“All Aboard!” – Ready To Ride The Bamboo Railway
They had told me this was a railroad but I was beginning to have serious doubts. I was sitting on a flat and hard platform made of bamboo slats as it was propelled at 50 km per hour along an incredibly rickety and bumpy narrow gage rail track in Northwestern Cambodia. No seats – just a very thin cushion to soften the ride. The engine – a very noisy 6 horse power motor mounted on the platform’s rear, powered the vehicle via a belt drive attached directly to the wheels. I am a lover of trains and railroads, and whenever I travel I’m always on the lookout for a rail experience. But as railroads go – this was about as basic as it can get.
Battambang is a charming city in Northwestern Cambodia, lying about 78 km from Siem Reap as the crow flies. Of course, given the current state of transportation in Cambodia, the trip by road covers 172 km and takes about 3 hours. Battambang offers a nice change of pace after spending long days exploring the amazing city of Siem Reap and the oh-so-many temples in the area including the world famous Angkor Wat.
There are also temples in the Battambang area, But I was a bit “templed out” after Siem Reap. I was looking for something a bit different. That is how I ended up sitting on my personal bamboo platform bouncing though the Cambodian countryside. I was riding The Bamboo Railway of Battambang.
Disassembled Norries await passengers at the O Dumbing Station
When a passenger arrives – the norrie is placed on the track.
The transportation infrastructure of Cambodia has always been a bit marginal. Cambodia has a history of railroad service but the national railroad was abandoned in the 1970s during the dark days of the Khmer Rouge. Recovery has been slow with roadways even today remaining few and marginal. Rail service has not recovered. Passenger rail service is non existent with the exception of a line from Phomn Pehn to Sihanoukville to the south which was completed in 2013. With the loss of rail service many communities were left isolated which spurred a somewhat ingenious home made solution – the Bamboo Trains. Villagers constructed single flatbed rail platforms, or “norries” as they are known locally, and used them on the old and overgrown rail rail tracks with the “operator” using a pole to propel the the car forward. Using this primitive approach, rail service continued in much of Cambodia, providing transportation and allowing communities to exchange goods. In the 1990s the norries were “upgraded” with many operators adding small motor cycle or lawn mower engines to power the platforms via a belt drive attached to the axels.
Once aboard the operator cranks up the engine and you are off
Norrie & passengers awaiting reassembly after making way for on-coming traffic
The Bamboo Railways filled a small but important niche in Cambodia but unfortunately, their days were numbered. With no one to maintain the rails and tracks they declined into a death spiral of disrepair. Today all that remains in a 7 kilometer stretch of track outside Battambang. Visitors can board at O Dambong Station and enjoy a bone jarring ride to O Sra Lau Station. There’s not much to see or do at the station. Maybe sip a cool drink, look at a few tourist trinkets. After about 20 minutes your norrie’s operator will take you back to the starting point. This railway is proof positive that it’s about the journey, not the destination.
O Sra Lau Station – end of line and turn around point for The Bamboo Train
I have to tell you that the “train” ride is very much a “stop & go” affair. Norries travel to and from O Sra Lau Station using the same single track. As a result, a norrie going “upstream” will frequently encounter a norrie going “downstream.” There are no sidings for passing. What do they do? The solution lies in the very simple construction of the norrie which is basically a bamboo platform which sits on a pair of railway axles. When a norrie encounters on-coming traffic both norries stop and one is quickly disassembled and set to the side of the track allowing the second to proceed. The disassembled norrie is then placed back on the track and continues on it’s way. If traffic light, few such disassemblies are needed for the complete journey. However on a busy day it is very much “stop & go.”
TAKE THE BAMBOO TRAIN ………….. AND ENJOY THE ADVENTURE!
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