The bamboo train, also called norry in Cambodian, is a simple but essential form of transport in Cambodia. In contrast to the once a week passenger train, it is fast, always on time and fun to ride! There is only one regular passenger train a week, travelling between Battambang and Phnom Penh, mostly in not more than walking speed, making the norry the preferred transport amongst Cambodians living and working along the tracks.
The train tracks were constructed in the 1930's, when Cambodia was a French colony part of Indochina. In those days the French colonists grew coffee and bananas and needed to transport their produce from the plantations to the markets. They built a narrow-track railroad serviced by steam engines, which were later replaced with more powerful steam locomotives. During the Khmer Rouge regime the trains were destroyed, but the rails left intact and soon overgrown by the jungle. After the Khmer Rouge regime, locals cleared the rails from overgrowth and land mines.
Although the rails were cleared, there was no way to satisfy the transport needs of the locals with only one remaining train. As a result, people in the northwest of the country, near Battambang, started their own rail service - the "bamboo trains". Today, there are many bamboo trains, all built according to the original invention: Old axles from military vehicles and tanks are cut and sized to fit the tracks. On top is a wooden platform the size of a double bed. A portable single horse powered gasoline engine is linked to the axles by a rubber band. The axles sit bare on the track, nothing is attached with a nut or bolt. Everything is held together by balance and gravity.
The motor is started by pulling a rope, similar to starting a lawnmower. A stick is used as a lever, applying speed to the V-belt and slowly speeding up. The bamboo train can reach about 30km/h and more, with the tracks just a few centimetres below the passengers. The only way to slow down is to stop the engine, there are no breaks.
Due to the fact that there are many of these little trains operating, the tracks can be quite busy. When two bamboo trains meet, the one with the smallest load generally gives way to the larger one. This is done by everyone simply getting off the train, lifting off the frame with the engine and thereafter the axles. All this usually takes no longer than a few seconds, enough time should the real train come.
Pigs, chickens, cows, fresh fruits, harvested rice, timber and motorbikes are often transported together with regular passengers. There are no regulations regarding weight restrictions or number of luggage pieces. Anyone can flag down the bamboo train to get on board. There are no tickets, payments for the train are done at the final destination. The price depends on the distance. Prices for tourists are much higher, but can easily be negotiated. A private train ride for about four hours can cost around USD 15, although sharing a ride with the locals will be a much more fun experience.
The train stops for a couple of minutes at old train stations and villages to load and unload goods and passengers. Enough time to buy a cold drink, snacks or fresh fruits. This provides a small but much needed income for farmers and villagers of these remote areas.
The bamboo train has become a tourist attraction, especially in Battambang where many trains are shared mainly by tourists, making it still a fun but not entirely authentic ride.
The best way to enjoy a real Cambodian Norry train ride is together with locals en-route between for example Pursat and Chheu Tom. One way takes about 90 minutes, depending on the number of passengers and oncoming trains. The bamboo train crosses through beautiful nature with plenty of green rice fields, passing small villages and adventurous bridges. Every now and then the train must slow down as cows and water buffalos cross the tracks. Tourists not wishing to take the bamboo train back to Pursat can get off at Svay Sa or Chheu Tom. From there an untarred road leads to Krakor, a small and unspectacular town with two guest houses 27 kilometres from Pursat.
A ride with the bamboo train can be very noisy, bumpy and hot - but a splendid way to see the countryside!