Ker-bump

This relic of this cheap of simple Cambodian transport system can still be experienced in one part of the country. Here at the Battambang Bamboo Train.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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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
Battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, Cambodia

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
Battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, Cambodia

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
Battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, Cambodia

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
Battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, Cambodia

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
Battambang bamboo train, bamboo railway, Cambodia

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

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.

Where should you stay in Battambang?

If you’re looking for a cheap backpacker option, try the Ganesha Family Guesthouse, which is in a good location.
A simple budget hotel that is clean and comfortable is Angkor Comfort Hotel.
For a property with a bit of a resort feel out of the city centre, I suggest RaVorn Villa Boutique.
And for a higher budget, there’s a really cool design hotel called Hotel Bric-a-Brac in a great spot.

19 thoughts on “Ker-bump”

  1. 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.

    Reply
  2. 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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  3. 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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
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