With plans to use the tracks for a real railway, the iconic bamboo train looks set to be derailed – though when exactly is unclear
In the nameless hamlet that awaits tourists at the end of the Battambang bamboo train’s single-track line — reached at breakneck speeds on improvised bamboo platforms powered by motorbike engines — the ground is thick with mud and the view of rice fields is obscured by scrubby trees.
Two dozen shacks offer soft drinks, sunglasses and faded T-shirts branded with the slogan “Off the Rails” to the tourists who stop there briefly before making the return trip.
According to Uch Omthiny Sara, director of the Battambang Tourism Department, 80 per cent of visitors to Battambang make the hour-long round trip to this uninspiring village. But it’s the journey, not the destination, that draws them in droves.
“We must have it,” Uch Omthiny Sara said of the stretch of railing. “It’s part of the identity that attracts tourists to come to Battambang.”
But as the locals who have built up a livelihood around the track are all too aware, the days of this unusual tourist attraction are numbered.
The Transportation Ministry is planning to incorporate the land, which technically belongs to the government, into a real train line.
“We have delayed from one year to another year the closure of the bamboo train,” said Ly Borin, director of the Transportation Ministry’s railway department. “Now we are finding partners and investors [for the redevelopment].”
Borin does not yet know where the money for the new commercial track will come from, or where the track will run. Potential deals with the Asian Development Bank and Australian freight company Toll have fallen through.
But for those who live around the track, the reality of the impending closure is beginning to bite.
Srang Samnang, a 34-year-old vendor in the village at the end of the strip, said that the government has started compensating locals and moving them off the land surrounding the track. “If they’ve started doing that, it is really true,” she said.
Samnang’s sister has already received her compensation and moved out, although she received only $400 for a house whose estimated value was $3,000.
But Samnang herself will receive no compensation when the track closes. “It is not a house, I just sell here from a shack,” she explained.
Neither will the drivers.“The people who run the norry [the Cambodian name for the platforms] are illegal because it’s the job of the government to run the train,” said the Transport Ministry’s Ly Borin.
The open platforms are also a health and safety nightmare, as even the drivers admit. “The tracks are getting worse and worse,” says driver Vuthea Rha, referring to the bone-jolting shocks that hit passengers every time the norry crosses between different sections.
In the late afternoon, 47-year-old Rha and his fellow drivers crouched on an out-of-use norry at the start of the rail track, eating fried crickets and drinking rice-wine moonshine out of a plastic water bottle, in which a small cobra was bobbing about.
“The bamboo train can’t continue if it is not fit for use,” he said. His fellow drivers nodded in agreement.
The bamboo train’s popularity with tourists was never planned. Originally conceived in the early 1990s to transport villagers and UNTAC groups to inaccessible areas, the railroad was almost completely abandoned once roads had improved and motorbikes multiplied.
Then, around seven years ago, tourists visiting the otherwise sleepy town of Battambang discovered that the helter-skelter carts offered a thrilling passage through the countryside, and a homespun industry sprung up catering to them.
Now that the railroad looks sure to close, the authorities are determined to ensure that they don’t lose the tourists it has brought.
“We are now discussing finding a place to make a new bamboo train after the old one is closed, but we are struggling to find somewhere suitable,” said the Battambang Tourism Department’s Uch Omthiny Sara.
“It’ll affect tourism if there is no more bamboo train; it’ll affect the people because they could make money from that.”
Recreating the bamboo train is likely to be difficult when so much of its charm lies in its rudimentary appeal: the danger is half the fun, and because the train runs along a single railing, when another vehicle approaches one must hop off (the heaviest load rules the road) and dismantle the entire vehicle. It’s a laborious enterprise, but manna for snap-happy tourists keen to capture the “real” Cambodia.
But the railway department is determined to try. “There is no bamboo train in other countries,” emphasises Ly Borin. “It’s just here in Cambodia, so it’s such a surprise for foreigners to find here and try.”