Welcomes to the Bamboo Train RIde in Battambang City
Nin was not in school the day that I met him; he was busy working as the engineer on the “Bamboo Train” from Battambang. When I asked him just exactly what he had been up to, he said that he had been spending his day hauling lumber from a trackside mill, but that was now finished and he would be just as happy hauling me, too. Would I be interested in taking a ride on the Bamboo Train?
Whether a 13-year-old Cambodian kid was reliable enough to ensure my safety was not just a passing concern. I was also interested in the very real possibility that a real train may choose to occupy the same train tracks that we were to share.
The “Bamboo Train” (the Khmers call it a ‘Norry‘) is part Khmer ingenuity, part Khmer necessity. It is pure
Cambodian and one of the coolest rides that I have ever been
Cobbled together with a wooden frame, bamboo planking, a four-stroke, upright engine and (I kid you not) reused military tank wheels and axles, the Bamboo Trains haul passengers and freight between Battambang and the spur lines of Phnom Penh.
They use the spur lines in Phnom Penh because, as you might imagine, Bamboo Trains are quite illegal. Not only that, they wreak havoc whenever they cross roadways. Normally, the ‘real’ train only uses the track once a day. Up to Battambang one day, back down to Phnom Penh the next; meanwhile, the tracks are practically begging to be used.
And used they are, with an uncountable number of these only-in-Cambodia contraptions putt-putting up and down the track. Did I say tracks? Oh no, there is only one track. And therein lays the problem: what to do when another Bamboo Train comes along in the other direction.
The agreed-upon custom is that the Bamboo Train with the least amount of passengers must give way to the one carrying more. Furthermore, the conductor of the winning Bamboo Train must help the losing train disassemble their train and remove it from the tracks so that the other may pass.
Fortunately, the Bamboo Trains can be disassembled in a jiffy. Off comes the frame (two persons are required for this), then remove the Honda motorcycle engine (it’s equipped with a standard auto V-belt and pulley) and then remove the two axles and wheels. It can be done in seconds. The importance of urgent Bamboo Train removal might be of interest should a real train come your way.
I chatted with Nin for a while, negotiating price while discussing scorpions, (one of which had just crawled up the pant leg of my Motodop (Moto-taxi driver). The unlucky arachnid was retrieved and dispatched. While we were busy discussing scorpions, Bamboo Trains clattered on by loaded high with groups of Khmer passengers, white sacks of freshly harvested rice and stacks of rough-cut, illegally-harvested teak lumber. Load capacity of one of these contraptions is alleged to be approximately one metric ton.
Rather than just be an observer, I decided to throw caution to the wind and rent the whole damn train.
Nin and his conductor (helper? pal? – he wore no visible identification) assembled a train, loaded my Motodop, his motorcycle and myself aboard and then pulled the rope to start the motor, which was sort of like starting a lawnmower. Well, actually it was exactly like starting a lawnmower. Then, using a well-chosen stick as a lever, Nin applied pressure to the V-belt and we were off!
The tracks that we were on were reputed to have been constructed in the 1930s by the French. Not a whole lot of track maintenance had been done since then, as they appeared (to my untrained eye) to be warped
and supremely out of kilter. We clickety-clacked along very nicely, slowing down occasionally only to shoo stray cattle out of the way. Along the way, two trains had to move out of our way, since with a compliment of four aboard we ruled the rails. It was a splendid way to see the countryside.
About 10 kilometers down the track, we came to a recognized (but not at all official) Bamboo Train “station,” which was also the place where I got off. I thanked Nin, hopped off the bamboo platform and paid him for the one-hour charter. My Motodop then took me back to town on the back of his Honda 100.