Riding the Battambang Bamboo Train through the Cambodian Countryside

I first heard about the bamboo train from my friend Mario whilst lazing around on the beaches of Cambodia’s southern islands. He’d been the north-western town of Battambang the previous week and could hardly contain his excitement when retelling the story of his trip along the tracks of one of the world’s all-time unique rail journeys to the crowded beach bar that evening. From 3.7km east of Battambang’s old Parisian-style bridge, the bamboo trains race for twenty minutes along 7km of warped, misaligned tracks and over vertiginous bridges left behind by the French, rolling green pastures stretching out as far as the eye can see in all directions. Known in the local Cambodian language of Khmer as a norry, each little bamboo train consists of a 3m-long wooden frame covered in slats of tightly-strung bamboo canes. This is then simply balanced atop two barbell-shaped railroad trucks, a chugging gasoline engine is attached to the rear, and the train is ready to roll.

When the clock struck midnight the music came to a crescendo; the beer stopped pouring; and the bar was closed, plunging the place into darkness. We were living in a wifi-less island paradise and with zero artificial light around, and no pollution in the air, the sky was able to conjure up its magic for all to see. Racing to the beach, everyone stripped down to their white bits and splashed into the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand. The sea glowed from the bioluminescence of the plankton living in its depth, and with each movement shimmers of glittering gold momentarily glistened under the light of a thousand stars that shone like diamonds on the big black canvas behind them. A more beautiful representation of nature you would struggle to find. As I floated about in the wonderment, however, a nagging began in the back of my brain. Mario had planted an idea, and when something new excites me I do everything in my power to make these ideas blossom into realities. I was going to have to change my travel plans once returning to the mainland. I was going to have to get on a bus to Battambang.

I was welcomed into my hostel with a free cold beer and I got chatting to the owners whilst perusing the lunch menu. Here Be Dragons was run by a lovely, nerdy, English couple in their early thirties and it was immediately apparent that the décor and vibes of the boutique backpackers were a direct extension of their own passions and interests. A graffiti mural of the Tardis from Dr Who covered one of the walls and gaming memorabilia was dotted around the bar between bottles of export spirits. The Beatles hummed softly in the background. Ordering a pork schnitzel and fries from the specials board, I asked the lady the inevitable question. I was too curious not to. ‘Why is the place called Here Be Dragons?’ She laughed, turned over the menu to the back page, and pointed at the old medieval calligraphy printed on it. ‘So many people were asking that we thought a full, proper, explanation was necessary’:

“It is a well-known (though false) fact, that there are places on ancient maps of the world marked with the legend ‘here be dragons’. All that the mapmakers knew of these mysterious, dangerous realms were the tales sailors and explorers brought back with them – fantastical tales of magical beasts and sea-serpents, of men with horns and lambs that grew on plants, of giant eagles that could swoop and seize and carry off an elephant. Here Be Dragons is a land of myth and make-believe, apart from reality, where anything could happen…”

Being low season, and the fact that Battambang is not a place that many travellers find themselves visiting, the hostel was fairly quiet. I therefore headed out on a solo mission guided by a local tuk-tuk driver called DJ who raced around town beforehand to show me the sights. At one point he even stopped in the middle of a roundabout so that I could get a good photo of the Battambang Buddha Statue before getting me safely to the start of the bamboo train. Dozens of the wooden slats lay strewn about and the place looked more like a mechanics’ forecourt than a station, but as soon as they spotted a Westerner the locals who were milling around jumped into gear; something the trains most definitely didn’t have. I paid my $10 fee and hopped aboard the front norry, balancing myself on a couple of cushions whilst my driver with a long emo-like haircut pulled at the starter chord. The engine looked like it had just been lifted from a lawnmower but it was still enough to get the wheels rolling along at 20km/h. With the wind gusting through my hair, I sat cross-legged and took in the beautiful landscape; a wide smile glued to my face.

The bamboo frames were originally built to transport crops between farms and are strong enough to hold up to three tonnes of rice. With the introduction of paved roads, however, the train track was disbanded in favour of trucks, before being re-opened solely as a tourist operation. Each norry would now be said to have a maximum capacity of between ten and fifteen people depending on sizes, which is more than can be cramped into a modern day elevator. I also used the word ‘track’ there in its singular. Interestingly, there is just one parallel track slicing its way through the countryside, and this is where the simplicity of the bamboo norries shines through; providing the perfect solution to the halting problem on any single-track line of what to do when two trains going in opposing directions meet. What happens? One norry is simply picked-up and taken to the side of the tracks so that the other has free passage. When the coast is clear, it is then replaced and you are on your way again. Sometimes there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.

Having let past a couple of German girls on their return journey, the rule being that the norry with the fewest passengers is the one that has to cede the track, we were soon back up to full speed and click-clacking our way along at breakneck speed. The brakes sounded like they were about to fail, the engine sounded like it was sure to blow, and the wheels sounded like they were hanging on by their last few screws. It was more like the world’s least health and safety conscious rollercoaster than a train, but for the entire journey, I felt like the norry had warped me back into a childhood state of fun. As Emit Brown said to Marty McFly: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”