For years, travellers in Cambodia had to deal with one of the world's worst train networks. Trains run infrequently in between the villages, break-downs and derailments are common, and the trains themselves travel at little more than walking pace. So people in the north west of the country, near Cambodia's second city of Battambang, have taken matters into their own hands. They have created their own rail service using pieces of bamboo and abandoned barbell like train wheels. The locals call the vehicles "Norries", but overseas visitors know them as "bamboo trains".
Photo Credit: Going Slowly
Each bamboo train consists of a 3m-long wood frame, covered lengthwise with slats made of ultra-light bamboo, that rests on two barbell-like bogies. A repurposed water-pump or gasoline engine transfers power to the rear wheels by means of belts. These rickety contraptions can haul twenty or more people over the aging rails at speeds nearing 40 km/h, with the track just a couple of inches below the passengers. Warped and broken rails make for a bone-shaking journey.
But the drivers insist it is a safe form of transport.
"I use the bamboo trains to go to Battambang from my house in Phnom Teppedey so I can buy medicine," said Sao Nao as she sits on the rails with a small group of people, waiting for a norri to depart. "They're very safe - a motorbike taxi is too fast, and if I use one of those I sometimes get dizzy and fall off. On a bamboo train I can sit down and go to sleep. You can't do that on a motorbike."
And what happens when a bamboo train meets another bamboo train coming the opposite way? The answer is simple: whichever car has the least amount of passengers is quickly lifted off the tracks to allow the other to pass. They are then reassembled, engine restarted and on their way they go. It can be done with a minute. The importance of urgent bamboo train removal is of interest should a real train come your way.
Bamboo trains have become an unofficial part of the Cambodian transport system. They provide a link between villages and a means of transport for both people and goods in areas otherwise unserved. They are also a means of income for many as rich tourists pay up to $2/day to ride them. In Cambodia, that can equal two months wages to most citizens.
The bamboo trains were once found outside of numerous provincial towns anywhere railroad tracks had been laid. It was possible to take the bamboo trains from Battambang to Phnom Penh. Now, with the ongoing renovations to the national train line causing tracks to be torn up, and authorities less permissive of unofficial use, the bamboo trains are disappearing. The norry outside of Battambang are the last in existence.
Photo credit: Going Slowly
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