Cambodia’s ‘bamboo trains’ on track to disappear

The handmade bamboo trains that have delighted tourists for nearly two decades are vanishing as Cambodia restores railways for modern trains.

“It felt more like a rollercoaster, but it’s really nice,” German tourist Theresa Kessemeier says.

“I think it is a good way to transport really heavy things from one place to another.”

Norry were invented in the 1980s by railway workers, who used them to check and repair train tracks in Battambang, about 290 kilometers northwest of the capital, Phnom Penh. Later, local people used them to transport goods and travel.

Residents used bamboo trains to carry tourists to see bucolic scenery along the dilapidated railroad in Sangke district of northwestern Cambodia’s Battambang province until 1999. The bamboo trains have since become popular with foreign tourists.

Canadian tourist Lisanne Lacroix says: “I really, really enjoyed it. You get to see the (rice) fields. You get to see just everyday lives. So, it’s a very great experience.”

Norry provide a thrilling 7-km ride for $5. Or tourists can rent norry for $10 for a single trip. They can carry six passengers. The trains can be assembled or demolished in only a few minutes.

Two axles stripped from old vehicles are set on the train tracks, and a bamboo platform is placed on top. A small petrol engine is wedged into a hole cut out of the platform and tied to one of the axles with a rubber strap.

German visitor Arian Rathmann says he’d imagined it was like a real train but discovered it wasn’t.

“It’s different from what I thought of because when you hear about the train, you think it’s like a big train with big wagon,” he says.

“I didn’t think it is just like a small platform, and you go like on a roller coaster. Very interesting. I like it.”

About 40 bamboo trains serve tourists along the 7-km stretch of the dilapidated 388-km rail line from Phnom Penh to Banteay Meanchey province and the Thai border.

The railway overhaul began near the Thai border years ago and reached the place where the bamboo trains operate in September, Railroad Department director Chan Samleng says.

Norry operators have been told to stop but have defied the ban, he says.

“According to the law, they have no rights to operate norry on the railways,” he says.

The rail from Phnom Penh to Thailand is slated for completion by the end of next year, Chan says.

Bamboo train operator Ngul Nguon acknowledges drivers were ordered to desist but ignored the prohibi

tion because they don’t have other work.

“I’m really concerned about when this railroad is closed because I’m a bit old and don’t know what to do,” the 56-year-old father of three says.

He earns $5 to $15 a day.

Driver Sokun Koeun says operating norry is the only skill he has to feed his wife and two children.

“I’m very worried about the ban,” the 36-year-old says.

“I don’t know what to do next.”

English-speaking tour guide Tep Tin believes the ban will directly affect drivers and snack and souvenir vendors around the unique attraction.

“It will affect their daily incomes because tourists come to Battambang to ride norry,” the 52-year-old says.

He predicts tourism will decline without the trains.

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