Development of a new national railway will force these cheap forms of
transport known as lorries, which have plied the Kingdom's dilapidated
rails for more than 40 years, out of business
Pheap Bonnary, 23, a Pursat native, has been a lorry driver for three years.
IT is sunrise in Pursat and the air is cool in the early morning, fresh before the heat of the day. Although it is still dusky, hunched figures can be seen on the breaking horizon, making their way for the rail tracks barely discernible in the bumpy ground.
At 6am the bamboo horse is about to leave the station.
The bamboo horse is a simple two-metre by four-metre platform powered by a boat motor and mounted on the old railway tracks, and they have been serving the Phnom Penh to Battambang line for 40 years. It doesn't have walls, doors or seats, but it's cheap, and more reliable than the infrequent and expensive train, which has not been updated since the days of French rule.
Ouk Sophal has been driving bamboo trains since 1983, and says the local people call them "lorries".
"When I began my business in 1983, I had only a few lorries. Now my fleet is 60 strong. One lorry can carry 15 passengers and we run every day except for when the trains run," he says.
Bamboo horses are illegal in Cambodia, but has refused to be defeated, as it's the cheapest and sometimes only means of transportation available to poor and isolated peoples. Tickets generally sell for between 1,000 riels (US$.25) and 5,000 riels, and the service runs along the edge of the Tonle Sap lake to Battambang.
By demand, services are sometimes extended to Phnom Penh.
"We learned this craft from the old people, and it's a saviour for the poor and those living in rural areas, who could not travel otherwise," Ouk Sophal says.
We learned this craft from the old people...Who could not travel otherwise
"Every day I collect people from where roads cannot get to and take them to the markets and town and back. My service is better than the train, and it is the only transport they can afford."
Sign of the times
The railway system in Cambodia was constructed in the 1920s by the French, but quickly fell into disrepair after their departure. Without proper maintenance, tracks rusted and buckled, although some services have continued operation - most crucially between Phnom Penh and the port of Sihanoukville, which is used by the fuel giant Sokimex to transport petroleum.
In its current state, the railway earns only $2 million a year transporting 350,000 tonnes of goods and 500,000 passengers. But this is soon set to change.
The government has contracted maintenance of the railway to an Australian company - Toll Holdings - which is charged with upgrading the system and keeping it in working order for the next 30 years.
The Cambodian government and Toll Holdings will share revenue, and the government hopes to earn up to $40 million a year from the deal, which was finalised this week.
The upgrade will take up to three years to complete and see trains increase their speed from 30km per hour to 50km per hour. The upgrades will allow for Cambodia's inclusion in the Asean rail system, which will eventually run between Kunming, China, and Singapore.
But the planned upgrade spells doom for the bamboo horse and the possibility of cheap travel for those who use the service.
Ouk Sophal is worried.
"We have heard there is a new train system coming, and this will mean the end of our business. This is going to be a big problem for us, I have invested a lot of money in the lorries, probably a total of $1000," he said. "Will I get compensation? I am not against development but I want the government to consider the poor people in this situation. How are we going to get by without this service?"
Choup Veasna, chief of the Rail Department in Pursat province, says despite the bamboo horses being illegal, he turns a blind eye to their operations, as he recognises their importance to the poor, and those living in remote rural areas.
"I like the bamboo horses, I have ridden them myself, but when the new train service begins they will have to stop. The new train service will be fast, regular and cheap; it will be a service for all Cambodians."