The village of O’Dam Bang II is famous for its bamboo, but this is no place for panda fodder. Rather, it’s the starting point for Battambang’s big tourist attraction: the bamboo train.
Villagers have used the norry, consisting of a bamboo deck placed on two axles powered by a small engine, to transport goods for almost 20 years. Recently, however, the train has become much more of a tourist attraction than a mode of transport.
“Now tourism is more than local transport,” says Pek Toeung, 60, who is in charge of the 23 norry drivers.
“Everyone has other types of transport, like motos or cars, so it’s easier than bamboo trains.”
Tourists pay either US$10 (for two) or $15 (more than two) for the 14-kilometre return trip to the village of O’Sralov. For that, they have the privilege of sitting on the bamboo deck with, if they’re lucky, a bit of matting for comfort.
The 23 bamboo-train drivers work in a syndicate, with each one taking charge for a day. Today is Pek Toeung’s turn.
“When the tourists come, I get $10 and I give 8,000 riel ($2) to hire a driver,” she says. “The rest of the time they [the other drivers] hire me.”
Pek Toeung is one of only two women in the syndicate, although she delegates the driving part of the job to her son.
Work is precarious.
“Each month, I earn between $50 and $60,” says Ob Ti, 30, one of the drivers. “In the high season, we can make two or three trips, but now I will get only one or two trips.”
Ob Ti has driven his norry for 15 years. Having paid for petrol, he makes about $1 profit on each trip. This means that the one day he’s in charge of the syndicate is very important. If that day happens to be rainy and tourists decide to go elsewhere, he will go penniless.
“When that happens, it’s a very bad day for me,” Ob Ti says. “I have no money for the month.”
But Ob Ti and Pek Toeung are living on borrowed time, because the bamboo train is destined to become obsolete with the upgrading of the main Phnom Penh-to-Battambang railway line, on which the norries now run.
“Officials have informed us that they will close this form of transport in June,” Pek Toeung says. “Then we will find other work to do. I might work on a plantation.”
Some drivers have already received $250 in compensation, but others are destined to miss out.
“They will give compensation only to the seven cart drivers who are registered. The rest did not register, so they do not get any compensation,” Pek Toeung says.
Pek Toeung and Ob Ti have already received compensation. Pek Toeung used her money to upgrade the engine for her train, which she can use as a generator for her home or to pump water.
Although Pek Toeung says she will work on a farm as a casual labourer once the tracks are closed, Ob Ti doesn’t know what he will do.
“I will work on a farm, or be a construction worker or a motodop driver,” he says. “I can do all kind of work.
“But if they don’t close the train, I can survive for ever.”
INTERPRETER: RANN REUY