Cambodia’s Bamboo Trains – Going! Going! Gone?

Bamboo trains are crude platforms running on abandoned tracks in rural Cambodia. Photo by Ryan Dayrit.

“I wasn’t expecting this to be this fast!” I shouted – half in amazement, half in fear – over the loud, rhythmic clanking of metal wheels rolling on worn-out French-era railway tracks, as our shoddy platform accelerated through arid farmlands in the outskirts of Battambang. Amazement, because I didn’t expect a crude bamboo platform could go any faster than Manila’s railway trolleys, clocking speeds of up to 50 kph. And fear, because the possibility of the rickety vehicle derailing, flipping over and crashing to oblivion any minute was something that I couldn’t help thinking about.

Inspired by the small rail vehicles used in the 1960s to carry out repairs along the railway, the bamboo train or “norry” first made its appearance in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime, when Cambodians struggled to rebuild their lives. These crafty vehicles were used to transport people, livestock and produce between villages; and were an efficient means to take people to the hospital or clinic during emergencies. The first versions were powered manually, but later adaptations made them speedier with repurposed water pump or boat engines. During its heyday in the 1980s, over a thousand norries operated along 600 kilometers of railway across the country.

As road infrastructure were repaired and expanded, only a few hundred are functional nowadays, with the most popular route operating for tourists between the villages of O Dambang and O Sralau, a few kilometers south of Battambang, the second largest city of Cambodia. The standard tourist route shuttles tourist on a return trip through pastoral views of thickets and grassland. Since norries travel both ways on a single track, we occasionally had to stop, and either one of the platforms had to be dismantled to give way to the other.

Dismantling A Bamboo Train
Since norries travel both ways but run on a single track, they have to be dismantled to give way to the other.

Our stopover in O Sralau turned out to be an adventure on its own. A young boy in a straw hat approached me, carrying what we first thought to be a fried fowl of some kind: “Wanna try, suh? Only won dollah.” Upon closer inspection, the “fowl” had prominent incisors. It was grilled rat, caught from the farm fields, and peddled by a woman on a bicycle. My friends and I spontaneously mustered enough courage to try one animal. We picked the smallest one in the basket – not for “won dollah” but only 2,000 riels. Cliche as it may be, it did taste like chicken. Oily chicken. And would have probably tasted better with a can of Angkor beer in hand, instead of orange soda.

Young Boy Offering Grilled Rat
A young boy at O Sralau village offers us grilled rat.

On the way back, our driver allowed me to drive the norry, which was controlled by a wooden pole that accelerated the engine, while a crude wooden pedal served as the brakes. Sitting at the helm, wind on our faces, the rhythmic clanking became pleasant to my ears. I realized the humble bamboo train brings out the Indiana Jones in anyone, and the simple joys of riding one definitely worth every penny.

The fate of the bamboo train in the coming years, however, remain uncertain as Cambodia rehabilitates its railway system in partnership with foreign investors as part of the international Trans-Asian Railway project. “You should ride this, sir, because next year maybe no more!” says one of policemen who oversees the norry terminal in O Dambang. According to news sources, the $141 million railway project is due for completion in 2013. Despite the country’s unstoppable march to progress,  I hope some will continue operation as a testament to Khmer struggle, resilience and ingenuity.

HOW TO GET THERE: We hired a tuk-tuk driver through Chhaya Hotel, our guesthouse in Battambang. A half-day tour to the bamboo train and Phnom Sampeau was USD 10 (up to 4 persons). The 12 kilometer return trip on the bamboo train from O Dambang village to O Sralau village is pegged at USD 5 per person, but we were able to haggle this down to USD 4 per person. The local tourist police oversees the operation. 

For more travel information on Battambang, see my previous post.

4 Replies to “Cambodia’s Bamboo Trains – Going! Going! Gone?”

  1. this is very interesting. We have our version of “norry” in Quezon. We call it “skits/skates,” I’m not sure of the spelling. Haha. I used to skip classes a lot when I was in highschool because I want to ride that and see the beach. *nostalgia*

  2. Yeah, they’re called trolleys in Manila and “skates” in southeast Luzon. I wonder if they run as fast as the norries! Thanks for sharing =)

  3. NOAHSHHA says:

    the rat looks nice

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