When two 'bamboo trains' meet, above, etiquette dictates that the driver with the smallest load should remove his lorry from the track, allowing the more heavily laden one to pass. Everyone pitches in, heaving the platform to one side, and lifting both pairs of wheels off the track
ifteen minutes out of bustling Battambang, the landscape rapidly becomes rural.
Traditional stilt homes dot a countryside of rice paddies, fish ponds and rickety
bridges. Bony water buffalos graze in desiccated farmland, longing for the monsoonal
Slicing through this rustic reality, is a gleaming railway - a lifeline for the area's
rural population. The French constructed the single-track railway in the 1920s to
carry coffee and bananas to Phnom Penh.
Once it ran from Poipet through Sisophon and Battambang to Phnom Penh. From there
another line was built to Kampot, and ultimately to Sihanoukville.
During the Khmer Rouge era the tracks became overrun with jungle. The stretch of
track from Sisophon to the border was destroyed, but in recent years the remaining
railway was cleared of vines - and land mines - making it functional once again.
A government train runs once a day, from Phnom Penh to Battambang one day, then back
again the next.
Today, people pull up by the old line and wait. Nearby, children make a game out
of a chore, heaving a pile of firewood into a makeshift wheelbarrow. A gaggle of
women busy themselves with baskets of fruit. Merchants huddle together, exchanging
money and unloading ox carts. An old man chews tobacco and watches the comings and
goings, sheltering himself from the searing midday sun beneath a dilapidated hut.
"The hut was once the south end of a large, busy train station but it was torched
by the Khmer Rouge," says moto-driver Seth. It must have been elegant in its
There is no distant toot of an oncoming train or the sound of its wheels drumming
on the tracks. Today's state-owned train has come and gone. The locals are waiting
for a "lorry" an improvised vehicle made of ad hoc equipment like the remnants
of ancient Russian tanks.
The lorry is a metal frame with a 2-by-3-meter bamboo platform, sitting atop two
steel axles with cast iron wheels at either end. These "bamboo trains"
used to be punted along by bamboo poles, but this one is powered by a small motorboat
engine, latched on to the rear wheels and fuelled by gasoline purchased in whisky
bottles at pit-stops along the line.
Despite flouting Cambodia's railway regulations, the "bamboo trains" are
a necessity for rural Cambodians who, in the absence of decent roads, rely on the
service to ferry their families and goods along the existing tracks.
It takes about 30 seconds for the driver to assemble the lorry and place its wheels,
platform and motor on the track. Ten passengers clamber aboard and sit cross-legged
with their cargo piled precariously high behind them. The motor cord is wrenched,
it revs, and the lorry speeds off towards Phnom Penh, hiccuping over the numerous
kinks and bends in the line.
Once the lorry has left the station, another driver, Cheang Haffas, and his two young
charges beckon more passengers forward. The $4 fare paid, and a motorbike propped
on the back, in an instant the "bamboo train" is rattling away at a furious
pace - an insistent clanging ringing through the air. The spine jars as the train
flies over the first of many knots in the line. Hurtling past paddy fields and hamlets
at about 40 km/h, passengers try to balance themselves on the stiff bamboo sticks.
Clearly, the lorriess were made for speed, not comfort.
With the government's train running only once a day there is little danger of collision.
But then something appears on the horizon. A second "bamboo train" is swiftly
approaching from the opposite direction. Both lorry drivers coast to a halt and size
each other up. Etiquette dictates that the one with the smallest load should remove
his vehicle from the track, allowing the more heavily laden one to pass. Haffas'
vehicle has fewer passengers, but the bike is bulky. Without a word, the other lorry
is dismantled, and Haffas' vehicle proceeds on its way.
A short time later, Haffas confronts another vehicle coming the other way, groaning
under the weight of 13 women and children.
Haffas clearly should yield, but eager to get to his destination, he refuses to budge.
Leaning over, the aging matriarch on the other lorry cuts an intimidating figure.
Such a confrontation is rare.
Eventually Haffas relents. Everyone pitches in, heaving the platform to one side,
and lifting both pairs of wheels off the track. When the way is clear, the opposing
vehicle rolls on past, the old woman cackling up front. Two monks follow in hot pursuit,
laughing and waving as they speed towards Phnom Penh with their saffron robes billowing
The popularity of the bamboo trains irritates the government, which issues a regular
stream of circulars labelling the makeshift transport dangerous and illegal. So far,
its attempts at policing the railways have been futile. However, several Southeast
Asian countries have voiced support for the construction of a railway linking Singapore
to southern China. Although funding is yet to be confirmed, some say this could spell
the end for bamboo trains.
But Haffas says he and his fellow drivers will stubbornly continue. "As long
as people need my service, and I can earn my family a good living, I will be here,"