If riding the rails in your own personal mini-train is one of your dreams, you can realize that dream in a surprising place: the Cambodian city of Battambang.
Many of Cambodia's tracks, laid during the French Colonial era, were left in disrepair after the nightmarish reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Even today, a few passenger trains keep an unreliable schedule on some of these tracks, so for the most part, the rails are free of large locomotives.
That leaves plenty of room for a unique vehicle known as the norry (sometimes romanized as nori). It wouldn't be correct to call these vehicles "miniature trains." Except for their wheels, which fit snugly on the single-gauge tracks, norries do not resemble traditional trains at all. The wheels are turned by a small gas engine and the passengers ride on a platform that looks a lot like an old-fashioned river raft.
This flat platform, made of bamboo, is placed on top of the wheels to accommodate passengers (up to six people, give or take) or to haul goods. Norries chug along slowly at first, but once they gain momentum, they can hit speeds of about 30 miles per hour.
Since their inclusion in a Lonely Planet guide, these trains have become popular with tourists. Some people make the four- to six-hour trip from Phnom Penh to Battambang simply to take a norry ride.
The entire experience is quite cheap, even by Southeast Asia standards. A round-trip ride costs around $5-$6, though some couples or small groups buy out the whole "train" so that they can spread out. A ride from the center of Battambang to the track terminus on a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled mini taxi) is also part of the experience. It costs an additional $5. Even the bus from Phnom Penh is reasonable (under $10 one-way).
Why so cheap? The cost of living in rural Cambodia is quite low, so $5 is a significant amount of money. Locals who use norries for hauling or transportation pay much lower fares. Thanks to the rudimentary design and use of local bamboo, these vehicles cost almost nothing to build.
Except for the gas, the fares represent an almost 100 percent profit for the norry operator. However, the local tourist police are involved in the industry as well, taking a cut of the proceeds for allowing the trains to run. Their involvement means that prices stay relatively fixed and the rides are generally crime-free.
Long before tourist dollars started showing up, bamboo trains were used to transport people and cargo all around the region. Small trackside villages were established and local farmers and craftsmen spent their spare time building vehicles that they could then sell or use themselves.
The original carriages were propelled by hand. Local youths would push these first-generation norries along with poles that were very similar to the ones used to propel classic Venetian boats.
The legend is that the idea first came to people in the area because flat carriages were used to sweep for mines along the tracks after the war to remove the Khmer Rouge from power. Despite the risk, passengers would sometimes ride these sweeper trains. A small fare was charged to ride on all the cars after the first one. Anyone who wanted to risk riding at the head did not have to pay for a ticket at all.
This is Cambodia's heartland, so norries are still used today to haul crops (rice, fruits, bamboo and timber) to Battambang for sale or export. Farm villagers also ride them into the "big city." (Battambang is Cambodia's second largest city, but its population is only about 180,000). Despite plans for upgrade projects, official train service is limited, so there is really no other option.
The lack of maintenance means that norry rides can have bumps and white-knuckle moments. Drivers contend they they are completely safe, however, pointing to the much higher accident rate of motorbikes and tuk-tuks, the other transportation options in the area.
Norries awaiting passengers at a bamboo train station in the Battambang area. (Photo: shankar s./flickr)
There is two-way traffic on each track, however head-on crashes are rare. Norries can be removed from the track a couple of minutes. When two vehicles going in opposite directions meet, the general rule is that the heavier one is allowed to continue on, while the lighter one is dismantled and removed from the track so that its heavier peer can pass.
Savvy drivers, realizing that tourists actually think it's charming and memorable to have to help dismantle their vehicle, sometimes plan to meet each other on the track so that their passengers can have a "real" norry experience.
Though authorities in Cambodia contend that norries are unofficial (or even illegal) no one has made a move to stop them. Until something better comes along, norries remain in use and remain an example of what is possible when people are ingenious enough to get the most out of the infrastructure that they have been given (or, in the case of the norry industry, the infrastructure that they have been left with).