Riding the Bamboo Train

April 29, 2012

The main reason to visit Battambang, some might say the only reason, is to score a ride on the celebrated Bamboo Train before it slips forever into oblivion. Apparently the Cambodian government has great plans for new railroad lines, and an anachronism like the bamboo train
has no place in the program.

The rather more upscale transport to the Bamboo Train terminus

Unlike many other transportation devices that sport extravagant names bearing no relationship to their intended purpose (the Dodge Charger, the Honda Hurricane, and the Titanic jump to mind), the Bamboo Train’s nomenclature is refreshingly unadorned; it is just what it says it is, a bamboo platform about the size of a single bed, set atop a pair of axles with train wheels at either end. A small motorcycle engine powers the contraption (and there really is no other word for it than “contraption”) by means of a drive belt attached to one of the axles. Braking is largely non-existent, save for the friction between the pitted wheels and the rusty track. Suspension, ha—suspension is for sissies! There are two solid billet axles which serve only to keep the wheels the appropriate distance apart, and no springs of any sort to cushion your nether regions from the relentless pounding. It is rather amazing just how much jolt can be generated by two sections of track coming together scant millimeters off level from one another.

This takes "minimalist" to a whole new level...

The Bamboo Train provides an ad hoc solution to a rural transportation problem; it exists to  ferry passengers and cargo from Battambang out to the boondocks, places deep into the rice paddies where roads do not yet reach. It lacks speed, safety, and a schedule, but more than makes up for all that with its ingenious construction and its sheer usefulness. It goes only when it gets full, or, if you’re feeling flush, you can charter the whole train for an hour or so for $10. This includes the services of a driver, who cheerfully delivers a running commentary—all in Khmer, of course, but it is nonetheless endlessly entertaining.

Cue the "Indy Jones" theme music...

As there is only one set of tracks, occasionally there is the surprise of finding another Bamboo  Train coming in the other direction. Not to worry, though, for the specialty of the Bamboo Train lies in its feathery weight and the resultant maneuverability. The drivers and passengers simply hop off the train, lift the bamboo platform off the wheels, heft the tiny engine off to one side, and then shlep each set of wheels off the tracks. The whole process takes no more than a couple of  minutes. Thus, the train coming in the opposite direction can make it through unimpeded. Despite the fact that this is all much easier than it would be with, say, an Amtrak car, it is still a bit of an undertaking in the hot Cambodian sun, however. So it stands to reason that there is a pecking order as to which train moves out of the way, and which one gets to pass through. Basically, the train with the most passengers wins, although a motorcycle on board trumps even
a full complement of human freight.

Parallel parking, Cambodian style

Recent rumor has it that this will be the final year for the Bamboo Train, one more gloomy chorus to add to the Disappearing Railroad Blues. It will be deeply missed, by locals and travelers alike.