The top tourist attractions in Cambodia are a delightfully mixed bag: pristine beaches, ornate temples, archaeological ruins, floating fishing villages, stunning national parks, sobering genocide memorials and at least one haunted abandoned hotel. There’s truly something for everything in the “Kingdom of Wonder.”
In Battambang, a laid-back city in the northwest of the country alongside the Sangkae River that serves as the capital of Battambang Province, visitors have long flocked to a curious mode of transportation that’s rickety, rudimentary and, for a long time, lacked brakes.
All aboard the norry or, as it's more commonly called, the bamboo train.
The days are limited for the small remaining section of Cambodia’s beloved and once-expansive network of norries as the country lurches forward with a scheme to revamp its antiquated national rail system.
Consisting of bamboo-slatted platforms-on-wheels lined with straw mats and powered by jerry-rigged gas motors (usually motorcycle or tractor motors), norries combine the scenic pleasures of a train ride with the semi-terrifying thrill of riding in the back of a pickup truck. They’re charming, ingenious, a bit dodgy and uniquely Cambodian.
“I'm actually happy that it was the bamboo train and not an ordinary train, because that track was not in good shape,” one European visitor to Battambang recently told Agence France-Presse after a ride along a four-mile route (top speed: about 30 miles per hour).
A slightly scary example of grassroots ingenuity
Before the bamboo train gained popularity as a somewhat white-knuckle tourist draw through the Battambang countryside, this ad-hoc form of local transport served a more practical purpose, transporting goods and people across rural areas lacking roads and other reliable transportation infrastructure. To be clear, the narrow-gauge tracks that norries run on predate the steel-framed trollies themselves, constructed during the French colonial era and subsequently abandoned.
Cambodia’s rail network, primarily built throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, stretches from the coastal city of Sihanoukville to the capital Phnom Penh and then onward toward its northern terminus at Poipet, a city abutting the Thai border.
Bamboo trains, a clever work of can-do-ism in a country ravished by poverty and civil war, first appeared in the early 1980s following the tragic, totalitarian reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. With the national railway system all but defunct and hundreds of miles of railway sitting unused, Cambodians took matters into their own hands and created norries as a grassroots workaround. Initially, bamboo poles were used to push the wheeled platforms down the tracks, with motors coming into the picture later. In the late 20th century, highways and local roadways improved and the bamboo train became redundant and largely fell out of favor save for, of course, the tourist trade.
After a decade of false alarms, the end of the line is here
Today, many are celebrating a return to glory for Cambodia’s national railway system. It’s been a long time coming — damaged and overgrown tracks are being repaired, long-inaccessible routes are being reopened, and viable passenger rail travel, slowly but surely, is returning to the difficult-to-traverse and quickly growing Southeast Asian nation.
But as a result, the bamboo train at Battambang, a major stop along the “traditional” northern rail route, has become endangered. Last year, a norry line between Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville was shuttered to make room for the return of passenger rail service.
In Battambang, previous threats of closure have come and gone over the last decade or so. However, it would seem that norry operators will soon be forced out of a job for good by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport’s railway department, which has imminent plans to repair the track and do away with the bamboo train altogether.
“They have no right to run on the railroad anymore," Cham Semleng, director of the department, said of Battamburg’s bamboo train drivers to AFP. “They can look for other jobs.”
And it’s not just the drivers whose livelihoods depend on the lucrative tourist dollars generated by the norries. An entire tourism-driven cottage industry has grown around the ramshackle trollies, with snack vendors and ticket-takers all relying on the trains to make ends meet.
“If there are no rails to drive on, it will be hard to find a job because this is the only skill I have," norry operator Soy Savuth told AFP.
Calling the bamboo train “a monument to human ingenuity in a time of necessity and to entrepreneurship in a time of tourism,” the BBC wrote in 2016:
The bamboo train’s prophesied demise has become like the story of Bigfoot — famous, unverifiable, and to cynics, improbable.
This time, however, it truly appears to be the end of the line.