The motor choked twice, then issued a full-throated roar. Our driver Vanny’s relief showed around the edges of his constant smile. He steered us away from O Dambong Station with its roaming poultry and lounging drivers. We moved faster until the air was an oven blast of hot wind; banana trees and coconut palms became a green blur. We sailed above the warping railroad tracks, slowing to cross ramshackle bridges. Kids reached out for high-fives as we passed.Cambodia’s Bamboo Train:
a monument to human ingenuity in a time of necessity and to entrepreneurship in a time of tourism.
Cambodia’s national railroad was abandoned in the 1970s during the civil war and infamous Khmer Rouge years. Trains started running again in the 1980s, but persistent guerrilla fighting left the country’s infrastructure in ruins. Local roads were deplorable, and many communities became isolated as train service diminished and finally died.
The Bamboo Train was a grassroots solution. Wooden platforms, called norries, were built from materials on hand and driven down the overgrown rail tracks using poles, like gondolas. They carried everything: people, produce, goods for trade. Engines were added in the 1990s, powering the carts with a rubber belt around the back axle.
Battambang’s bamboo train is one of the world’s all-time unique rail journeys. From O Dambong, 3.7km east of Battambang’s old French bridge (Wat Kor Bridge), the train bumps 7km southeast to O Sra Lav along warped, misaligned rails and vertiginous bridges left by the French. The journey takes 20 minutes each way, with a 20-minute stop at O Sra Lav in between.
Each bamboo train – known in Khmer as a norry (nori) – consists of a 3m-long wooden frame, covered lengthwise with slats made of ultralight bamboo, that rest on two barbell-like bogies, the aft one connected by fan belts to a 6HP gasoline engine. Pile on 10 or 15 people, or up to three tonnes of rice, crank it up and you can cruise along at about 15km/h.
The genius of the system is that it offers a brilliant solution to the most ineluctable problem faced on any single-track line: what to do when two trains going in opposite directions meet. In the case of bamboo trains, the answer is simple: one car is quickly disassembled and set on the ground beside the tracks so that the other can pass. The rule is that the car with the fewest passengers has to cede priority.
But norries have been dying a natural death. While roads have improved, the train tracks continue to decay. Now Cambodia’s highways are crammed with motorbikes and cars, and all that’s left of the Bamboo Train is a 7km scrap of track outside the city of Battambang. It is maintained as a carnival ride for tourists; a piece of history still struggling for relevance.
With the advent of good roads, the bamboo train would have become defunct if it hadn't been for its reinvention as a tourist attraction. Yes, it is super-touristy – complete with some very determined children touting bracelets when you disembark at O Sra Lav – but there's no denying that whizzing along the click-clacking rails is a huge amount of fun.
There is talk of upgrading the railway and ending the operation of the bamboo train in the near future, but there are plans to relocate it within the province.