Getting derailed in Battambang

What do you do when you don’t have a lot of money, you live far from the nearest town, and you’ve got a set of abandoned train tracks at your disposal? You build your own train, of course – a bamboo train, to be exact! The “bamboo train” is essentially a platform “train car” made out of bamboo slats that rests on 2 axles taken from abandoned tanks left after the war; add an old go-cart-style engine to the back to turn the axles below, and you’ve got yourself a homemade train!

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The idea for the bamboo train was borne during the near-collapse of Cambodian infrastructure during the civil war and Khmer Rouge reign of the 1970’s, much of the Cambodian countryside was abandoned or, at best, poorly maintained: ancient Khmer temples were reclaimed by jungles (stay tuned for a future blog post on that!), roads became impassable, and the few railway tracks that span the country were no longer used. Today, old train tracks remain where trains used to pass through these fields, and the unused tracks are just a sad reminder of Cambodia’s decline over the past few decades.  A small village on the outskirts of the town of Battambang has no roads connecting it to other towns; surrounded by miles of rice fields and thick weedy bushes, these train tracks are literally the villagers’ connection to the rest of the country. But instead of abandoning the train tracks when the trains stopped running, resourceful villagers realized that they could still capitalize on these old tracks as a way of transporting themselves and their goods into the main village—thus the “bamboo train” was born.

The ingenuity of the whole thing seems almost too good to be true until you realize that there is, in fact, only one set of train tracks, presenting the problem of what to do when an oncoming bamboo train appears. In this case, both bamboo trains come to a stop, and the one with fewer goods and/or people has to be disassembled and moved off of the tracks. Tip from the locals: just drive a motorcycle up onto your bamboo train, and you’ll never have to move for anyone. A water buffalo would work well in this situation, also.

Today, Battambang’s bamboo train is still used by villagers to transport goods to and from the market early in the morning, and even when we arrived around 10:00 in the morning, locals could still be seen flying by on the tracks. Due to the novelty and sheer ridiculous fun of this thing, it has also become quite a tourist attraction, with mostly foreigners riding its tracks later in the day.

So we decided to take a bus from Phnom Penh to Battambang, where we hired a tuk-tuk driver named Happy to take us to the fabled bamboo train.  We took a seat on the platform of our personal train car and set off on a slow roll down the tracks through walls of thick green vegetation, opening up to vast expanses of rice fields as far as we could see. After only a few minutes, we were seemingly so far from civilization: nothing but grassy fields as far as we could see and a thatch hut with two little kids standing outside, waving and screaming “hello!!” at the tops of their lungs.

After a few minutes, the train had picked up from a nice, safe cruising speed to a truly terrifying/awesome thrill ride. Only about 12 inches from the ground, we flew down the tracks at what felt like 40 miles an hour and was probably more like, well, 60.  With each new segment of the track, there was a jarring “clack” that threatened to make me bite my tongue or fall straight off the tiny platform. “This is SO dangerous!” I yelled to Scott, laughing, trying to hold on to something (there was nothing) and simultaneously tuck in any and all fingers and appendages, lest they be lost to a low hanging tree branch or an imminent derailment of the car at any second. “Yeah! This is great!” he yelled back. All I could do is laugh and yell back, “Yeah!”

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After half an hour, we reached an old brick factory (just a convenient spot for the train to reverse direction and take us back), where we were allowed to see bricks being made and talk to a nice woman who owned to factory. Then we piled back onto our train car again and headed back where we had started. On the way to the factory we had been lucky; we had never had to disassemble our train car for anyone else (several people had disassembled theirs for us on our way there, however). On the way back from the factory, we weren’t so lucky and we had to pile off to let a passing train go by (this was still better than the English family that we passed, who said they had had to get off of their train 5 times already!). Luckily, this consisted of little more than lifting the bamboo platform off of the free axles and then moving the axles off as well.

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As we were riding this crazy thing back to Happy and our awaiting tuk tuk, I just kept thinking how ingenious it was to keep using these tracks in the first place. In another place, a place with the riches to do so, we would just plow down some trees and build a road for our cars to drive down. Until that day is possible for these rural people (or until the government finally repairs the tracks so that they can be used by real trains– whichever comes first), the bamboo train serves as just another amazing example of poverty-driven resourcefulness literally driving innovation forward.

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