170kms from Siem Reap, Cambodia's second largest city of Battambang is never popular among most travelers. However, its iconic bamboo train has already made its name in every guidebook since long.
The ride is pretty fun and different: Sitting tight on a bamboo flatbed on wheels and holding whatever you could as it speeds up by the power of a motor engine, you bump along uneven tracks through some jungle and pristine countryside for 20 minutes each way. The unique experience costs $5 per person (single passenger at $10) - not a bad deal, and many even come only for the ride.
Bamboo train is commonly regarded as one of the all-time unique rail journeys.
But lately, the government has decided to put an end to bamboo train and install a real railway, though the exact date remains unclear as the program has been delayed from one year to another.
A considerable number of people dislike the idea, including those living around the track. On one hand, the bamboo train (AKA norry) has been functioning as a cheap transportation for them (unlike tourists, the local pay what they can afford) for decades. During the Cambodia Civil War back in the 1980s, a norry was originally used to lead military carriage and charged very little to board. Today, there are only a few bamboo trains are operated, with the most popular one in the outskirt of Battambang between O Dambong and O Sra Lav overseen by the local Tourist Police.
The start point of Battambang's bamboo train.
On the other hand, it is worried that tourism will plunge if the bamboo train is gone. After all, the 7km-ride is many people's sheer purpose of coming to the uninspiring village. More than hundreds of village people work in the norry business, which in the meantime, brings countless benefits to Battambang's tourism industry that contributed significantly to the local economy in recent years.
A small market at the end point of the route.
The market owner playing chess with his daughter.
"We must have it," Uch Omthiny Sara, chief of the Battambang Tourism Department, expressed his concern: "it's part of the identity that attracts tourists to come to Battambang." (According to Phnom Penh Post)
Travelers couldn't see more eye to eye with him. Over 80% of visitors to Battambang take the bamboo train and rate it a must-do in their Cambodia trip.
A bamboo train can accommodate about four passengers, not including the driver. Schedules and times don't exit - buy a ticket and off you go, chances are you will ride with some local who board at any time. After sitting on cushions laid over the wooden platform, you hear the whiny engine starting to roar, a signal that it is speeding up at 40km/h at top!
Bamboo train running through stretches of the bush.
Not all rail tracks are in good condition. During the ride, you will encounter some uneven, rickety track, but the jolts only produce more chuckles and laughter.
Part of the tracks in disrepair.
Since this is a one-way track, when two norries meet from opposite directions, the one carrying fewer passengers must be dismantled so the other can pass, and be reassembled in just a few minutes. Though everyone on the “losing” train will have to get off, no one is upset with the rules. Instead, they are marveled at the human ingenuity applied to avoid possible conflicts.
Drivers dismantling the norry to make way.
Passengers waiting to let the coming norry pass.
Ariane Mickens, who traveled to Cambodia with My Odyssey Tours last year, has regrets about the "doomed" bamboo train.
"I was lucky - riding the bamboo train is like nothing I've ever done before. It puts a smile on your face and it can be a good way to see a part of the countryside," Ariane said, "I really hope they can reconsider the decision."
The government started a project to rebuild the nation's railway systems in 2008. As of writing, the project has only completed from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. In the light of the actual process, some speculate that the bamboo train might survive longer than expected as the government is still on the look for investments. They do, however, have plans to relocate the bamboo train within the province, while the public fears that the recreation will lose the "original" charm.
One thing remains clear is that the bamboo train is still in operation, for now, or probably a few more years.
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