It is pagoda built on the top of a granite rock that has been covered with gold leaves pasted on by visiting male pilgrims…I say male because women are not allowed near the thing. According to the legend, the Golden Rock which is precariously perched on the mountain is held there by a strand of the Buddha’s hair. It is said that a glimpse of the “gravity defying” Golden Rock is believed to be enough of an inspiration for any person to turn to Buddhism…I on the other hand had different thoughts.

Now to become a Buddha you must reach a level of enlightenment to raise yourself to such a position. To achieve this the bodhisattva (living future Buddha) an aspirant to the full enlightenment of Buddhahood generally become monks and train themselves, through altruistic deeds and meditative effort, to acquire the qualities essential to a Buddha. I have seen a lot of these monks…in a lot of countries…they have shaven their heads and are all bald…but the rock is held up by hair…my thought…how curly was this hair.

IMG_3739 IMG_3750 IMG_20141108_091008 IMG_20141108_091632

The trip to the rock was entertaining enough initially as we cabbed the 100km to get there passing some stunning rural sights along the way.  Upon arrival at Kinpun (the town at the bottom of the hill we were met with our transport to get us to the top of the hill. It was (without word of a lie) a dump truck with rows of seats bolted to the sides which they jammed 6-7 people per row. Five per row would have been relatively comfortable six was silly and seven was just lunacy. Add to this the fact that the rows were so close together that you had to go almost side-saddle to get in and this was less than ideal. Having reached the top there were dudes with bamboo poles and seats offering to carry me up the stairs to get to the rock.. for a very reasonable fee. Before I could formulate an answer I was clipped across the back of the head and told not to even think about it.

IMG_3742 IMG_3756 IMG_20141108_100859

The rock was certainly cool and we headed back to town and had another huge Burmese feast for basically nothing. This was a pattern in this place. We could go out to dinner and have a huge feed, generally washed down with some Myanmar or Dagon lager and we would get change from $10. The next day we locked in to see some of the local sights around town with the skinny old dude who pedalled us to the hotel on day one…but in a motorised transport version this time. By motorised transport it was a Burmese version of a tuk tuk with the same level of suspension as that which existed on the train.

IMG_3761 IMG_3764 IMG_3743 IMG_3782

The first stop was the Kyatkhutwine Monastery which houses about 700 monks. We got lucky and arrived at meal time and wandered through the dining hall being amazed by the size of the rice pots. From here we headed into the kitchen and got a sense of what it took to cater for 700 people on a daily basis. From here we headed to the snake temple which in essence is a small temple with a huge snake. The snake is said to be the 120 year old reincarnation of the former head of a monastery in Hsipaw. In reality it is a massively over fed 7 metre long python.

IMG_20141109_112521 IMG_20141109_112224 IMG_20141108_120410

We hopped around to some lesser pagodas and temples then hit the Shwethalyaung Buddha which is the worlds second largest reclining Buddha at 55m long and 16m tall. Then on to Kyaik Pun Pagoda the home of the Four Seated Buddha shrine. From here we hid in the hotel during the heat of the day before meeting our dude at 5pm for a trip to the Shwemawdaw Paya pagoda, the tallest pagoda in Burma at 114 metres. We got lucky and were here for a festival that saw thousands of people attending and setting up for the after dark festivities.

IMG_3785 IMG_3791 IMG_3792 IMG_3794 IMG_3801 IMG_3803 IMG_3809

This involved the designing and laying out of tens of thousands of little clay pots into words and images and putting in candles for the nighttime lighting. Jill is a bit of a local celebrity here in Myanmar with everyone smiling, grinning and waving at the white woman in the funny hat. I get the hellos and the waves but Jill is by far the star of the show…especially with the kids. At the festival a small boy was on his fathers lap and was excitedly pointing at Jill as if she was a rock star, she noticed and waved which incited a level of excitement rarely seen.

IMG_3807 IMG_3808 IMG_3819 IMG_3830 IMG_3835 IMG_20141109_123436 IMG_20141109_112558 IMG_3776

This kept going for about 10 mins as we looked at the pagoda, the candles and the people generally. By the end the small child was blowing kisses to her and nearly fell over when she blew one back. This level of friendliness here in Burma is ubiquitous. The warmth and welcoming that you receive from everyone is something that must be experienced. Let’s hope that this genuine quality does not get replaced by mercenary overtones once the tourism kicks in.

