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Riding the Bamboo Train

Deep in the Cambodian jungle I was rewarded with the kind of experience only those who wander fall afield can find.

Locals call it the Norry Train, but to everyone else it is the Bamboo Train and it is great and simple fun.

During the second half of the nineteenth century this land was called Indochina and the French colonists dotted its jungles with plantations. They grew coffee and bananas among other things and needed a way to transport this produce from jungle to market. They built a small gauge railroad complete with miniature steam engine specifically for this task.

By today’s standards, this train must have looked like a toy but in its day it got the job done. I was unable to locate any photos of the original engine but judging from the size of the tracks, figure it must have been akin to today’s amusement park rides.

The little train chugged along for half a century until the Kmer Rouge came to power. In their attempt to create a submissive agrarian society, anyone with an education or anything that provided information or even transportation was the enemy. This included the little jungle train. They destroyed the engine but left the rails intact thinking them worthless without the train itself. Years went by and the jungle claimed the tracks for its own.

Today nearly three decades after the fall of the Kmer Rouge, Cambodia is desperately poor and in need of any and all modes of transport. Most of its roads are dirt or non existent. The local jungle people always knew of the train tracks and gradually began to clear the overgrowth and land mines that had saturated the area.

The tracks run for a couple hundred miles through the heart of the country and make a perfect little highway for those smart enough to make it operational. I learned about the train from a local guide that I hired in Phnom Penh. He had only ridden it once before since doing so is considered a luxury among many of the local poor.

With no steam engine available they collected old axles left from military vehicles of which there was an abundance strewn through out the countryside. They cut and sized them to fit the tracks, added a wooden platform with a woven bamboo matting for comfort, (Thus the name) and attached a portable one horse powered gasoline engine linking it to the axles by a rubber strip usually cut from an old tire. The axles sit bare on the track, steel on steel.

This creates quite a light show of sparks while the train is careening around a bend. If necessity is the mother of invention, this train should be called “Necessity.”

When I first rode it, I was told to sit perfectly still for the entire thing is held together by balance and gravity.

Nothing is actually attached to anything else like with a nut or bolt, but simply piled onto the tracks like an erector set. This allows for easy assembly and break down, not to mention the occasional fatality when the entire thing falls apart going 30 miles an hour in the middle of the jungle.

There are many of these little trains operating today. When they meet on the track the one with the smallest load must yield to the larger one. This is done by everyone simply getting off the train, lifting it off the tracks until the larger one passes then setting it back on to the tracks and proceeding on ones merry way. Upon arrival at the final destination., it is lifted, turned around, then ready to return from whence it came.

My wife, a friend and I all rode it together one hot and humid afternoon. We sat down gingerly hoping not to upset things before even getting started. Besides the three of us there were five local people with assorted pigs, chickens and two motorbikes on board. Now all of this is crowded onto a bamboo platform about 4 X 5 feet in size. We hunkered down in front as the tiny engine strained to begin pushing its mighty load.

A minute later we were flying through the jungle, heads covered with our hands fending off low branches and palm fronds. I imagine the train might reach thirty miles per hour on flat stretches but once it gets going the only way to slow down is to cut the engine. There are no brakes.

Out in the jungle anyone can flag it down to get on board. They simply have to do so out in the open where the brakeless train has plenty of room to stop. If they are brave and strong enough, they can assist the train in stopping by grabbing onto something or someone and holding on as I have seen it done but this tends to upset the balance of things.

We whipped over hand made bamboo bridges, over swift flowing rivers and past chasms that could swallow us whole if our balance should fail at any time. Going around a turn, we could feel the outer edge of the platform begin to rise and tried to lean into the turns like a motorcycle rider. It is sobering to realize the only thing holding this speeding little train together is ones own weight upon it.

We rode the train for perhaps ten miles then arrived at a tiny little outpost baking under the jungle sun. Dozens of people were milling about waiting their turn to ride back where we started. There are no regulations regarding weight restrictions, number of luggage pieces or other such ludicrous rules that ruin the fun of travel in the western world.

On the Bamboo Train, if it will fit on board, it is welcome. Once we got off I counted nine people boarding the return run, most of them holding some small critter bound for the market. Once I saw a full grown water buffalo happily wind facing while surrounded by five farmers taking him to their field.

The price for a resident to ride the train is whatever one has at hand. A chicken might be good for several rides and certainly a pig will get you on board for at least a month. We rich Americans were asked to pay $2 each. That is about a months wages for these people but we paid it happily. Where else could we get such entertainment and support the local economy at the same time?

Before hiring a motorbike to return to Phnom Penh, I asked why the train does not go all the way there. I was told that it is an illegal operation. The government knows the train exists but chooses to ignore the fact that it does unless forced to face the issue. Why it is illegal escapes me and no one could tell me. Perhaps it is because the government does not get its share of the profit, for how could they when the currency is bartered?

Everything in Cambodia has a price. The corrupt lieutenants left over from Pol Pot’s regime still control much of the country, living in baronial splendor like the fat cat crime lords they are. Wherever we went we had to pay a fee to use the road or visit the village. Our guide was very up front about all this saying, “this road costs $1 and that goes to general so and so.”

The bamboo train is exempt from this graft, perhaps because it is just not worth the bother. We were told upon leaving never to mention the train to anyone wearing a suit or a badge in town so even in Cambodia they have “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

James Dorsey

James Dorsey is an artist, writer, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 29 countries. He has made seven extended trips through Asia. A www.jamesdorsey.com