Travelling by train in Cambodia was popular during French colonial times but both track and rolling stock were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era and the war that followed. As you travel through the country you see abandoned train lines crossing roads and fields, weeds and trees growing among the sleepers.
But just outside Battanbang in the country’s north west, it’s possible to travel 135km through fields and rice paddies on the bamboo train. Making use of a section of rail that remains in relatively good repair, bamboo trains are ingenious little contraptions that move people, produce and even livestock. Hannah and I hire a tuk tuk and motor out to give it a try over 15km or so.
Each ‘train’ is nothing more than a bamboo frame of about 3m long by 2m wide. The frame sits on two detachable axles and is driven by a small motor. Around 30 people share ownership of the frame, each person taking control for one day of the month and making a living based on the number of rides they can generate on their day.
We find a spare train, sit ourselves on its bamboo frame and get started – it’s a bone shakingly uncomfortable ride that feels like a fairground attraction as it hurtles down the hill, rattles over a bridge and tilts precipitously round a corner. I lean in to avoid branches whipping by. Beside us are the arid rice paddies of the dry season.
We rattle on for half an hour or so until ahead of us another train carrying 10 locals slows at a stop and we pull in behind. A third train carrying a vast load of wood is coming the other way and by the rules of the line both passenger vehicles need to give way. When two trains meet, the lightest must dismantle – removing the bamboo tray and lifting the axles and wheels to the side – to let the heavier pass.
For our train this is simple, carrying just the two of us and our little bags it takes less than a minute, but the train in front is loaded up with bags, baskets, people and even a motorbike. After ten minutes or so it’s fully dismantled. The train carrying the wood moves slowly past and behind it the other train is being rebuilt, with chat and general good will all round.
This unique method of transport is on its last legs. Late last year a project began to link Pnomh Penh to both Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City by rail. Slow progress is being made and once it reaches Battambang the bamboo train will be no more.