With Bago finished we hopped a cab back to Yangon  where we spent a night before saying farewell to Myanmar. We had a flight to KL where we crashed for a night and then started the next leg of this little adventure…Laos.

Categories: Myanmar | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Yangon to Bagan

Jill’s new found love of all things train, especially small gauge, came to the fore once again. She booked us on a 17-18 hr train journey (which ended up being almost 20) from Yangon to Bagan. We have had some spectacular rail journeys in the last 12-13 months. The Maglev in Shanghai maxing at 431kph was great, the 24 hr journey to Tibet on the world’s highest railway was also good. The steam train through the Indian blue mountains to Ooty had character as the rack and pin cranked us up the mountains, as did the ones in Shimla and Darjeeling. The beachside journey down the coastline of Sri Lanka was incredible…This one was not.

IMG_3581The first thing that she mentioned was that they were prone to being a touch unreliable and could be running up to 12 hrs late. When we arrived we were met with a 1940’s model (about when the British left) insect and arachnid riddled train. We had the best seats in the house, which was the upper class sleeper…so god knows what the other classes were like. In its defence…it did leave dead on time.

While tourism is quite new to Myanmar it doesn’t take long for people to find an angle and try it on. Before we left the station we had beggars, hawkers, bag carriers and the usual onslaught of people trying to take money from tourists in any way they can. Those on Facebook may have seen my post where we bought 10 beers for $7.10 of course on the train this was now $3 each…ridiculous…who would pay $3 for a 640ml beer (I think I may get a reality check when I get home). Anyway we set off…at half the speed of smell.

At one point I shooed one of the many Mosquitos out the window of the moving train to get rid of it… Bugger me if the thing didn’t fly along next to us taunting me before accelerating and entering the window of the cabin 3 windows in front of us. The train had so much both vertical lateral movement that while seated on my bunk I became airborne, then flew across the cabin and nearly fell out of the window. Yes…I said vertical…somebody decided to build the railway track on sections of the local motocross tracks outside each city and town.

The train hit big sections of speed bumps every 20 minutes or so…so much so that the impact all but caused renal failure as my kidneys decided they couldn’t take it any more and buggered off. Woo hoo…only 17 more hours to go… Fair is fair… Once you leave the city, the landscape is pretty. We are here in winter, just after the end of rainy season and everything is lush and green. And it is fascinating to see just how poor Myanmar is as a nation, as you quite literally pass grass huts…not just the roofs but the whole place, thatched walls and all. Add to this the corrugated iron mansions and you really do get a feel for just how poor a nation Myanmar is.

Within 45 minutes of the sun setting (which was beautiful) the lights had attracted every bug within a 2 mile radius into our cabin. So we had a choice to make…keep the only semblance of breeze by having the windows open or be eaten alive by tiny critters. When a grasshopper the size of my forearm flew in we decided it was time to close the windows. Lathered in anti bug cream and a room fogged with bug spray we tried to sleep.

At 2:30am we stopped and a local man, who could snore professionally, joined us and then left at a local stop at 6am. In a very quick chat before the train stopped…his first words to me were “thank you for visiting my country”. He was replaced by a man we found out was the regional superintendent of the railways. This meant that everyone on the train and every station we got to was kowtowing at every opportunity…so there was a constant stream of people arriving at our door or window saluting and ensuring that all was in order. Add to this the fact that each of them brought food or drinks for the boss.

Needless to say our morning coffee (Nescafé 3 in 1) was all of a sudden free. In a chat the railway king told us that they would be opening a steam train leg that day for tourists…from Bagan for a 3 hr sunrise and sunset journey. He arranged for a personal viewing of the train and photograph session. He commented that he had been to Seoul in South Korea and that their trains were very different…we agreed. He mentioned how smooth the Korean trains were and said that his were more like riding a horse. When he found out where we were staying he offered to help with organising and negotiating our taxi etc. It was 37 degrees when we arrived but felt hotter due to the humidity…did I mention it was winter.

IMG_3587 IMG_3583 IMG_3584

The scenery on the train was lovely and by morning the track had levelled out a bit and was no where near as bad as it had been for the first three hours of the journey. While the train aspect of this journey was hellish…the human interaction with the Burmese people was stunning. My initial thoughts was to recommend that nobody ever takes this journey…find another way to get to Bagan…road, air, horse cart…they all had to be better than this experience. But then you would miss the human interaction with the locals which really made the journey special. Having said that…I was bruised and battered by the time morning had come…

I remain conflicted… I can neither recommend nor dissuade such a journey.

