Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia
Ker-bump. The carriage goes over another joint in the track. Although to call this a ‘carriage’ is misleading. Ker-bump. I’m hurtling and hurting down a railway on nothing more than bamboo. It’s almost like a raft on wheels, this little contraption. Ker-bump. And at about 50 kilometres an hour, I finally realise how imperfectly flawed a train track can be. Again, ker-bump.
This is the Bamboo Railway of Battambang – a surviving section of the rustic Cambodian public transport system that once stretched across much of the country.
It’s a cheap and simple mode of travel. Passengers are transported on the flat beds by a driver who stands or sits at the back and uses a small motor to propel the carriages along. There are no brakes and it reminds me of the small fishing boats I’ve used to get to islands off the coast. As with the boats, it’s best just to look ahead and not think too much about what would happen if something went wrong.
I don’t imagine real trains have much in the way of suspension but at least they provide a certain cushioning from the regular shocks. This close to the ground, though, every jolt sends my teeth crashing together, ker-bump after jarring ker-bump, until I leave my mouth agape to prevent a fractured molar.
It’s probably partly because these bamboo carriages are so light. The bed is made of just bamboo and the frame from a slightly sturdier wood. It sits on two metal axles connected to the small wheels. It’s so light, in fact, then when the driver meets another train coming in the opposite direction, he just lifts the whole thing off the rails to allow the oncoming vehicle to pass.
He also lifts the bamboo carriage off the track and turns it around when we reach the designated ‘end of the line’. Once again, to call it a station would be misleading. It’s really just a collection of shops trying to sell drinks, shirts and scarves to the tourists. The bamboo which brought us here may be strong but the real strength is in the currency it transports and the local vendors fawn over each new arrival.
There’s no real destination for the Battambang leg of the Bamboo Train – it’s all about the experience. It’s just a little show for tourists and a ‘tourist police officer’ organises things when you first arrive and matches you with a driver. There are plenty of us who seem willing to pay the five dollars to ride the twenty minutes in each direction. That’s a considerable sum in this part of the world and there’s a certain incongruity that the locals once used these trains because of how cheap they were. (On a side note, the trains were sometimes used as minesweepers after the Khmer Rouge period and passengers could ride on them for free… albeit with quite a risk!)
Soon it could be the end of the line for the Bamboo Train, though. The Cambodian rail system is being upgraded and that would mean replacing these tracks with better ones for bigger trains… and the little homemade carriages would no longer work. It’s not clear when this might happen – the project has been slow to start and chronically behind schedule. It seems inevitable, though.
But until then, it’s still fun to see a bit of the old culture – even if it’s just put on for the cameras. For now the departure point must also serve as the arrival. The little wooden train is lifted up and turned around. The return journey along the track begins. Ker-bump.