Russ Juskalian on “Catching the Bamboo Train”

Photographer Russ Juskalian
This past June, photographer Russ Juskalian made a 170-mile trip by norry and wrote about it for his first Smithsonian feature story. Russ Juskalian

New York City-based freelancer Russ Juskalian has traveled extensively in Southeast Asia. In his first Smithsonian feature story, he writes about the norry, a makeshift bamboo platform rigged with a motor that is widely used on abandoned train tracks in Cambodia. This past June, Juskalian made a 170-mile trip by norry from Battambang to Phnom Penh.

What did you learn about rural life in Cambodia?

It was fascinating to me how this rail line that had been basically abandoned seemed like a corridor of activity. People would ride from one town to the next and set up a little market right by the side of the rail, which the villages seemed to be built around in certain places. I guess I kind of expected to see some of that, but it was surprising to me how much activity there was and how whole groups of the town would kind of show up at a certain place or be waiting for the norry to come by, do what they needed to do and then go back to whatever they were doing.

What else surprised you about the norry system?

I think it was surprising for me to see the norries that were used to transport lumber. The wood was just stacked so high. It looked ridiculous. It was definitely up to my head from the ground. And you’d see a couple of people riding on top of it. I was just shocked that whatever motors or engines they were using could support that kind of thing. The lumber gets transported over long distances, but mostly people seem to use the norries in short segments, anywhere from five miles to 20-30 miles. It wasn’t a long distance thing for most people.

Would you travel by norry again?

Probably not. It’s really hot. It was about 100 degrees. It’s loud. The frequency it vibrates and rattles at is pretty uncomfortable. I think it’s a sort of interesting thing in Battambang, the area where it starts. It’s become this backpacker attraction, and people ride it for ten minutes. I would do that if I had friends or family that wanted to see it.

What do you hope readers take away from this story?

I hope that it demonstrates what human beings are able to do. Cambodia has gone through so much terrible stuff in the last few decades, and yet human beings are able to maintain the things that make us human, that drive to endure, to create, to take what we have and try to make a better situation. The people that are using the norry—and this is a generalization—are more rural, have less money, have less access to the things that development brings, and yet, they are taking what they have to create something useful. In the end, that was, by far, the most interesting thing to me.

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