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Throw Momma from the Bamboo Train

By: Charley Bolding-Smith Posted: February-21-2011 in
A Norry
Charley Bolding-Smith

The Bamboo Train, Battambang

You’ve read about it in the rip-off copy of Lonely Planet Cambodia bought on the Riverside. But have you done it? It’s a train ride after all, and doesn’t the romantic in us all love one of those? Of course, this being Cambodia, it didn’t turn out quite as expected. I’d seen the train featured recently on Lonely Planet’s ‘Roads Less Travelled’ programme on NAT GEO TV. Inevitably the intrepid travel writer found herself riding with the locals. That must have been on a different stretch to the few miles I travelled. A friend who’s taken the trip on several occasions warned me not to expect a truly ‘authentic’ experience. But what were the Police doing there organizing events?

The railway tracks run for about 320 km through the interior, but the Lonely Planet entry appears in the Battambong section of the book. Where were the locals of the Kingdom of Wonder, using the system to transport rice, socialize, and barter goods? I came across only two such trains during the entire trip. Instead, the vast majority of the railway’s clientele appeared to have turned up for the Magic Kingdom Railroad at Disney World. It was the predictable mix of Barangs such as me, western tourists and backpackers of all shades. Oh, and train spotters (a separate breed entirely). Roads less travelled? Hmm.

Khmers call the railway’s vehicle a Norry. The independent dumbbell-like axles of the train are put on the track and passenger accommodation is the bamboo platform that rests atop these. The addition of a cushion counts as a first class upgrade. A motorcycle engine provides the power, linked to the axles by a rubber V-belt strip cut from a tire. There’s only one track, and the agreed-upon custom is that the Bamboo Train with the least amount of passengers must give way to the one carrying more.

But first I had to rent one. Enter the Police, who explained that I had to pay the lady who owned the land $10 for crossing it. I explained right back that I’d already agreed a price with the Norry driver two hundred yards further back along the track, and was certainly not making another payment. A Mexican stand-off reigned until it was established that the Norry driver was merely the messenger. Only $10 was involved in total ($5 each for groups of two or more). But why were the Police needed to explain that? I’ll leave you to work that out. Anyway, at least we were off.

But not for very long. An immediate disadvantage of travelling in a small group on a Norry (I had invited my friendly motodop along for the trip) presented itself. You’re the one who always has to get off. And stay off, because Norry drivers are eagle-eyed and can spot trains coming down the track what seemed like minutes before I saw them. Fortunately a Norry can be disassembled in minutes. Eventually, the seemingly endless convoy of vehicles bearing groups of tourists passed and, with the vehicle quickly reassembled, we were able to pick up some speed. If you lay flat on the platform you’re inches off the ground and get a fantastic impression of speed. It’s terrific fun.

The landscape is pleasantly varied, alternating between verdant vegetation and those wide open Cambodian rice plains. The passing years (it was built to meet the needs of French coffee and banana growers in the second half of the 19th century) have warped, curved, and shortened the small-gauge track. The occasional sharp curves and vertiginous gorges (well, six feet) produce at times a white-knuckle ride. On other stretches you ride sedately across the countryside. The wheels, bare on the track, steel on steel, produce a loud and rackety clack-clack as they race along. It’s a lovely sound.

A topical note was sounded when my motodop told me that a fight scene in a Thai action flick had been staged on a speeding Norry. It got me thinking about those movies where the heroes leap – or are thrown - from speeding trains. I admit there was a section where it occurred to me I could do just that. It might be useful ploy if a real train comes your way (the train service has been long scheduled for an upgrade). My reflections on the matter were interrupted when we had to stop for another group of elderly western tourists. On the Bamboo railway you could certainly throw Momma from the train - but she’d probably get up in one piece and be quite cross about it.


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