Cambodia's bamboo express reaches the end of the line
The Khmer Rouge blew up the railway almost every day to cut off transportation."
Battambang has long been famous among tourists for its bamboo trains, simple contraptions consisting of a wood and bamboo platform attached to a set of metal wheels and propelled along local railroad tracks using converted boat engines.
The ingenious machines, called “norries” by locals, are also an important means of transport for Cambodians, and they are used to carry both goods and passengers over short distances.
However, the era of the bamboo train will soon come to a close as the result of agreements signed last year by the Cambodian government with the Australian logistics company Toll Holdings Ltd, and with the private Cambodian company Royal Group.
The companies have been tasked with repairing the country’s entire network of dilapidated railway tracks over the next few years and running them for the next three decades.
The Ministry of Public Works and Transport says that once the repair projects are finished the bamboo trains will no longer be permitted to operate. According to Vasim Soriya, the director of planning at the ministry, this is expected to occur in early 2012.
Touch Chankosal, the ministry’s undersecretary of state, explained why, from the government’s point of view, the bamboo trains cannot be allowed to survive in this brave new world of long-distance train service: “After we complete the repairs of all the tracks and long-distance trains start running again, the norries will not be able to operate because the trains will run many times a day and they will be fast. If a norry is on the tracks when a real train comes along, it will create a dangerous situation.”
This is bad news for the men living near the railway station in Odambang commune, Battambang province, who make their living giving rides to locals and tourists on bamboo trains.
Bon Boch, 62, remembers when the bamboo trains were introduced in the early 1970s by railroad officials who were repairing broken sections of track.
“At that time the only people who used norries were railroad mechanics who used them to go around and take care of the tracks,” he said. “There weren’t many norries then, and they didn’t have motors – the mechanics used long bamboo sticks to push them along, like they were rowing a boat.”
Bon Boch was relocated to Siem Reap province during the Khmer Rouge era, but when he returned to Battambang in 1980 he saw that the bamboo trains were being used to transport Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers to the battlefield.
“They weren’t just owned by train officials anymore. People in Odambang commune were making their own norries using wheels scavenged from tanks destroyed during the war against the Khmer Rouge,” he said.
“They were easy to make, and they were a convenient way to get around because there weren’t many roads in the area back then.”
Since that time boat motors have supplanted bamboo poles as the means of propulsion, but most still use old tank wheels. The wood and bamboo platforms are about two metres wide and three metres long. Bon Boch said his son bought a new one two years ago for about US$500.
Another driver, 38-year-old Nun Nan, said his train can carry up to 15 Cambodians or about 1.5 tonnes of rice. But he said never carries more than eight foreign tourists at a time for safety reasons.
“When we drive, we have to be careful about animals crossing the railway. When my norry is moving fast, it takes at least four or five metres to come to a complete stop when I brake,” he said, adding that despite this he has never had an accident.
He said he carries foreign tourists about twice a day, taking turns with other norry drivers. The rides cost US$10 per person, and less when there is more than one passenger.
“For me there isn’t anything special for tourists to see, just rice fields and bushes along the railway,” Nun Nan said. “I guess they just want to experience travelling on a norry rather than seeing the landscape.”
Because many drivers share the same railway, the norries must be light enough to lift off the track when two trains meet while travelling in the opposite direction. Etiquette dictates that the norry carrying the lighter load is removed from the tracks so the other can pass.
Cambodia has two state railway lines, including a 386-kilometre stretch from Phnom Penh to the Thai border that was completed in 1942 by the French colonial government. The other line, finished in 1969, runs from the capital to Sihanoukville.
A police officer at Odambang railway station, Nou Seng, said the civil war ruined the railways. After the fighting ended, trains could run from Phnom Penh to Battambang only one time a day and at an average speed of only 10 kilometres per hour.
“The Khmer Rouge blew up the railway almost every day to cut off transportation,” he said.
“They put mines under the tracks in many places from Battambang to Kampong Chhnang province. Many steel rails were damaged by the bombs,” he said.
Nou Seng said that despite the problems, trains used to run on the line until last year but have now stopped. Subsequently, bamboo trains now play an even more important role in transporting goods and people.
“But they don’t just serve local people,” he said. “About 30 foreign tourists a day come to the station to ride the bamboo trains.”
One visitor, 28-year-old Laurance Muller from France, hired a bamboo train earlier this month to ride from Odambang to Osralav railway station.
“I wanted to see how the bamboo trains work,” she said. “I’m a tourist so I’m okay with one ride, but I felt upset for the local people when I heard the bamboo trains are going to finish soon.”
A tourist from Australia, Tom Scollon, said he wanted to ride the bamboo train because it’s something that can’t be found in other countries.
“I want to see the bamboo train before everything changes and they don’t exist in Cambodia anymore,” he said.
“I think it’s a very special experience to see this and to ride on it. But I think when it closes it will be a shame for the families that use it, that operate it, and for the local people.”