Our cycling for Day 3 started in Battambang, a small city about a 3 and a half hour bus journey from Siem Reap. It is the second largest city in Cambodia, and yet was off the tourist trail until relatively recently. Our guide, Lot, told us to expect a relatively quiet city, but we discovered on arrival that our trip coincides with the regions celebrations for the Water Festival, a 3 day party which marks the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap river. Everyone living in the area has descended on Battambang to take part in the festivities. Its a great atmosphere, but makes for some tricky city cycling!!
After yesterday’s epic ride, today was a recovery day, covering 35kms of Cambodian countryside out to the famous Bamboo Train. We’d all been feeling a bit exhausted, but our spirits were lifted on our way to Battambang by Emma, who sang and played her banjo (great forward thinking Emma re the banjo!!). And once we were back in the saddle we were focused and happy to be back out in the countryside, saying our hello’s to the local kids.
The road brought us to an old wire-and-wood bridge over the river. Getting in touch with our inner child, we processed in single file, at great speed across, loving the experience!
The Bamboo Train, built on a now defunct old French rail line, used to run cargo and passengers along the train line. The ‘train’ consists simply of a bamboo and metal frame, a set of bogies either end and a gasoline-powered engine.
As there’s a single set of tracks, when you meet a train coming in the other direction, the train with the least passengers have to dismount and the drivers lift the train off the tracks to allow the other train to pass. A simple but effective system!
After our train ride it was time for a quick 10kms back to the city. The sun started to set and the temperature cooled. Perfect!
We had a treat in store for us in the evening – a home cooked dinner at a local family’s house. Sambath and his wife provided us with a truly delicious meal and some interesting refreshments (rice wine with cobra’s blood anyone??), but the highlight for me was the opportunity to hear Sambath’s story.
Sambath was born in 1970, into war. He told how his mother had to hide with his siblings in a bunker when she was heavily pregnant with him because bombs were being dropped overhead. And he told of some of his memories from the Pol Pot era. Of being sent out to work in the rice fields aged 8, of being so hungry he and the other kids would have to search for scraps and leftovers. These stories are so recent and its remarkable that our experience here has been to see wonderfully happy and welcoming people.
Sambath told us that tourism has changed his life. He used to live in the countryside and was extremely poor. He had a dream though and came to Battambang to be a taxi driver. At first he earned $1 a day, at best. And then one day the tourists started coming. He remembers the first day he earned $6 and he still speaks of it with absolute glee and wonder. Now, his determination and entrepreneurial spirit see him with his own tourist business, doing tours, home-stays, and home-cooked dinners. He has been able to send his children to university as a result, providing them with a different future.
It was important for us to hear Sambath’s story. To appreciate the poverty and vulnerability that are very present in Cambodia. Sambath’s story of leaving his village to find his fortune has a happy ending, but we know from IJM’s work here that there are many men who do the same thing but are trafficked into the Thai fishing industry and forced to work in horrendous conditions, separated from family indefinitely. And that is why we are all here. We are raising funds for IJM Australia so that they can continue their work, rescuing people from slavery and holding the perpetrators to account. So far we have raised $87,413.31 for IJM and the fundraising isn’t over! If you would like to make a donation you can do so here – https://give.everydayhero.com/au/team-wk