Bamboo Train

For our day in Battambang we hired a driver/guide to show us around. Nick ended up being a great guide, and is the only person I will ever trust to drive me around the washed-out roads of Cambodia on the back of a motor scooter carrying three people.

When I was 16 or so I took a motorcycle safety course back in Ohio. The lessons of that class ring in my ears as I do things like ride a bike in flip flops and shorts down sandy roads, dodging chickens, cattle and helicopter-sized bugs, without a helmet or eye protection and while exceeding the maximum numbers if suggested passengers.

The road itself really was part of the experience. A block out of town the pavement ended and the dust/dirt began. Apparently in Cambodia a road is defined as any path, not clearly obstructed by trees or rocks, but otherwise not constrained by any societal norms. Traffic rules are non-existent. Ox carts, motorbikes, bicycles, traditional mini-tractors and pedestrians may venture forth on either side of the path, or if they like, straight down the middle. The middle seems to be the preferred method, leading to an endless stream of low-speed games of chicken.
After about an hour of riding three deep we arrived at our first real Cambodian temple, Phnom Banan. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was a great primer for the wonders of Angkor Wat that we would experience a few days later. After the temple we stopped by a Buddhist Wat to see some really big bats. I mean REALLY BIG bats.

There was this monk there that I noticed at first because he was smoking - a decidedly un-monk-like habit, but as he came closer I saw that he had the greatest face and he let me take a ridiculous number of photos of him.

From there it was on to the main attraction. Somewhere along the way Jason read about the Bamboo Train. There is an old and seemingly unmaintained railroad outside of Battambang, which supposedly still supports a train from time to time. The enterprising people who live near the tracks have made use of the all-but-abandoned tracks and use make-shift train cars to haul supplies from stop to stop. Somehow this has become a sort of tourist attraction among the more hardy traveling sect.
The cars are made of a two axles supporting a bamboo platform that is about 5’ wide by 10’ long. It is propelled by what looks to me to be a lawnmower engine. The whole contraption can be thrown together or taken apart in about two minutes. This part is key because there is only one track, so cars heading in opposing directions often meet up. The protocol here is that the car carrying less weight must dismantle and allow the heavier to pass.

This system seems to work really well except for around the time we made it to the train. Apparently, many illegal woodcutters use the tracks to haul their contraband. They seem to do this largely at dusk and into the night to avoid running into any police officers. On the evening we boarded the train the police were reported to be at the next station so the wood haulers were all parked halfway between stations, waiting for word that the officers had left. Each of their cars far outweighed ours and they were not about to move on so we could pass. This began a long and intricate game of leapfrog, where we and the four cars behind us would dismantle, push the wood cars behind us, reassemble our cars and move on to the next roadblock.
We did this three or four times before Nick was like, “let’s just ride the bike now”.
The train was a blast – even with the constant hurry up and wait, stop/start pattern it was well worth doing. Those little lawn mower engines can haul and we soon figured out which tracks joints would be smooth to roll over and which ones required us to brace for impact. We traveled through farmland and over a few creeks, got to see lots of local people. It was one of those must do things for us and it lived up to our expectations for sure.

Should you find yourself in Battambang I would recommend using Nick – he was a good guide and showed us a great time.


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