A ride on Cambodia’s bamboo train
The bamboo railway isn’t exactly the Orient Express, a French TGV or a German ICE train. It’s basically a wooden bed frame on wheels, powered by something like a lawnmower motor. These contraptions are held together by nothing but the force of gravity. You clearly see that about 2′ 15″ into the youtube clip I’ve added at the bottom of this post.
Bamboo trains can reach speeds of up to 40 km/h – pretty scary, if you ask me, but also a lot of fun as long as no one gets hurt.
The bamboo trains have been running in Cambodia since the 1980s. Those were the days just after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge. The country’s roads were mined or in disrepair, trains didn’t run any more and air travel wasn’t affordable for the average Cambodian.
In the beginning, these “norries”, as the locals call them, were pushed with long poles – pretty much like the gondolas in Venice. Now, they’re propelled by motors.
The problem for the conductor of these “trains” is that all of Cambodia’s railway connections are single-track lines. So if someone comes from the other direction, either one party gets off the tracks or there’s an ugly crash.
In the days when the official railroads connected Cambodia’s major cities, train schedules prevented such incidents. But when the bamboo trains started, they didn’t run according to schedule: everyone just used the tracks whenever and wherever he wanted.
So if two “norries” were going in opposite directions on the same track, one of them had to give way and let the other pass. Originally, the one that carried the heavier loads would stay on the track. The lighter one would quickly be taken apart and its wheels taken off the tracks so that the heavily laden one could pass.
These days, the bamboo trains run mostly for tourists on a short stretch near Battambang. This piece of track is 3.7 kilometers long and it takes about an hour to go out and come back.
The ride is a lot of fun, especially every time you have to stop because there’s traffic from the other direction and you have to get off the tracks. Or when cows are grazing on the tracks and need gentle persuasion to move out of the way.
But it’s uncertain, how much longer these Cambodian “thrill rides” will be running. There are plans to reactivate the country’s railway system. And once real trains are back on these tracks, the bamboo trains will have to give way to diesel locomotives permanently.