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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Until next time, stay cool and travel safe!