Riding Bamboo Rails ~ The Bamboo Train, Battambang, Cambodia

Portrait: Khmer man with norrie motor behind him

Driver ~ Bamboo Train

Take isolated communities growing rice and raising cows and chickens in rural Cambodia where few roads reach, and you have a need. Take some rail track in disrepair, a bamboo raft and a small motor and you have a solution.

Meet “The Bamboo Railway”: the ear-splitting, bone-rattling, wind-in-your-hair, bushes-in-your-face solution to transporting goods and people from Battambang to points south and back again.

Small motor on a bamboo platform

The "Norry" or Bamboo Rail Car is Powered by a Small Motor

Blue metal wheel on a track

Metal Wheels on the Rail Line

Bent rusty metal rail ties

Holding the whole thing together with bent metal rail ties...

Portrait: Male Khmer smoking, in a straw hat

The Smoking Man: Our Driver is a Cool Dude

During their colonial rule, the French put 400 miles of rail line across Cambodia, but the years of war, civil war, and general instability since they departed the country in 1953 have taken their toll. Although the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by the Vietnamese in early 1979 after a four-year reign of terror, they continued to wage guerrilla war throughout the country into the late 1990s, making the railway one of their targets. They planted land mines along the rail lines (and elsewhere, of course) and frequently ambushed trains. Conventional trains have run only irregularly for years, and passenger trains stopped completely over a year ago. Since the first rails were laid in the 1920s, ingenious locals have braved the hazards of oncoming locomotives and potential mines to use the lines to advantage.

Our trip to the railway had been organised by our able photo-tour/workshop leader Karl Grobl. We left our comfortable beds at our delightful hotel in Battambang at six am – that’s six am – and climbed into local tuk-tuks to arrive at the local ‘train station’ – a loose collection of bamboo and wooden buildings on a dusty road – in time to watch the ‘norries’, or rail-riding platforms, be put together. It’s simple really:  lift two metal wheels welded to an axle wide enough to fit the rails onto the track in pairs. Rest a bamboo platform on top. Fix a small motor to the rear axle with a fan belt that passes through a hole in the bamboo, and you are set. Passenger ‘norries’ come with a cushion for comfort – if you are lucky.

Close-up: Norry motor and fan-belt, Battambang

All you need is a small motor, a fan-belt and a little push, and you are off!

Khmer man in purple shirt driving a norry, Battambang

Speed! We rattled and bumped, being whacked by bushes, at speeds of up to 50km/hour.

Wavy rail lines through green overgrowth.

As rail lines weave and wobble toward the norry in the distance, goods wait at the side of the track.

Flooded rice patties, Battambang

Endless rice patties, Battambang Province

Apparently, you can ride bamboo trains all the way to Phnom Penh. I have no idea how far we went because none of the ‘towns’ we stopped were signposted in English, and I know they are not on my map. We bumped past countryside uninterrupted by roads, enjoying the cooling wind in the already hot, humid morning and getting a wonderful view into a world less-travelled by tourists. Everywhere we stopped, people were happy to come out to greet us, and to allow us to photograph daily life.

Two khmer girls with a kitten

A kitten and her friends welcome us to some small hamlet in Battambang Province

Silhouetted person carrying rice on a dirt road.

Light ~ Dark ~ Heat : Bringing in the Rice

Woman washing dishes in a bowl outside a corrugated iron house

Washing the Morning Dishes

Portrait: Khmer woman

This woman keeps the accounts at the local rice storage shed.

Khmer people in a trailer

Piled Passengers in a Tractor Transport

Khmer man and woman in a corrugated iron shop-front

Small Town Shopkeepers

Khmer woman washing laundry at the roadside

Roadside Laundry. Note the glass bottles of gasoline/petrol behind her.

Machine husking rice, Battambang

Hulling the Rice Harvest

Khmer man cutting hair under a tin roof

Local Barber Shop

To accommodate two-way traffic on a single line, Norry courtesy dictates that when two carriages meet, the one with the lighter load leaves the track. Drivers and passengers pitch in to disassemble and reassemble the norries to allow passage. This process was surprisingly quick.

A norry (rail car) loaded with bags and people, Battambang

"Incoming!" An over-loaded norry gets right of way...

A bamboo platform at the side of of the bamboo railway, with two Khmer people.

The lighter load stands aside, off the tracks, to allow passage.

An empty norry (bamboo rail car) at the side of the tracks, Battambang

Tourist norries are easy to off-load, as there is nothing on them but people!

Putting a bamboo train together, battambang

Rebuilding the norry takes only a few moments.

Cows on a rail track, Battambang

No whistle... No bell... The only choice is to wait until the cows wander off...


Wobbly wooden rail ties, Battambang

"Don't look down!"

The Bamboo Railway is technically illegal, and clearly there is no Occupational Health and Safety committee supervising its operation! There is rumour that the rail line is going to be repaired and ‘proper’ trains will run again. But, this is Cambodia, and these things take time…. Until the repairs happen, the norries and their resourceful drivers are filling a local need and bringing in tourist dollars.

Shadow of three people agains moving grass

Riding the Rails!

I had a wonderful morning ‘riding the rails’, but as soon as we stopped moving, the heat and humidity enveloped us like a fog. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t yet 8:30am. The six am start to our day was starting to make sense, and I could only sympathise with those who had to ride the bamboo rails through the midday heat.

Text: Safe Travels! UrsulaUntil next time, stay cool and travel safe!




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