On four hectares of land, soon to be expanded to eight, Chan Thai Chhoeung grows grape vines; according to his wife, with whom I managed to communicate somewhat, Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah, imported from California. Just let this one sink in – we are talking about a winery in Cambodia. The Chhoeungs started growing grapes in 1999, for the local market, but it transpired that Cambodians don’t like grapes. So they bought some books – Mrs Chhoeung narrating, now – on how to make wine. They had no external help, and both she and her husband don’t speak a lot of English, yet they managed to establish a production line, complete with oak barrels for the red and stainless steel for the rose. They have no less than three harvests a year, and currently produce some 10,000 bottles from that, red and rose, and also a sweet brandy. At US$ 15 a bottle, the Phnom Banan red doesn’t come cheap, in fact it is considerably more expensive than many imported wines, but that didn’t bother Mrs Chhoeung. And the business must be booming, because she also told me she was now experimenting with white wine, too, a Chardonnay. Beats me, especially because Cambodians don’t only dislike grapes, they are also no great wine drinkers. The tasting – please pay one dollar now, only red wine and brandy, rose is finished –, well, wasn’t impressive, and the bottle we had found earlier in a local shop was off, we had to flush it through the sink.
(1) Those on the left are Cabernet Sauvignon, on the right Syrah… but are these grapes or are these grapes? And that three times a year!
(2) The vines, with netting to protect the grapes from birds cherry picking, and (3) the new plants are carefully being nurtured, might well be the forthcoming Banan Chardonnay.
(4) Mrs. Chhoeung explains it all, in front of her Banan Red and Brandy. She certainly oozes success, although she admitted that she doesn’t drink a lot of wine herself – she doesn’t really like it much.
(5) A bottle of Banan Red, just to convince the last unbelievers…..
Enough about all this adult wine stuff, back to the child in us! Another truly interesting site around Battambang is the Bamboo train, or norri as it is locally called. With the demise of the railway network in Cambodia, story has it that local people initially started to use the single track railway themselves, in the 1980s, to bring goods to the market. They created lightweight bamboo platforms attached to two axels, four wheels, and propelled by manpower, pushing a pole like you punt a boat. The pole was later replaced by a 6 HP engine, a flywheel and a rubber belt, the simplest of mechanics. To overcome the obvious limitation of a single track, the convention is that if two norris meet, the one with the lightest freight is quickly disassembled and taken off the rails, to allow the heavier one to proceed. I have seen it happen, it is really a matter of less than a minute – at least with passengers, real freight will be another story, of course. At one stage more than 1000 norris were in operation on over 600 km of track, but as so often, this mode of transport is in decline. Unless you are a shrewd business man with eye for opportunity: the owner of the Battambang Bamboo railway happily charges every foreigner US$5. He must be make a killing, even if Battambang is not to most touristy place; when we visited, there were at least 30-40 other foreigners using the 6 km track to travel from the village of O Dambang to that of O Sralau and back. Business model: minimal costs for rolling stock, free use of the tracks, and operating costs limited to a couple of norri drivers, a jerrycan of petrol and paying off the tourist policeman who rigorously reinforces the charging structure. But it was worth every cent! An exhilarating experience, racing down the track with what feels like MACH 1, but is probably not more than some 20 km/hour, and a major attack on the body every time the train hits a track connection – the connections are not especially smooth, neither is the track particularly straight.
Unfortunately, it seems that this adventure will soon cease to exist. An Australian company has bought the lease for the rail tracks, and plans to upgrade in order to send real trains down the line, with a speed that doesn’t leave much time for disassembling norris anymore. The price of progress, I presume, but it will make it ever so difficult again to promote Battambang as a tourist location.
(6) These are the building blocks of a norri, simple and effective.
(7, 8, 9) The track, not particularly straight, with railway bridge, with unprotected railway crossing, and with two norris at the platform at the O Sralau railway station (Right!).
(10) And a bunch of excited passengers, trusting their lives to an experienced norri operator.