P and I set off to the small town of Pursat to get a feel for a more rural part of Cambodia. Despite being detailed in our guidebook, Pursat was a great place to get away from the regular tourist trail a little. No-one at our guest house spoke more than a couple of words of English, I had issues conveying the notion of “No meat, no fish – I’m vegetarian” at each restaurant we visited and every kid we passed seemed to be inordinately excited to see us walk by.
To get a real Cambodian experience, we decided what better way than to take a ride on the bamboo train. This refers not to a train making its way through a bamboo forest, but actual carriages made from wood. However, I use the word ‘carriages’ with caution, as in reality they are mere platforms of a few planks tied together, set upon wheels and powered by a motorcycle engine. Used by locals to get around the countryside, these great little cars run up and down old single-track railways that are rarely used these days except for the occasional freight train. While we wanted a true local experience, in reality this is quite hard to achieve when none of the locals driving speak English (my Khmer was at that point limited to ‘Hello’ and ‘Thankyou’). So instead of just hoping for one to pass and hopping on, we on settled paying $10 for a trip down the tracks with a whole bamboo platform to ourselves. Bearing in mind that this is a form of public transport to those living in the area, the locals did appear slightly bemused at the fact that we just wanted to drive down and back with no specific destination. I suppose it was a little like getting a guided tour of the tube, just to see how local Londoners do things.
Nevertheless, it was well worth it and we really did get a sense of the area in so many ways.
To begin with, the landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. Chugging through the countryside away from any roads meant we were met with unbroken vistas of fields and trees, with the occasional wooden house built on stilts. We saw water buffalo wallowing in paddy fields, dirt tracks deserted except for the odd duck and secluded wats (temples) rising above trees in the distance.
Apart from the small engine propelling us along, there was not another motorised vehicle in sight, so the air felt wonderfully fresh. A deep breath in brought the scents of leafy trees, humid air blown across the fields and the occasional odour of manure – we were in the countryside after all.
Then there was the sound of the train. If you’ve ever thought a train was loud as it drives past, try sitting just a foot or so above the tracks as it chugs along. The clack-clack of the wheels across the track are amplified to a deafening roar, so that your ears are inundated with the noise of the carriage.
Some people might say that it is hard to experience a place through touch, but I would argue that after a little while of sitting on the bare bamboo slats of the platform, my bum definitely had a feel for how Cambodians travel. Forget railroad tracks being the epitome of the straight and parallel, these things had some definite wobbles to them. We were jolted up and down, swaying from side to side as the wheels rumbled over ancient lines. Built for larger trains intended to travel at a greater velocity than we were capable, curves in the track had a slight tilt. This meant that as we rounded corners the whole thing lurched alarmingly towards the ditch. While bamboo trains are eminently practical, travelling down a single track also had the unfortunate disadvantage of only allowing one bamboo carriage to run at once. If you meet another train driving in the opposite direction, you have the felicity of experiencing a walk into the bushes, as the whole apparatus is taken apart and moved to the side to allow the other pass by.
As for taste – after a few hours with the sun beating down on you, not much beats a juicy mango fresh from the tree.