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Home arrow Cambodia arrow Features arrow Battambang's bamboo train world's most eco-friendly ride
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Battambang's bamboo train world's most eco-friendly ride
When I was asked if I wanted to ride on the bamboo train, I had no idea what was on offer. The picture that came to mind was of a cute toy train with carriages made out of bamboo, maybe similar to something you would find at a park or zoo to take tourists for a ride. But I knew there were no such parks in Cambodia. I was in Battambang province in northwest Cambodia. I had spent the day visiting the killing caves of the Pol Pot regime. From my hotel in Battambang, I had hired a motorbike and driver for the day. This cost a mere US$6 ($9) for a 7 hour trip. It was towards the end of the day when the driver asked if I wanted to ride on the bamboo train.

We crossed a river on a narrow suspension bridge. I didn't realise until later that this was the upstream part of the Stung Sangker or Sangker River, which flows through the centre of Battambang. Soon after we came to a railway line.

When I was told this was the bamboo railway, I could see no sign of any train, and there were definitely no cute bamboo carriages. I got off the bike and walked in the rain to the station. There were quite a few people bustling around and lots of goods waiting to be transported somewhere. I wondered how long we would have to wait for the train to arrive. I knew that the train service in Cambodia is fairly primitive and is incredibly slow. Train travel is exceedingly cheap, but patience is required. Trains travel at an average speed of 20kph and mechanical problems can mean unscheduled stops.

We were on the main railway line from Phnom Penh to Poipet which is the border town to Thailand. The French built this single-track metre-gauge line in the 1920's. They used it to carry coffee and bananas to the city. The first tiny steam engines were replaced by more powerful steam locomotives. But during the Khmer Rouge regime the trains were destroyed. The tracks were spared but were overgrown by the jungle. It was only after the civil war that the locals cleared the rails and the line was back in operation again. The 274km journey from Battambang to Phnom Penh takes around 15 hours if there are no problems. The train runs up one day and down the next day and I wondered if today was the up or down day. Whilst I was still contemplating the speed of the train, the penny suddenly dropped. I realised that all this while I had been looking at the bamboo train without recognising it.

Instead of a train with carriages, the Battambang bamboo train is in fact a metal frame with bamboo slats that sits on two axles with wheels. It is used to transport people and goods up and down the railway. The bamboo slats form the base on which the passengers, goods and livestock sit. It can carry anything that will fit on it, even motorcycles. It is also used to transport the rice in the harvest season. The Cambodian name for the train is norry. It is an ingenious invention. After the days of the Khmer Rouge, the land mines were cleared from the tracks, and the local residents built dozens of these miniature trains.

It was interesting to watch the assembly of the contraption. Two young men appeared, carrying two ancient steel axles with cast-iron wheels at both ends. These were placed on the track _ a perfect fit. Next, a metal frame with the bamboo slats is positioned atop the axles. The whole thing is about three feet wide and maybe eight feet long. The engine sits on top, linked to the wheels by a rubber drive wheel. The only braking system is to turn the engine off and coast to a stop.

The older trains don't have the metal frame. Instead there is a long semi-rigid bamboo mat. The axles fit into two steel forks on the underside of the mat. The mat sits atop the wheels, unsecured except by the steel forks.

Today the train is driven by a motorcycle or tractor engine. Gasoline is available at village crossings, sold in glass whiskey bottles. In the past men used poles to push it along, a bit like a dry land version of a punt on the River Thames! It runs about 10 km up and down the line, and costs 1000 riel ($0.40) between stations. As the regular train only goes up one day and down the next, there is no danger of collision. However if two bamboo trains meet, the lighter one is simply taken off the rails to allow the other to pass.

I was lucky as one train was being loaded when we arrived. Not long after we had been there, my driver told me to watch as the train was leaving. Before I really grasped what was happening, people jumped aboard and a few men started pushing it whilst running along behind. I found it quite comical as the train disappeared into the distance and the men were still running along pushing it. Obviously the engine hadn't kicked in. I don't know if they were just saving on fuel costs or if there was some problem with the engine. It reminded me of something from a silent Charlie Chaplin movie.

The old station building of French construction would have been quite elegant in its day. Nowadays it is used as a store for the train parts. The rain got heavier but I didn't mind as I had seen the Battambang bamboo train.

By: Liz Price
Source: The Brunei Times
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