The Bamboo Train. Battambang and its quirky railway!

Battambang | Cambodia

Two things drew us to Battambang, a wildlife spectacle and an opportunity to ride a train {currently almost the only opportunity really, more on that later} in Cambodia. A six hour bus journey, booked through our accommodation in Phnom Penh, transported us through the Cambodian countryside to Battambang, a provincial city in the north-west.

Battambang may be a city but it feels much more like a small town with its low lying architecture, much of it dating from French colonial times and many buildings are deliciously art deco in style.

Battambang’s architecture is so interesting that there is even a self-walking tour map {pdf} of the town that you can download and follow, I’d recommend following it early on in the day to avoid the scorching heat, however there are plenty of places en route to pause for a drink or some food.

Just on the edge of town lies the old railway station, built in the late 1930s but now standing dormant in a dusty square fringed with sugar palms. The station building appears smart and tidy, patiently waiting for the passenger trains to resume.

Battambang | Cambodia-2203Walking around to the back of the station, to the platform, dilapidated sheds and railway lines, the overgrown tracks don’t seem to promise this any time soon. A tropical station slowly becoming engulfed by nature, a vision of a lost era- not the first vision, and certainly not the last, on this trip of ours.

Battambang | Cambodia-2211But the trains are going to return. We saw brand new tracks, laid on smart foundations, down in the south of the country and I believe those are being used to carry freight and there are grand plans to reinstate the line here. It would be wonderful to see this station up and running again, and to be able to travel up the country on a train rather than a bus.

Which brings me neatly on to our next activity, the legendary Norry- The Bamboo Train. With the slow demise of the Cambodian railway many locals embraced the use of the Norry, a simple bamboo and steel platform with wheels and a motorcycle engine, to cheaply transport goods, food and people along the lines. Apparently they were originally used in front of the ‘big’ trains as mine-sweepers, those seats were the cheapest!

Battambang | CambodiaThe Norry near Battambang run mostly for tourists these days and are under the control of the Tourist Police. We had hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day and he drove us out to the small village from where the train runs. $5 each got us a cushion on the platform and we were directed to over to our Norry.

I’d read numerous reports on how dreadfully tourist-worn this experience had become, rude drivers and pushy vendors, overbearing orders to tip, you know the sort of thing. I was insistent I wasn’t going to let this ruin my day, as an un-ashamed train geek, this was my day and, damn it, I was going to enjoy it!

On the tuk-tuk ride over to the village I had practiced over and over the Cambodian for ‘Hello’, which I’d gleaned from this vid on YouTube. We walked over to our Norry and I greeted our grave young driver with a cheery “choum reap souar“, hands pressed ‘in prayer’ and a dip of the head. It worked a treat and he beamed a smile, in a way that expressed he appreciated the effort but that I crucified the pronunciation! It broke down the barriers somewhat anyway and it was a good start.

Battambang | Cambodia 3422

The motor spluttered into action and the Norry started to move. It picked up speed rather quickly and I grasped the wooden bar on the front of the platform as we rushed along the rails. Faster and faster we went, much faster than I had expected, these pallets can reach up to 40kms an hour!

The tracks have been there, unmaintained, for over seventy years and as you can probably imagine, are in a bad condition. We raced along, whooshing past trees and fields, clicking and clattering over the bent, warped rails.

The train bounces and leaps over misaligned tracks, and when you see a small bridge come into view further down the line you hold on a little tighter, you can see by the rise of the rails and the gaps that you are certainly going to feel that, yet in the blink of an eye you are over it.

As it is a single line it is without doubt that you will meet a Norry hurtling towards you in the opposite direction. This is where the ingenuity of the Norry design comes into play. Both drivers of the Norry work together to dismantle one of the trains, there is some sort of rule to which train it is but I never fathomed it, quickly lifting the platform off the wheels and taking the Norry off the tracks while the passengers stand to the side. After one such stop we picked up a young local, hitching a free ride along some of the track.

This happened quite a number of times and I was transfixed by the whole experience. After around 20 minutes of riding along the rails we reached the end of the line, well the village, the line continued on beyond, and we pulled up to a dirt-floor platform and an avenue of tourist market stalls to calls of ‘cold drink sir’ ‘tee shirt madam’.

The end of the {tourist} line

The end of the {tourist} line

We left our driver and walked along the stalls to take a few photos and went to see the old brickworks then we wandered back to one of the first vendors and bought a couple of cans of much-needed fizzy stuff. The vendor invited us in to sit down and her shade seemed very inviting. Chris eyed up her tee shirts and he didn’t take much encouragement to part with a few dollars for a couple of vests.

Sitting down in the cool shade of her stall we got chatting, and her hard-sell guise dropped. She candidly talked about her stall, where she’d been in Cambodia, politics and when the ‘big train’ was coming. On that subject she subtlety, but visibly wavered, when the big train comes her livelihood vanishes, cleared by progress. What she was going to do she didn’t know, they’ve all been waiting for years.

This map of the province shows both the roads and the railway.

This map of the province shows both the roads and the railway.

Our driver appeared and Chris offered to buy him a can of drink, reaching out another simple arm of friendship. The vendor didn’t wait for his reply and thrust the cooler box at him, they knew each other well. Through the vendor we were able to talk to our driver, we discussed how much his fuel cost, he had to pay for the fuel himself. As we were leaving the vendor politely, but firmly, told us we should tip the driver at the end. We nodded our heads and climbed aboard our little green train.

Another thrilling ride returned us to our tuk tuk driver, as we were disembarking a Tourist Police officer stepped in and demanded we tip our driver. At this point I became a little annoyed, we were going to tip him anyway, there was no way we weren’t going to hand him a few dollars. We just didn’t need a rude officer telling us to!

I can see how some of this pressure to part with money could get tourists down, I’m glad I researched it and went into the whole experience not only expecting it but also prepared for it. Making the connection, however fine, with our driver certainly helped and we went in with a positive frame of mind.

We thoroughly enjoyed the Cambodian Bamboo Train and, despite the issues, it really is worth doing. To feel the rush of the wind whipping your hair as you rattle at speed along the rickety tracks is both unique and a thrill.

Plenty more trains!

Plenty more trains!

Keep travelling:

A Tuk Tuk Tour Around The Battambang Countryside Crocodiles, temples, Khmer Rouge horrors and millions of bats.

Angkor Wat The most famous temple of all! Probably!

How To Do The Temples Of Angkor a perfect 3 day itinerary to see the temples with tips!

Looking For The Irrawaddy Dolphin One of the rarest dolphins in the world on the Mekong River in Kratie.

Bokor: Where The Corridors Are Silent Motorbiking up to an old French hilltop retreat near Kampot.

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1 Response

  1. LOVE your new look, fantastic! I like the wide design of the page and all the white space. It looks very professional and still very fun too. Great job! And SO excited that you got to do the bamboo railway. It’s really exciting to me when people come up with a creative idea and find a way to use something like those old rails. But I didn’t know that the rails were in such bad shape! Sounds like there were some moments you were wondering if the platform would stay on the track. My favorite photo is the one with you and Chris in focus and the trees behind you blurring with the speed – cool !! And I love that unused train station looking so well-kept.