Ker-bump

battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, cambodia, norry

Ker-bump

  |   19 Comments

This is the website of travel writer, Michael Turtle. After working in broadcast journalism for a decade in Australia, Michael left Sydney to travel the world indefinitely and write about his discoveries.

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.

battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, cambodia, norry

battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, cambodia, norry

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.

battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, cambodia, norry

battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, cambodia, norry

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.

battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, cambodia, norry

battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, cambodia, norry

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.

battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, cambodia, norry

battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, cambodia, norry

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!)

battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, cambodia, norry

battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, cambodia, norry

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.

battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, cambodia, norry

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.

You can find out more information here about other things to see around Battambang

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19 Comments
  • Sophie | Mar 28, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Sounds a little scary this train. One of those things that when you’re in the middle of it, you close your eyes and hope for the best – and once it’s over, you’re glad you did it.
    Sophie recently posted..Easter traditions in NorwayMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Apr 16, 2013 at 9:06 pm

      It wasn’t particularly comfortable but it’s hard to tell how unsafe it is. Nothing seemed to go wring but I would worry what would happen if there was something unexpected!

  • Every day has the potential to be an amazing day ▴ Sparrow in Space | Apr 5, 2013 at 2:01 am

    […] had the best fried rice we’ve eaten as of yet. Our tuktuk driver for the day took us to the bamboo train. It was so much fun, sitting on a few pieces of bamboo, racing through the countryside over the […]

  • Happy Philippines | Apr 5, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    failed to try this while I was in Battambang last year. tried to cycle it but it was quite far. another reason to comeback but i hope it’s still there because like you mentioned they’re planning to upgrade this. i watched a documentary about it and i really hope they find a way to retain this charming culture, perhaps build a new railway instead for the new train.
    Happy Philippines recently posted..The Seven Waterfalls of Lake SebuMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Apr 16, 2013 at 10:25 pm

      I hope they find a way to keep it to. It’s a nice reminder of the past, even if it’s a bit touristy these days.

  • Fabien Penso | May 23, 2013 at 10:45 am

    I tried this one back in 2004 while traveling in Cambodia, post a blog about this at http://blog.penso.info/2013/05/23/train-ride-cambodia/

    By far one of the worst train I used, but lots of fun (for me, not the local).
    Fabien Penso recently posted..Train ride in CambodiaMy Profile

    • Fabien Penso | May 23, 2013 at 10:50 am

      Oh and as far as I remember I payed a few bucks for a 18 hours ride, what you paid for 20 minutes.

      :)
      Fabien Penso recently posted..Train ride in CambodiaMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 25, 2013 at 5:56 am

      It’s definitely one of the worst trains in Cambodia – but I don’t think it pretends to be anything else. I’m still not sure if it’s as bad as the trains I took in Myanmar, though. Now they were uncomfortable!

      • Fabien Penso | May 25, 2013 at 6:02 am

        Michael,

        Sorry I changed the link to http://blog.penso.info/2013/05/23/train-ride-in-cambodia/ – actually I was speaking about the *original* train from Phnom Penh to Battambang, not the Bamboo train (which isn’t much of a train really).

        My ride was 18 hours for 180kms with landmines on each sides of the track, but it doesn’t exist anymore these days.
        Fabien Penso recently posted..Train ride in CambodiaMy Profile

        • Fabien Penso | May 25, 2013 at 6:03 am

          I meant 280kms. Can’t edit comments!
          Fabien Penso recently posted..Train ride in CambodiaMy Profile

        • Michael Turtle | May 25, 2013 at 6:07 am

          Ha ha… that’s ok. It still sounds like a pretty hairy ride!

        • Fabien Penso | May 25, 2013 at 6:20 am

          I was 4 months in India last year on Royal Enfield, rided 8,000kms. About to go again next July for 4 months, Ladakh and the Himalayas mostly.

          *That* is hairy :)
          Fabien Penso recently posted..Train ride in CambodiaMy Profile

  • Charles Rahm (@DWJustTravel) | Aug 8, 2013 at 2:19 am

    The bamboo train is a bumpy but fun once in a life time experience. It can speed up to 30 mph on its 1 gauge track. A bit touristy but still worth doing while it is still around. If you are heading to Cambodia I would love it if you took a look at my travel blog. Thank you.

    http://www.dontworryjusttravel.com/asiapacific/cambodia/item/61-5-places-you-must-see-in-cambodia

    • Michael Turtle | Aug 30, 2013 at 8:14 am

      Thanks for sharing your wrap-up. There’s certainly heaps to do in Cambodia and this is one example of a slightly different experience. As long as people move beyond the temples at Angkor, I think that’s a good start.

  • Ghost Train to the Eastern Star | P.J.Coggan | Oct 24, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    […] oddest thong about these Cambodian chapters is that trains aren’t mentioned, not at all: no Bamboo Railway, no railway to Kampot – yes, it wasn’t operating in 2006, but surely worth a mention of […]

  • Dream on Dreamer Part II | The Fork in my Road | Nov 19, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    […] Asia, hostels and hotels, food (oh, so much food), souvenirs, cooking classes, buses, tuk tuks, bamboo norry trains, boats, tours, shopping, drinks, etc. I recognize that Mary and I did some frivolous and […]

  • sothea | Jun 7, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    it is amazing creative idea of the poor and their life, hope depend on it. Gov’t plan to rehabilitation of this rail will be affect their living it is hard for them to accept and change in beginning.

    • Michael Turtle | Jun 12, 2014 at 7:10 pm

      True, this will have an effect on the locals who currently make a business out of it (not just with tourists but with other aspects). Hopefully they’ll be able to make something good from the changes, though.

  • m88 | Oct 19, 2014 at 5:45 am

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    m88 recently posted..m88My Profile

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