Categories: Myanmar | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Polonnaruwa and on to Galle

After a night of egg hoppers and a couple of beers we woke to make the short hop over to Polonnaruwa. This joint was the capital of the country back in around the 1000 year mark. It was very much like the Hampi trip in India with the various ruins of an entire city spread out over a huge area. The difference was that Hampi was free and this place charged 3250 rupees for the foreigners. Add to this the fact that the military police shook down our guide/driver for a further 500 just added insult to injury.

IMG_20140901_094445 IMG_20140901_103059 IMG_20140901_102745 IMG_20140901_095710   IMG_20140901_122140  IMG_20140901_112210IMG_20140901_112455

The place itself was quite nice…ruins of palaces, temples, cabinet buildings, lotus ponds etc abound. Add to this some stunningly maintained stupas and the obligatory Buddha statues and the place was a good day. The 38 degrees was less than ideal but hey…waddaya do.

IMG_20140901_115223 IMG_20140901_103110  IMG_20140901_103250 IMG_20140901_104659

From here we started the 7 hour drive back to Colombo with Damith who is the calmest and most patient driver on the planet. I guess Buddhism teaches you to be calm and relax. I had been sitting in the passenger seat for three days watching all manner of driving indiscretions take place in front of IMG_2823me. But day three was a shocker…the number of blatantly stupid and downright dangerous things that took place was astounding. I was swearing and commenting about nearly being killed on numerous occasions while Damith merely applied the brake (sometimes vigorously) and waited for whatever the holdup was to clear.

This included speeding busses coming towards us in our lane with no intention of slowing or stopping, tuk tuks pulling out and doing u-turns in front of us while we were doing 100kph, motorbikes swerving all over the road. I tried to describe the meaning and intent of road rage…to a Buddhist…which was met with an “oh really” from our eternally calm driver and guide.

The next morning we woke at 5 am and headed for the railway station for our journey to Galle. Jill had lashed out and spent the $7.98 and bought us first class tickets. We did not hold out a lot of hope when the train arrived but boy were we wrong. The first carriage had curtains pulled across and you could not see inside…every other carriage was jam packed with people spilling out of the train in what resembled a cattle truck. We wandered up to the curtained carriage..

IMG_20140902_062633 IMG_20140902_062821 IMG_20140902_064610

This was a leather seated, air conditioned, serviced cabin with a flat screen TV playing the latest movies and free wifi throughout the carriage. We were met by our dude (I hesitate to use the word butler) who provided hot towelettes to refresh and shortly afterwards the other couple arrived…an entire carriage for the four of us with two service staff. Talk about slumming it.

Now let’s talk about the train ride…this train runs parallel to the ocean for about 3-3.5 hrs as it heads from Colombo to Galle. Our view was essentially water, waves, palm, coconut and banana trees, sand…interspersed with the odd mansion and the regular beach shanty. This was a commute.

IMG_2859 IMG_20140902_070548 IMG_20140902_122302

Galle is a fortified city that has a documented history going back to 1400BC. Wiki tells me that “The modern history of Galle starts in 1505, when the first Portuguese ship, was driven there by a storm, however the people of the city refused to let the Portuguese enter, so the Portuguese took it by force. In 1640, the Portuguese had to surrender to the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch built the present Fort in 1663. They built a fortified wall, using solid granite, and built three bastions, known as “Sun”, “Moon” and “Star”. After the British took over the country from the Dutch in 1796, they preserved the Fort unchanged, and used it as the administrative centre of Galle”.

IMG_2862 IMG_2864 IMG_2871  IMG_20140902_122932 IMG_20140902_123337  IMG_20140902_125946 IMG_20140902_171348

History lesson over the place rocks. It is really touristy (or touristic in the local lingo) but it is still a great spot. The walls and ramparts are incredibly well preserved and there is very little impediment to traipsing all over the thing. Having arrived in Galle we headed for our hotel and had coffee on the breezy terrace while waiting for our room to be ready. A walk around Galle fort and we were almost done. We did a sunset loop around the fort’s ramparts before heading to a local place for 10 curries and rice…for the total price of 950 rupees ($7.66) the price went up to over double that when taxes (and beer) were added…bloody taxes.

IMG_2875 IMG_2869 IMG_2885

Categories: Sri Lanka | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.