We very nearly didn’t visit Battambang in Cambodia. It was one of those places we just weren’t too sure if we should deviate from our route to spend some time at. I’m so glad we did for at least three reasons – first, and most importantly, I was able to teach English as a volunteer at a local village school, which is something I have wanted to do for some time and the reason I completed a TEFL course towards the end of last summer (….but,more about that in my next post) ; second, we enrolled at another cookery school to learn how to prepare traditional Khmer dishes ; and third, we got to ride on the Bamboo Train.
Our cookery class followed much the same pattern as the one we did in Chaing Mai, Thailand, earlier in our trip, with a visit to a local market (and yes, those are fried crickets in the red bowl), followed by preparation of various dishes, which we then ate for lunch. Delicious!
Known by the locals as the norry, the Bamboo Train is technically illegal, though on arrival at the train station you are greeted by the tourist police, who explain in English what is going to happen and invite you to pay the $5 fee to the driver. I hope the policeman sticks to his day job rather than become a photographer as it was he who chopped off the top of our heads in the photo above!
A small motorcycle or tractor engine provides the power, and the passenger compartment consists of a bamboo platform resting on top of two sets of wheels. If you’re lucky, you may even get a dried-grass mat to sit on. Fortunately we remembered to take our fleece jackets, for extra rear-end padding! The bamboo trains reach speeds of around 40km/h (25mph), with the track just a few inches below the passengers. The warped and broken rails make for a noisy, bone-shaking journey as the train clackity-clacks across the countryside on what would be a white-knuckle ride – if there were actually anything to hold on to!
There are no brakes on the train – the driver merely switches off the engine allowing the train to coast to a halt.
The bamboo train is mostly a tourist attraction, though the odd local also jumps on board. In fact, just after we had our photo taken and before we set off, I looked behind me to find an old woman had climbed on board. We said hello to her and then set off down the track. Next time I looked – she had disappeared – so I have no idea if she fell off or jumped!
A little further down the line, we could see a man standing by the tracks so the driver slowed down and the man hopped aboard with a cheery wave. It was then that I noticed he was carrying a shotgun! He stayed with us for a couple of kilometres when the train once again slowed a little, and he jumped off into the bushes.
Anyway, what happens when a bamboo train meets another bamboo train coming the opposite way on this single track? The answer is simple: whichever car has the least amount of passengers is quickly lifted off the tracks to allow the other to pass. It is then reassembled, the passengers climb back on board, the engine restarted and off they go again, much to the amusement of the tourists. This can all be done within the space of a couple of minutes.
The train travels approximately seven kilometres down the track until you reach the terminus, where you are given the opportunity to purchase scarves and cold drinks at one of two shanty-style shops. In return for supplying the children with balloons, we were given flowers, a few bananas and a grasshopper made of a banana leaf. Amazing! Then it was back on the train for the return journey, where our tuk-tuk driver was waiting to take us back to our hotel.
I can safely say that our experience on board the bamboo train was totally OFF THE RAILS !!