Battambang is a three hour bus ride south-west of Siem Reap and in many respects it's the hidden jewel of Cambodia. In the last 48 hours we've travelled on the bamboo railway, toured the local countryside and been to a circus show!
The bamboo railway is one of the highlights of a stay in Battambang. The 'train' is made of a bamboo platform which sits on two sets of wheels, with power supplied by a small motor. You rattle along a railway track through the countryside for about 20 minutes before stopping at the 'station' where you're met by three generations of the same family with the children eager to show you their skills at weaving grasshoppers, bracelets, rings and stars out of bamboo leaves
The return trip is much the same but the highlight is when two trains meet on the track. Protocol dictates that the train with the lighter load gives way. In practice this means dismantling the train completely and lifting it to the side of the track whilst the other train passes. The train is then reassembled back on the track and off you go again!
The countryside around Battambang is described as being 'National Geographic' photography worthy. To us it looked little different to much of the countryside we had already driven through. That said you can't help but stumble across photo opportunities such as one of the few suspension bridges in Cambodia which moves under your feet as you walk across. It therefore takes a degree of skill to ride a scooter across, particularly when your laden down with cargo as everyone seems to be here!
We also saw a number of older men covered in tattoos designed to protect them against evil spirits and harm during the various wars that have ravaged the country in the last 40 years. At least it worked for them
As luck would have it we arrived in Battambang on the same day as the weekly circus performance was taking place. We drove out into the middle of nowhere and then suddenly turned into what looked like a farmyard. What we found was an arts centre, a 'big top' circus tent and a welcoming bar (aren't they all!)
We were treated to a high energy, highly skilled and very entertaining show. If you ever wanted to run away to the circus this would be the one! The circus is supported by a local NGO, Phare Ponleu, which gives children from deprived backgrounds the opportunity to channel their energies into learning circus skills and other artistic activities whilst raising their awareness of HIV/Aids, children's rights and land mines. The project has been such a success that two members of the troupe have been given scholarships with the Cirque de Soleil in Montreal!