The bamboo trains are called Norries locally. They are basically a flat platform with bamboo matting for the passengers/goods/animals, and set on two barbell-like axles. They are easy to dismantle and reassemble – which is handy, because that’s exactly what you have to do if you meet another norrie coming the opposite way. Who gives way to whom is decided, apparently, on a couple of factors: amount and type of load, and seniority of the driver. We got lucky since it’s now a tourist operation and we had both an older driver and a young passenger, so we watched while the other norrie was set aside so that we could pass! All of Cambodia’s rail network is single track, so this is why the norrie system became so popular.
Once our norrie had been assembled (a 2 minute job), we were ready for the off. We rolled out of the small village and soon built up speed as we passed through the lush green paddy fields. A surprising amount of speed, in fact. The norries go up to around 50km/hr and, being so close to the ground, it feels really fast! Considering you’re sitting on a bamboo mat and a couple of barbells, and you are perfectly placed to see how crooked the rails are too. Somewhat exhilarating though! The scenery is stunning; the bright greens of the rice fields, and the humid yet fresh-smelling air; the comforting humidity of the tropical countryside.
There is a new bamboo train too – further out of Battambang – but very few guides take people there. There seem to be several reasons for this, from the distance to the fact that most tourists (whether domestic or foreign) want to see one of the original ones. However a reason I heard several times was that the new train had been built by the Chinese, and this – as Chinese ‘investment’ in general – was generally not a popular move with the Battambangians. Either way, Kim took us to the original one. The government keeps threatening to close it, as they are starting to run a proper rail network on the tracks, but it keeps on going. We spoke to one couple who said that they had had to move their norrie for a large locomotive to pass by!
We waited for a break in the rainstorm to make our escape. The ladies at the turnaround point offering us guava, papaya and bananas – at pains to reassure us that these were free to eat. Which clearly worked, because I did buy a t-shirt for Hugo… They also request that you tip your driver, and to be fair, our driver really earned it on the way back. We got about half way and the heavens opened – he took the straw mat we were sitting on and turned it into a cover for us. It wasn’t the most effective cover, but it certainly kept the worst off us, and Hugo loved the speeding tent we were suddenly in – added an extra dimension to the experience!
Meanwhile, our driver was on the engine, soaked to the skin yet negotiating the tracks carefully – slowing down where there was a muddy section caused by some trackside works etc. When we arrived, he swept Hugo up and ran with him to the shelter, preserving what dryness we had left after the drenching, so he definitely deserved his tip!