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The rickety platforms—"norries" to the locals—carry passengers and freight on wobbly rails left over from an abandoned transit system. (Russ Juskalian)

Catching the Bamboo Train

Rural Cambodians cobbled old tank parts and scrap lumber into an ingenious way to get around

Over the next hour, at least five small groups of Western backpackers arrived to ride the norry. None of the locals was forthcoming when Rithea asked about our chances of catching one to Phnum Thippadei, about 18 miles away. A man with a tattoo of Angkor Wat on his chest intimated that we had no choice but to wait for the local vegetable norry, which wouldn’t leave until 4 a.m. When we came back to board it, the sky was dotted with glittering stars, the tiniest slice of crescent moon to the east, and the Milky Way’s surprisingly visible Great Rift.

The vegetable norry carried us a few miles down the track to meet up with one headed to Phnum Thippadei. It was less sturdy than I had imagined, with gaps in the bamboo wide enough to jam a finger through, and the platform vibrated at just the right frequency to make my legs itch. Our driver, standing near the back, used a headlamp as a signaling device for road crossings and upcoming stations, turning the rails to silver streaks darting into the undergrowth. I was mesmerized—until a shrub smacked me in the face. When another took a small chunk out of my right sleeve, I felt like a tyro for riding too close to the edge.

As I scrambled onto the norry to Phnum Thippadei, I inhaled an almost sickly sweet scent of overripe fruit; in addition to a few Cambodian women, we were carrying cargo that included a pile of spiky jackfruit the size of watermelons. “They sell vegetables along the way,” said Rithea as we rolled to a brief stop at a village. Most of the produce was dropped off, and before we pulled away, I saw nylon mats being unrolled and vegetables being set up by the rail—an impromptu market.

As the stars grew faint and the sky slowly faded to pink and yellow pastels ahead of a not-yet-risen sun, villagers lighted small gas lanterns at railside huts. At each stop, always where a dirt road intersected the rail, I heard voices droning in the distance. Rithea said they were monks chant-ing morning prayers or intoning the mournful words of a funeral or singing Buddhist poetry. It made me think of the Muslim call to prayer, or of Joseph Conrad’s Marlow awakening to a jungle incantation that “had a strange narcotic effect upon my half-awake senses.”

The sun was low in the sky when we pulled into Phnum Thippadei. A few dozen people squatted by the track or sat in plastic chairs eating a breakfast of ka tieu, a noodle soup. After some searching, we found a norry driver named Yan Baem and his sidekick, La Vanda, who dressed like a Miami bon vivant in a patterned white shirt with a wide collar, white pants and flip-flops. They said they’d take us to Moung Roessei, about 15 miles down the line, where Rithea thought we could get a norry to Pursat.

Now that the sun was up, I could see why the going was so rough: the tracks were woefully misaligned. Most of the rail was warped into a comical squiggle, as if it had been made of plastic and then deformed by a massive hair dryer. In some places, there were breaches in the rail more than four inches wide. With nothing to distract me, I focused meditatively on the click-CLANK-jolt, click-CLANK-jolt, click-CLANK-jolt of the ride, barely reacting when the norry hit a particularly bad gap in the track and the platform jumped the front axle and slid down the rail with all of us still seated. After a quick inspection, Baem and Vanda reassembled the norry and pressed on, a bit slower than before.

In Moung Roessei, we met Baem’s aunt, Keo Chendra, who was dressed in a floral magenta shirt and bright pink pajama pants. She insisted there were no norries going our way—but her husband, who owned a norry, would take us for a price. Rithea wanted to negotiate, but I had begun to suspect that “no norries running here” was just a way to get unsuspecting foreigners to overpay for a chartered ride and that Rithea was too polite to challenge such assertions. After all, we’d been told that no norries ran between Phnum Thippadei and Moung Roessei—and hadn’t we seen a handful traveling that route?

We decided to cool off in the shade for a bit. Chendra had a food stand, so we ordered plates of bai sach chrouk, a marinated, grilled pork dish over broken rice. After eating, we walked to what was once a sizable train station, the old buildings now crumbling shells, pockmarked and empty. A scribbled chalkboard that once announced the comings and goings of trains floated like a ghost near a boarded-up ticket window; passing nearby, a horse-drawn buggy kicked up dust.

A bit up the track, I saw four men loading a norry with the parts of a much bigger one built out of two-by-fours. The driver told us that the big norry was used to carry lumber from Pursat to Moung Roessei, Phnum Thippadei and Battambang, but that it was cheaper to transport the big norry back to Pursat on the smaller one. He said we could join them for the roughly 50-mile trip, no charge, though I insisted we pay, $10 for the two of us.

Less than a mile out, a norry stacked high with timber came clacking at us head-on. Fortunately, norry crews have developed an etiquette for dealing with such situations: the crew from the more heavily laden norry is obliged to help disassemble the lighter one, and, after passing it, reassemble it on the track.

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