Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Bamboo Train

This, I promise, will be my last post about Cambodia for a while. You will have gathered that I love the place, and its people - and maybe I go on a bit when I talk about it.

But I can't leave the country without talking about, no, not Angkor Wat. Though Angkor Wat, of course, is spectacular. I spent a week there, pottering about temples and soaking in the enormity of the place. (Yes, there are enough temples to keep you enthralled for a week! That is how big it is).

Most visitors to Cambodia fly into Siem Reap, spend a day or two at Angkor Wat, and fly out again. A few may make it down the Mekong to Phnom Penh, to sit by the riverside with a coconut ice.

But the really inquisitive head for lesser-known towns. (Not into the countryside, however, tempting it looks. There are too many landmines there; even straying behind a bush for a pee can cause and explosion.) Which is how I ended up in Battambang, on the bamboo train.

Imagine, if you can, a fence panel on its side, an axle at each end, and an engine no bigger than that powering my lawn mower. There are cushions for wimpy tourists, and even a small rail to hold onto (at the front, not the sides.). The driver is barely old enough to shave. And the rails - they were constructed when the French were here, and built this track so that local farmers could take their goods to market. The track once extended from Battambang to Phnom Penh, and most of it is still in use. But the rails, subject to tropical sun and monsoon rains, have warped over the years. In places they have disappeared and the wheels lurch, somehow, over the gaps. Bridges over irrigation canals might once have been sturdy, but much of the structure has worn away and one bridge we went over was nothing but track balanced at each end with nothing underneath.

It is, of course, a great game to frighten the tourists. Drivers race along, the whole thing clattering beneath us, the wind in our hair, while bottoms bouncing over every gap in the rails. Health and safety - pah!

Something coming the other way? This, you see, is a single track railway. Drivers come to a quick agreement as to which train has the least cargo, and then dismember than one - putting the pieces to the side of the track - the fuller train chunters through, and then the first is reassembled. (I was excused train-construction duty; tourists who are young and fit are expected to do their bit!)

Even now, it is used by local people taking goods to market. We were there for fun, but still shared our little train with a man wearing an unlikely smart hat and his bicycle.

If you click here and scroll down, you'll see a picture of the train. Don't you think commuting would be much more fun if we did it this way? Treat yourself - imagine Paddington Station, or Waverley, or Penn Station in New York, full of bamboo trains ...


  1. A super post to take us away from winter in the UK! So much so that I went exploring, got lost and couldn't find my way back to write this comment :) Loved all your photos too. The whole experience has made me want to get on a plane, NOW! Thank you xx

  2. Thank you, Sue - I'm glad this has cheered you. And I hope you make it to Battambang - that train has to be seen to be believed. (and be prepared for a few bruises on your bottom - a small price to pay for such fun!)

  3. I scrolled past the picture of the train twice because I thought it was a cart, or a market stall!

  4. Do you remember Emmetts railways? Hope they are still packed away somewhere, unless they're now hard at work in Cambodia! I loved your other site.

  5. Wow! Cambodia's on the list, even if it is just to ride the train! I'm off to read more of your blogs (and download your book).

  6. Thank you Jenny - I'm glad you like the new site.
    Kirsty - Cambodia is totally wonderful. Everyone should go there!