Cambodia’s Rickety Bamboo Trains

Although Cambodia has a fine network of railway tracks dating back to the French colonial days, there are hardly any trains running these days. Real trains, that is. The locals get by perfectly well with their own indigenous invention – bamboo trains.

The Cambodian railway system never really recovered from the horrors of war and the Khmer Rouge genocide that happened decades ago. They have just one proper train line in service and the rest of the tracks were covered for years by homemade trains called ‘norrys’. These weird contraptions aren’t exactly what you’d call luxury transport. But they are cheap – about 50 cents a ride. And that suits the locals just fine.

Norrys are made of bamboo, wood and sometimes even parts of old tanks. The first one was built in the 1980s by 73-year-old Pat Oun, or so he claims. The earlier versions didn’t have any engines. Drivers just stood in the train and used long bamboo poles to propel the vehicle down the tracks. “I did this for 20 to 30 kilometers in the past,” said Pat, as he demonstrated the motion.


Photo: Going Slowly

There was a time when norrys were the only means of transportation, but they aren’t as common anymore. A few remain in the town of Battambang, in northern Cambodia, mainly catering to thrill-seeking tourists.

But deep in the countryside, several hours away from Battambang, there exists a place where norrys still provide a cheap and reliable service. The bamboo trains cover a 30-mile route every day, helping villagers get around. Like this one woman who sells bread and wine from a shack in Stung Touch village. “I haven’t seen a regular train along here for two years,” she said.


Photo: Travel Aficionado

El Maysom, another villager, recently took her 6-year-old daughter on her very first norry-ride. They were travelling to a place several hours away, to attend a wedding. When the little girl set her eyes on the vehicle, she asked what it was in surprise. “It’s like a bat,” El told her. When the girl was asked if she was excited about riding a bat, she squeaked in response: “Happy!”

Norry driver Neum Chhean makes several trips a day, carrying people as well as logs. His day typically begins at 7:00 am. “I’ll deliver anything,” he said. His main competitor is Doak Khemra, another driver. The two drivers line up their norrys on the tracks and wait for passengers or goods. Trouble is always in the brewing, especially if a passenger chooses one driver’s norry over the other.


Photo: Travel Aficionado

Neum and Doak often start bickering when customers’ loyalties change. When Doak’s norry is lined up first on the tracks, he threatens to go across the street and take a nap – delaying everyone in the process. It takes a while before the two men resolve their differences and start up the trains – each filled with as many as 14 adults, a few children, bunches of bananas, cartons of soft drinks, sacks of coconuts and beef, and a case of flashlights to strap on to your head at night.

I suppose a trip to Cambodia is incomplete without experiencing a norry-ride. I bet it would take you at least a hundred years back in time.


Source: The Wall Street Journal

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