Cambodia is a lot of things. Predictable is not one of them. If you're here long enough - we're here a month - you get to know a bit how things work. That's unpredictably.
The transportation systems continue to amaze me. Reluctant to traverse more roads - the last four trips after the Camby blow-out have been on water - I bought a boat ticket in Siem Reap for Battambang, the country's second city. I'm going there to see the railroad which, form what other travelers say, is one of those unique experiences that overshadow the hassles of travel and force the latter to fade in memory. What I enjoy most about travel is that it almost never bores, though at times it can be monotonous. Travel perfection for me is achieved if every experience becomes unique; I'd like each time on the road or water to be memorable even if my memory itself is not so accommodating these days.
The day of the Battambang cruise begins with a 6 am van pick-up at the guesthouse. The van is overcrowded; women must sit on their partner's laps so the rest of us can cram in sufficiently for the van door to shut. A botulistic can of sardines conveys the image. It takes 45 minutes over a dirt lousy-even-by-Cambodian-standards track to reach the port. If 'port' conjures up Long Beach or Rotterdam, erase that thought. The track ends at an inlet, the floating version of a K-Mart parking lot that hosts a Sunday flea market.
Two large flash boats await, just like the one we took 5 days before from Phnom Penh, to whose roof deck I clung for 5 hours because seats were oversold (Initially police prevented 50 of us from going up on the roof on grounds of safety, but they disappeared, we climbed atop and as we pulled away we spotted the safety policy looking the other direction.). Those boats were in fact going to Phnom Penh. Instead I am directed to step across first one boat and then the other and then motioned to go around a fisherman's stilted hut to the pier where two rowboats have docked. I look at my US $ 14 ticket with an image of a high speed cabin cruiser and compare it to these vessels, each which has a 40hp Yamaha outboard sagging over its stern. I choose the lesser of two evils - the dingy with a cushion on the seat plank. Our packs are loaded aboard and as we are about to sink, another vessel arrives. We are immediately off loaded; our former places are taken by six unfortunates from the cushionless boat (They no doubt consider themselves fortunate to now have cushions.) Our new craft, although not resembling its marketing shot, has 8 rattan cushioned armchairs, a plywood and tin roof and an engine that looks like it might have been assembled in a motor mechanics class in high school shop. We depart at 7:45, only 45 minutes late. It takes 7 1/2 hours to cover 100+ kilometers of low-water river. I didn't know there were so many ways to catch fish!
Why was I in Siem Reap in the first place? The same reason virtually every tourist goes to Siem Reap: it is the jumping off place for the Angkor reserve, a 310 sq. km area which includes a thousand ruins and monuments which are the vestige of the Khmer civilization that ruled this part of the world a millennium ago. Angkor was opened to tourism big time about a decade ago after little access during the war years. The operation is overseen by UNESCO, which lists Angkor among its World Heritage sites (http://www.unesco.org/whc/heritage.htm). Today, teams from France, Italy, Japan, China and the World Monuments Fund undertake preservation work. The 5-person team from Beijing, for example, are restoring the Chau Say Tevoda shrine. Having already removed and renumbered the existing stones, they are in the process of cutting more stones and rebuilding with original materials and techniques (a method called anastylosis). It is expected to take 4 years and cost US $2 million.
I describe Angkor simply with one word: magnificent. It does not disappoint. But for me it is not the past that makes Angkor special, but rather what it says about the future. Given our mortality, we humans are not able to see far into the future and by many of our actions we seem not to care about it either. Angkor suggests to me what will become of today's western civilization whose role of world domination, I suspect, will be one day assumed by Islam or China, or whatever culture becomes the planet's next overlord.
Why the trip to Battambang? What railroad could attract any half-sane person as myself who should otherwise head directly for the beaches of Thailand that are more or less in the neighborhood? The track for this railroad is the single set of rails used by the Phnom Penh - Battambang freight/passenger service. For a distance of about 40 kms south of Battambang, villagers use it too. Local entrepreneurs have put together carts, powered on the rails by gasoline engines, which are connected to the rear axle by a fan belt. A wooden frame covered by bamboo slats fits over two axles, each of which weighs 50 kilos. All in all, three removable parts. When a big train approaches, the 'silly train' as it is dubbed by locals, stops, removes its cargo, dissembles, lets the big train pass, reassembles itself and reloads passengers and freight, all in about 90 seconds. When two silly trains meet, the lighter one must yield to the heavier, replicating the process described above. These trainettes can get up to 40 kph. Fares are bargained and tend to vary during the day. The direction with more traffic commands a higher fare. Occasionally, a silly train meets a track maintenance crew, which accepts an honorarium of a few cents before they let it pass. Cambodia in microcosm. Wishing you a prosperous lunar new year, Kung Hay Fat Choy from