Catching the Bamboo Train

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

The rickety platforms—"norries" to the locals—carry passengers and freight on wobbly rails left over from an abandoned transit system. (Russ Juskalian)
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The whole process usually takes about a minute, since two people can carry a typical bamboo norry. But the big two-by-four platform required six of us lifting with all our strength. Aside from narrowly missing a few cows foraging around the tracks, we made it to Pursat without incident. The norry station was a busy cluster of railside huts where one could buy food, drink and basic supplies. I had planned to leave the next morning, but a bout of food poisoning—was it the bai sach chrouk?—delayed us a day.

On our second morning, a thin, shirtless young man named Nem Neang asked if I wanted a ride to Bamnak, where he would be driving a passenger norry in about 15 minutes. Just what I needed. He said there were usually ten norries a day from Pursat, and for an average day of work he would collect 30,000 to 40,000 Cambodia riel (roughly $7 to $10). But he worried that the railroad was going to be improved—the Cambodian government is working on it— and that the laws against norries might actually be enforced.

Neang’s norry was crowded with 32 passengers, each of whom had paid the equivalent of 75 cents or less for the ride. At an early stop, a motorbike was brought on, and several passengers had to sit on it until more room opened up. Among this tightly packed crowd—a tangle of legs, bags and chatter—I met a Muslim woman named Khortayas, her hair covered in a floral head scarf, on her way to visit her sister in Bamnak. A merchant named Rath told me she took the norry twice each month to bring back beds to sell.

Near the town of Phumi O Spean, a small white dog started chasing the norry, trailing us relentlessly. As we slowed, the dog darted ahead, briefly running up the track as if it were our leader. The absurdity of the scene caused a minor sensation, and somebody suggested that the dog wanted a ride. Neang stopped, picked up the pup and brought it aboard. Our new canine friend rode the rest of the way, being stroked by one or another of the passengers or standing with two paws on the driver’s lap.

At Bamnak, we switched to a norry carrying concrete pipes, refined sugar, soy milk, crates of eggs and other supplies. In Kdol, we joined a young mother and her child on a norry returning from a lumber delivery. And in Romeas, we chartered a norry driven by a man who had bloodshot eyes and smelled of moonshine. The town of Bat Doeng had no guesthouse, but our norry driver’s brother, a construction worker named Seik Than, lived nearby and offered to let us stay with him. He and his wife, Chhorn Vany, grilled a whole chicken for our dinner.

It was in Bat Doeng that we boarded our final norry, the one driven by the man with the bum ankle and low fuel. Having to push part of the way made the journey to Trapeang Leuk seem a lot longer than 15-odd miles. From there—basically the end of the line—we caught a tuk-tuk, a type of auto-rickshaw, for the five-mile ride to Phnom Penh and a hot shower in a backpackers’ hotel. It felt like the height of luxury.

In the days that followed, whomever I told about the bamboo train seemed charmed by the novelty of the thing. But an English teacher from the United Kingdom whom I met at a café in Phnom Penh recognized something else.

“That’s great to hear,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because after what happened here, you worry about the state of the human spark. But this reassures me it’s still there.”


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