A Classic Rail Journey?
Lonely Planet says riding the Bamboo Train in Battambang, Cambodia is, “one of the world’s all-time classic rail journeys.” Um, maybe. I have been on a lot of train trips and I guess I really don’t know what makes a journey a classic. Their statement also begs the question; what makes a journey? What are the other famous trains? One thing I do know is that riding this sort of transportation is fun and riding this Cambodian train is one of the top things to do in Battambang!
Where is the Bamboo Train?
The bamboo train line starts near the river in Battambang and runs to the brickmaking village of O Sra Lav about 12 kilometers to the south. The best thing that can be said about the condition of the rails is that they are mostly parallel. They are also old, warped and where one length of rail joins the next, barely aligned. They also go over through some very interesting scenery.
Is the Bamboo Train Safe?
Each bamboo train, more properly called a norry in Khmer, consists of a wooden frame, covered with bamboo slats that rest on two-wheeled carriages connected to motorcycle engines by automobile fan belts. As unwieldy as it all sounds the contraptions can move along as fast as 30 mph. The sensation is similar to being pushed through a gravel parking lot on a furniture dolly (I guess, I honestly haven’t tried that…recently). Since there are no seat belts, railings or anything else to hold onto, just staying aboard feels like a challenge.
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Who Built the Bamboo Train in Battambang?
The trains at Battambang are all that is left of a much larger system originally built by French colonial settlers. Most of the system, which used to run as far as from Battambang to Phnom Penh, was shut down by the Khmer Rouge and has since been abandoned. Since no parallel tracks or side rails were built to allow opposite direction trains to pass a plan had to be devised.
The solution: when two bamboo trains meet head-on, hopefully with plenty of awareness from both drivers because the trains have no brakes, the least laden train is disassembled by the drivers and reassembled on the other side. Given how light the cars are and how skilled and practiced the drivers are, this is not as inefficient as you might imagine.
Is the Bamboo Train Still in Use?
The train still moves some bricks, charcoal and other good along the tracks but for the most part, it is tourists that are riding the rails. Come to think of it, given the history and uniqueness of the experience, I guess it could be considered a classic. If you want to ride what is left of the old system though you better hurry. There are plans in the works to reclaim the right of way and modernize the system.
Video of Riding the Bamboo Train in Battambang, Cambodia
That video is incredible. What a unique rail system. Shame it might not be here for long.
Modernity get everywhere. I guess a new system might be more efficient for the users.
I recently went on this train as well; what a trip. You have some great photos and catch the experience well in your video. One of the coolest things to be done in Cambodia.
I think our impressions of the train are the same. I love your quote, “The San Andreas fault is straighter than these tracks”.
You are right Jonathan, that does look like a crazy train experience. Although it does appear a little bit like a tourist joy ride rather than an actual classic train journey. But it still looks like good fun to cruise around the old rusty tracks, along cows and green fields. Did you have the chance to try the rail system in Myanmar? If you like crazy and adventurous train rides, Myanmar Railways might be the right thing for you… 🙂
Hi Dennis. Yes, I did ride the rails in Myanmar between Pyay and Bagan. That was pretty crazy too. Actually it was VERY crazy. Story about that coming soon.
I rode this train in 2010 and back then they were saying it was going to stop soon because the Cambodian government had sold the rights to the rail system to some company who was going to start a railway in Cambodia again. I guess that hasn’t happened yet. 😉 It certainly was an unforgettable ride!
“Progress” seems to take a while in Cambodia. In the mean time I just love these anachronisms.