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Last whistle for the bamboo train

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Twigs and leaves lashed out against our outstretched legs as the rickety bamboo train sped through the thickets.

The wind was warm as it hurried past our ears and for one thrilled moment my companion and I looked at each other before excitedly exclaiming ‘Cambodian rollercoaster!’.

We hopped on the bamboo train, or as the locals call it the Nori, in a quiet area about 10 minutes by tuk-tuk from Battambang town. You don’t even need to know its exact location; most tuk-tuk drivers will know where to take you if you tell them “bamboo train”.

“Go early in the morning,” one tuk-tuk driver warned us, “9am. Too hot any later.”

We disregarded his advice, and arrived at the “train station” just before midday. We quickly second guessed this choice as we stepped out of the cool tuk-tuk shade. The heat beat down on our heads and swatted our skin. Luckily, a Cambodian family had set up shop near the trains, selling cold-drinks, snacks, scarves, kramas, t-shirts and other knick knacks to lure tourists.

After 10 minutes of haggling, we bought colourful kramas for US$2 apiece, $1 less than the asking price. Unfortunately, we were less successful bartering the price for a bamboo ride. It cost $5 per person with a minimum of two. If travelling solo, expect to cough up $10 a ride.

The train, which is like a motorised, bamboo version of Aladdin’s magic carpet, sat knee high off the ground. Two axles, parallel to each other, had wheels at their ends, which lodged onto the rails. A fairly sturdy rectangular board made from bamboo sat on top of the axels.

At the back of the bamboo board was a generator to power the train. A grass mat on top of the bamboo was our seating arrangement. There were no hand railings, except for one rail at the front and one at the back, only a couple inches higher than the bamboo board itself.

We jumped on the train, kicked off our shoes, wrapped the kramas around our heads to protect us from the sun and sat cross-legged on the grass mat, quite like Aladdin would do on his magic carpet.

Just before our driver roared the generator into live, five middle-aged Cambodian men hopped on the train behind us – which we were later grateful for. The train picked up speed fast, and soon we were rattling our way through the landscape. The ride is jolty; the rails don’t align themselves perfectly.

Trouble arrived when another bamboo train came from the opposite direction, but it was short-lived. Both trains reduced their speed before drawing to a stop in front of each other. One train has to be dismantled to let the other train pass by. The general rule of thumb is the train with the most passengers gets right of way and the train with the least passengers must disassemble and then reassemble.

Our power in numbers meant we got to watch from the comfort of our grass mat as other train, with the help of our driver, lifted the bamboo board off its axles and put it near the bushes on the side of the rail. Next, off came the axles, also to be put aside with the bamboo board.

The process was surprisingly quick: no more than a few minutes. After 20 minutes, give or take, of driving, stopping, dismantling, reassembling, driving, we reached the end of our track.

Some people call the Cambodian families who live near the rail lines, “rail people”. Families competitively entertain tourists as they rest before taking the train back. One family stood out. We sat in their shade. They offered cold-drinks, fruit and fans made out of cardboard to cool and refresh us.

The children wooed passengers by giving them rings and bracelets made from bamboo leaves. One little boy donned a pair of glasses made out of twigs and bamboo leaves and happily pranced between passengers saying, “Look at my designer sunglasses. They cost $100, how much did yours cost?”

Despite the bamboo trains offering tourists and locals, a unique experience, there is uncertainty as to how long they will be around. Plans are underway to remove the tracks to make way for a road, though no one seems to know when.

Siman, 24, one of vendors taking care of passengers in transit, told us the rails would be removed to make way for motorbikes. “They will take the tracks down to put a road in for motorbikes. We don’t know when they will take the tracks down, maybe in a few months, but we don’t know.”

Her family were eager for the tracks to be removed. “We are not worried to lose money from tourists, we have farm we take care of,” she said. Tourists were simply an enjoyable past time, especially for children, she said.  

Time is running out for a joyride on the bamboo train.

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