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The Bamboo Express Train


December 1, 2012 by Jools Stone


The following post was supported and written by Selective Asia.

The Bamboo Express

Anyone with an interest in unusual modes of transport will find the bamboo train network of Cambodia absolutely fascinating. This uniquely environmentally-friendly innovation is all the work of ‘unskilled’ villagers and shows just what can be achieved by ordinary people with a practical problem to solve, without an engineering degree or comprehensive CV anywhere in sight. Organising holidays in Cambodia should take in not only the lush scenery, culture and bustling, historic cities of this ancient land, but also parts of the admirable bamboo railways network.

The French colonialists did set up a rail network to service their financial investments such as banana and coffee plantations, but this was of limited use for the majority of the population and in any case it was later systematically smashed up along with just about everything else by the odious Khmer Rouge in their quest to take Cambodia back to the Stone Age. There are still a few lines operating between some villages on a sporadic basis, but breakdowns and derailments are so frequent that journey times can vary as much as they did with British Rail. Despite Government promises of increased investment in the Cambodian rail network little has actually been done about it, and so villagers have taken the initiative through sheer desperation and come up with this brilliant idea of a Bamboo Express.

Like Blue Peter addicts, they’ve used the natural bamboo that surrounds them and combined it with spare parts from old wrecks of tanks which are also abundant in these parts to create what are effectively bamboo rafts on wheels. In the late 1970s, when they first started appearing, the technology was limited to hand-cast controls and a series of levers to direct and manage them, but since the 1980s these have been upgraded to include miniature motors, courtesy of UN aid initiatives, and individualised footbrakes. This may not be quite up to the standard we’ve come to expect from our own rail companies, but it certainly works and the users of the system can know they’re safe from the depredations of shareholders and overpaid bosses.

The bamboo train system in Cambodia is simplicity itself. The surviving spurs and tracks have been renovated and fixed up wherever possible and pressed back into service for this new kind of carriage. When two of these so-called ‘norries’ approach each other on the same line from opposite directions, the passengers on the lighter one all get off and lift their norry off the track to allow the other one to pass before putting it back on and continuing with their journey. At the end of the line it is simply turned around for the return trip.

Technically illegal but absolutely vital for rural economies, the norries are used mainly for transporting food and livestock between villages and for getting raw materials to building sites. They’ve also become popular with tourists, who’ll pay the equivalent of a month’s wages here (a few pounds) for a day’s ride on one. There’s even a ‘boom town’ village, Phnum Thippadei, riding the crest of the norry wave by knocking out ten of them a month, including some specially beautified ones for tourists. Here, the future looks bright, the future looks Norry.

David Elliott is a freelance writer who loves to travel, especially in Europe and Turkey. He’s spent most of his adult life in a state of restless excitement but recently decided to settle in North London. He gets away whenever he can to immerse himself in foreign cultures and lap up the history of great cities.



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