Paul Kilfoil's World of Travel, Technology & Sport

Posted on  by Paul Kilfoil.
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Scenes from the Bamboo Railway

Cambodia, a small country in South-East Asia sandwiched between Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, was a colony of France from 1863 until 1953. The French built one rail line in Cambodia, from the capital Phnom Penh north-west via Battambang and Sisophon to the Thailand border at Poipet. Subsequent to independence a second line was constructed, from Phnom Penh down to the South China Sea port of Sihanoukville. Both lines were metre-gauge (1000 millimetres between the tracks), similar to the gauge used in neighboring countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. These two railway lines were in operation until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over the country ; after that pretty much everything in Cambodia fell apart.

The Khmer Rouge's destructive regime fell in 1979 (for more on this, see my South-East Asia 2006 travelogue). In the early 1980's trains started running again, but by this time the rail infrastructure had deteriorated so badly through years of neglect that "sputtering along" would be a more accurate term to describe the operation. By the beginning of the 21'st century there was only one passenger train still running in the country, a once-weekly service between Phnom Penh and Battambang. The tracks between the two cities were so twisted and buckled that the maximum speed permitted was about 15 kilometres per hour! Breakdowns and derailments became increasingly common, with the result that in 2009 even this sole-surviving train was cancelled ; no scheduled passenger trains have run in Cambodia since then (although a much-hyped railway infrastructure upgrade has been floundering along in recent months).

But Cambodians are nothing if not innovative. After years of conflict and war, the roads in Cambodia were, if anything, in even worse condition than the railways. So locals living around the railway tracks came up with a simple and ingenious solution - why not run our own trains? The tracks were standing there, rusting in the sun and tropical humidity. Why not use them? And thus was born the "Bamboo Train". Or more accurately, MANY bamboo trains. Each "train" consists of a simple bamboo platform resting on a pair of axles and bogies scavenged from the huge quantity of wrecked military tanks dotting the countryside. When these trains started operating in the late 1970's, power was a problem, but since then the country has been flooded with simple petrol and electric engines, courtesy of the United Nations relief effort of the 1980's. Trains can carry as many as twenty passengers and travel at speeds up to 40 kilometres per hour ; locals reckon they're much safer than going on the back of a scooter or motorbike (generally the only alternative means of transport).

These bamboo trains are called "Norries" by the locals, for whom they are an indispensable way of life - they provide transport between villages, a way to get produce and animals to the market, lumber to building sites and a means of income for many. Rich tourists pay a premium to ride these trains ; in the context of Cambodia's pitiful economic climate, where the average person earns only a few dollars a week, even $2 from a tourist represents a huge windfall. One local village has been transformed into a mini industrial plant, building and selling as many as ten trains a month.

Buckled Cambodian railway tracks
shimmer in the heat

All the rail lines in Cambodia are single-track only, which means that when two bamboo trains approach from opposite directions they cannot pass each other. The prevailing convention is that the train with least passengers on board must be taken off the tracks to allow the other to pass. "Norry" drivers have reduced this technique to a fine art - all passengers jump off, the bamboo platform is removed and the two axles are lifted off the rails. Once the other train (or trains) has passed the procedure is reversed and they proceed as before. In this simple way hundreds of bamboo trains zip up and down the rails all day, providing a swift and effective passenger transport system that could never be rivalled by any commercial operation.

While entrepreneurial Cambodians ferry their countrymen around via makeshift trains on little-used tracks, politicians and businessmen talk about the much-hyped and ongoing upgrade of the rail system. Progress is slow, and when (or if) this upgrade is completed it is difficult to imagine how it could ever be more efficient than the current system of home-grown bamboo trains. The bamboo train industry has become so established that a great number of people depend on it for their livelihood ; if the introduction of a "normal" train system outlaws bamboo trains, all of these people will lose their income. It is a tricky problem, and one which the Cambodian railway authorities should address as soon as possible if they want to avoid serious issues in the future.

  © Paul Kilfoil, Cape Town, South Africa