We were a few miles from the nearest village when we ran out of gas. The motor, a small thing perched on the back of a queen-size bamboo platform, spat out a few tubercular-sounding coughs and gave up. There were three of us riding this Frankenstein’s pump trolley, known in Cambodia as a norry, including my interpreter and the conductor, a short, elderly man with sunbaked skin and the permanent squint of failing eyesight. The morning was wretchedly hot, and in addition to a long-sleeved shirt and pants to block the sun, I wore a hat on my head and a scarf around my face. One could stay dry when moving along, the oncoming air acting like a mighty fan. But as the norry rolled to a slow stop, sweat bloomed on the skin almost instantly. I’d traveled across a broad stretch of Cambodia on the “bamboo train,” as this form of transportation is known in English, and now I considered what getting stuck here would mean.
The old man pointed down the line and mumbled in his native Khmer. “His house is nearby,” said Phichith Rithea, the 22-year-old interpreter. “He says it’s about 500 meters.” All I could see was heat-rippled air. Rithea pushed until he was ready to collapse, and the old man mumbled again. “He says we are nearly there,” Rithea translated as I took my turn pushing. The old man told me to walk on one of the rails to avoid snakes sunning on the metal ties. I slowed down as we approached a lone wooden train car converted to a house near where the old man had pointed. “That’s not it,” said Rithea. My head spun with heat and exhaustion. When we reached the old man’s house, we estimated that it was more than a mile from where we had broken down. The conductor filled our tank with a light-green liquid he kept in one-liter Coke bottles, and we were on our way, headed toward the capital, Phnom Penh.
If you have the time, money and inclination, you can travel almost 11,000 miles from London to Singapore exclusively by train—except in Cambodia. It wasn’t always so. In the 1920s, the French started work on a railroad that would eventually run 400 miles across Cambodia in two major sections: the first from the Thai border, via Battambang, to Phnom Penh; the second from Phnom Penh to the coastal city of Sihanoukville to the south. The rail was a single line of meter-wide track, but it did the job, and people used it.
The years after French colonial rule, which ended in 1953, were characterized by instability and then civil war. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge regime evacuated Phnom Penh, reducing the city’s population from more than two million people to 10,000 in a single day. From then until the regime fell, in 1979, an estimated 1.4 million Cambodians, or about 20 percent of the total population, died from execution, starvation or overwork. A new psychology took root: say nothing unnecessary, think no original thoughts, do nothing to stand out. In other words, to demonstrate the very qualities that make us human was to consign oneself to a torture center like the notorious S-21 prison, and eventually a mass grave. The Khmer Rouge had a slogan:
To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.
From 1979 to the late 1990s, a guerrilla war burned through the country. Remnants of the Khmer Rouge mined the railroad extensively and frequently ambushed trains. An official from the Cambodian Ministry of Public Works and Transport told me that the ministry still wouldn’t guarantee that the rails had been fully cleared of land mines.
I went to Cambodia last June to ride the norries, which I’d heard about on previous travels to Southeast Asia, and to get a glimpse of rural life along the way. Passenger trains hadn’t run in over a year. And for quite some time before that, there had been only one train a week, taking about 16 hours to cover a route that took only five hours by bus; at speeds just faster than a jog, the train tended to break down or derail. At the train yard in Phnom Penh, I saw rows of derelict cars, some with interiors overgrown with plants, others whose floors had entirely rotted out. All that was left was the norry.
A norry is basically a breadbox-size motor on top of a bed-size bamboo platform on top of two independent sets of metal wheels—all held together by gravity. It’s built from bamboo, old tank parts and motors ripped from broken motorbikes, rice harvesters and tractors. To accelerate, the driver slides the motor backward, using a stick as a lever, to create enough tension in the rubber belt to rotate the rear axle. Though no two norries are identical, a failing part can be swapped with a replacement in a few seconds. Norries are technically illegal but nonetheless vital and, if you know where to look, ubiquitous.
I started just outside Battambang, on a 170-mile-long stretch of what was once the Northern Line. The “norry station” was little more than a few teak and bamboo homes at the dusty confluence of a dirt road and a set of old rails. When Rithea and I arrived, there were chickens, dogs and children scampering about and two cops lounging in the shade, chatting with the locals. Bamboo platforms, disembodied engines and old tank wheels welded in pairs to heavy axles were stacked near the tracks.
A man sitting on the rails had a prosthetic left leg, a few gold teeth and a disarming smile. He gave his name as Sean Seurm and his age as 66. He said he was a norry driver but complained that the local travelers used his services less often these days, having been replaced by foreign tourists looking for a 20-minute jaunt into the countryside. “We have less business, and now we have to pay the police,” said Seurm’s wife, Phek Teorng. Shaking down a norry driver ferrying locals at 50 cents a ride had probably not been worth the trouble, but tourists pay ten times that.