Battambang Bamboo Rail-Riding in Cambodia
A Trip to Battambang
‘What would my insurance company say’, I wondered, ‘if I tried to make a claim for getting thrown off this thing?’
Especially since I had discovered my mode of transport, the Battambang, Cambodia, bamboo train, was actually ‘unofficial’ — or, illegal but in a legal kind of way.
I had been excited about my trip to Battambang (pronounced ‘bat-tam-bong’), a city about three hours’ bus drive from Siem Reap and the second largest in Cambodia. The bamboo train, also know by the Khmer as the ‘norry’, had been recommended by other travelers and every tuk-tuk driver who greeted me when I stepped off the bus from Phnom Penh.
I began to imagine scenes of an old-fashioned engine, carrying a bamboo load through forest and rice fields. There I would be, lying back in a carriage and enjoying the passing breeze.
What I ended up with was more like a theme-park ride.
Riding the Battambang Bamboo Train
My four travel buddies and I climbed onto the train. The sun stretched above us and I wished I’d brought my hat and sunscreen. When I had imagined the train, I assumed it would come with shelter.
Not this train. After paying five dollars each for an approximate one-hour, return journey, we found ourselves on a wood-frame platform made of bamboo slats and powered by what looked like a speedboat motor. Safety didn’t seem to bother anyone too much.
The motor spluttered to life and we gathered speed. ‘Ha-haaa!’ yelled the driver from behind, like he had cast a wicked spell.
‘Oh dear,’ I thought. The train rocketed along the single track. Thankfully the bamboo trains are built so that if two trains are traveling towards each other, one can be lifted off the track while the other passes.
Enjoying the Ride Through Battambang
We sped deeper into the countryside and I thought my teeth would fall out from rattling. I started to enjoy the wind in my face and the thrill of ducking from trees, thorn bushes and suicidal butterflies.
The train braked for a herd of cows, sped up again, then slowed to cross the skeleton of a timber bridge.
I wiped the hair off my face and noticed our flip-flops, piled between us, bouncing towards the edge like crickets. I flicked them back. They only stayed still when we stopped at a village station.
A group of children ran over to greet us. One girl climbed onto our train and shuffled up to the front. ‘Most people stop here,’ our driver said. ‘You can go to the next station, for extra two dollars.’ Each. We were having too much fun to finish our journey here, so we agreed and continued. This time with a child stowaway.
The Past and Future of Battambang’s Bamboo Train
At the second station, the driver stepped off to turn the train around. As he worked, he explained that one of the bridges we crossed had been damaged by Khmer Rouge landmines during the 1970s.
Khmer Rouge control and destruction of infrastructure had caused many transport problems for Cambodians. Other modes of transport became scarce and unreliable, so villagers started building the bamboo trains to carry people, goods and livestock.
Now Cambodia’s northern line rehabilitation, part of a large-scale project to restore and modernize the country’s rail network, means bamboo trains are expected to become a thing of the past. For now, the Battambang trains continue to run and there doesn’t appear to be a clear answer about their future.
While we waited in the shade, another group of children appeared. This time they stared at us, smiling as if they wanted to talk but were too shy. Some hid behind their siblings. ‘They not get many tourist here,’ said our driver, also smiling. ‘You lucky to be here.’
Written By Michelle Gillespie
Michelle Gillespie was born in Perth, Western Australia, and loves to travel both at home and abroad. In 2012 she undertook her first big adventure, an overland trip through the Himalayas. Recently she returned from a figure-eight loop around the world. The trip lasted five months, taking her from Jordan and Egypt to East Africa and home via South-East Asia. Her passport may be water damaged from the Cambodian rainy season and the words on the cover (that is, ‘Passport’ and ‘Australian’) may be smudged out, but she still hopes there’s life in it yet.