Cambodia’s train has been operational but very dysfunctional ever since the Khmer Rouge used it as target practice for more than 30 years. Many of the lines were destroyed. Cars were blown up by landmines. Both Cambodians and Foreigners were targeted and killed if they dared to ride the dilapidated trains in Cambodia. After nearly four decades of neglect, hardly any sections of the rails are straight anymore. Once the government built the highways connecting the main towns, the train (which averaged 15-20 kph) ceased to operate. I wanted to take the 13 hour ride from Phnom Penh to Battambang before they scrapped the old train, but I missed my opportunity. However, Cambodians always being creative have started their own “train” service on the abandoned rails. This service uses homemade motorized platforms made from Bamboo to shuttle people between towns. It goes by the name “Bamboo Train”.
After nearly twenty years in Cambodia I got my chance to ride the “Bamboo Train” in Northern Cambodia. The 7 kilometer stretch between abandoned French-built railroad stations was quite a thrill.
It takes about 20-25 minutes to travel the 7 kilometers. Sitting on a bamboo platform only a foot off the ground makes for quite an exciting ride. The cart has two sets of steel wheels which sit on the uneven tracks with the platform resting on the axles. The engine, a 4-5 hp lawn mower engine, is attached by a fan belt to one of the axles. The engine is only resting in a slot and the clutch is simple a wood stick which shifts the engine back and forth which either tightens or loosens the fan belt thereby creating a “clutch” effect to allow the train to speed up and slow down. The brake is a wood block resting against a steel wheel which the driver steps on to create enough friction to stop the train.
Few countries would probably allow tourists to take such a train because the trains have no safety features. Whizzing along uneven tracks sitting on a bamboo platform makes for a thrill, but in an emergency there could be serious injuries. Our train did derail once, but being only a foot off the ground no one was hurt.
If you come to Cambodia, I would highly recommend a ride on the bamboo train. . . just don’t tell your insurance company! In the next two years the old tracks are being removed to install a new train line, so chances are the bamboo train will disappear into history books pretty soon! All aboard!!