Just south of Battambang in Cambodia is a train service with a difference. Here, a bamboo train operates between O Dambong to O Sra Lav, along 7km of old, warped railway tracks left by the French. The train line actually goes all the way to the capital, Phnom Penh, but most of it has been abandoned and fallen into disrepair.
Each bamboo train is called a ‘norry’ and consists of a three metre long frame covered lengthways with bamboo slats. The frame rests on barbell-like ‘bogies’ placed at the front and back, and the back bogie is connected by a fanbelt to a six horse power engine. Passengers sit on mats and cushions on top of the bamboo and are propelled along the train lines. The train is said to travel at speeds of up to 40km an hour, but the usual speed is about 15km an hour. Even this feels quite fast on the noisy, rickety rails with the wind in your face.
Cambodian people devised these simple, makeshift trains to transport people, livestock, motorbikes, produce – anything really – around the countryside after the Khmer Rouge destroyed the trains in Cambodia, and they’re still in use today. They mainly operate as a tourist attraction, but apparently locals use them too.
There is only one set of tracks so if you meet another bamboo train coming the other way, one of you has to give way. This entails all the passengers getting off and the driver dismantling the train. Then, once the other train has passed, the driver reassembles the norry and continues. Real trains also use the tracks but the bamboo train drivers know their schedules and can hear their horns in plenty of time to clear the norrys off the tracks.
We didn’t meet many other bamboo trains on the outward journey, but on the return trip we met a lot. We didn’t have to get off once and wondered what the etiquette was. We later found out that passengers on the norry with the least number of people should disembark. There were only two of us on our train so that didn’t happen in our case. I think it was due to our driver’s youthful arrogance and the fact that he was travelling in tandem with another train, driven by another unfriendly young man, so between them they managed to get away with not giving way.
At O Sra Lav, where the train stops and turns around, there are stalls selling cold drinks, clothes and trinkets. Be warned though that the stop may be for more than the promised ‘five minutes’ … we were left there for half an hour. Even after buying a soft drink each and a bracelet we were still hassled by the stall holders. Eventually, our driver resurfaced and took us back to O Dambong where our tuk tuk was waiting, but it meant that I didn’t have time to go to see the nearby Killing Caves.
A return trip on the bamboo train costs US$5 a person for two or more people or $10 for a single person and takes about 20 minutes each way. It operates between 7am and dusk, but there is no shade on the route so I’d avoid doing this ride in the middle of the day in the hot season. We went about 4pm in early March and it was still very hot.
Lonely Planet has dubbed the bamboo train ‘one of the world’s all-time classic rail journeys’. I certainly wouldn’t make a special trip to do it, but it’s a fun thing to do if you happen to be in Battambang. Mind you, there are rumours that the bamboo trains won’t be running much longer, as the railway line to Phnom Penh is going to be upgraded (eventually). So, if this is on your bucket list I’d do it soon.