“Sugar Cane ate my brain, when I drove on the Bamboo Train…”
(Apologies to Robbie Robertson from The Band for the misheard lyrics from his song ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’)
After a couple of weeks holiday in Vietnam, my gf and I organised to go to Phnom Penh, in neighboring Cambodia, since it was only a four hour trip along the Mekong river in a large covered-in speedboat. Just around the corner, really!
I really wanted to see the Angkor Wat temple complex in the north of Cambodia, a place that had fascinated me since I first saw a documentary on it as a youngster. A giant temple peacefully nestling in the heart of the Cambodian jungle. Well, it was in the jungle, that part was true. But peaceful? What I hadn’t expected was that 100,000 of my closest friends, along with their associated tour buses, taxis, motor scooters and tuk-tuk drivers, would decide to come on the same day! Still, that’s the price you pay for visiting one of the top tourist sites in the world. Despite this, it was a truly awe-inspiring place to visit.
After a full day of wandering around the ruins, we climbed up the mountain opposite to stand (with another few thousand people) on a ruined temple at the summit to watch the sun go down over Angkor. An impressive yet peaceful sight.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We hired a driver and guide to get there, stopping overnight in the city of Battambang, one of the prior Cambodian capital cities before Phnom Penh. It’s a few hours trip, so we made an early start. As we drove along the highway, our guide Heng saw something at the side of the road and quickly told the driver, Surat, to stop. He turned to us.
“Have you had breakfast?” he asked.
“Yes we have,” we replied.
“What a pity – we have a rare treat here for breakfast.”
There, skinned, covered in spices and roasting away on a wire grille over some hot coals were about twelve big rats, some as long as my forearm! We got out to have a look while he and Surat haggled with the woman cooking.
“They’re country mice,” he said. Delicious!”
Mice? I queried. “I’ve never seen mice as long and fat as that.”
He grinned sheepishly. “Yes, but they’re country ones. All grain fed and very healthy.”
Yes, very healthy I’m sure; right up until they were whacked on the head and plopped on the hot coals. The two of them munched away on one, dipping pieces in various sauces, and washed it down with a bottle of beer, while we shook our heads at their offer of a taste.
“No thanks – it’s bit early in the morning for rat, I think,” I replied. They chortled away to themselves “Oh no, never too early!”
As we got back in the car, Heng came over with a warm piece of bamboo.
“Try this – peel it like a banana.”
We did, and it was full of delicious hot sweet steamed rice which we gobbled up and promptly fell asleep in the back seat!
Battambang turned out to be a large, very scenic town, with lots of French colonial buildings and wide, shady streets following the river.
“Let’s go on the bamboo train while we’re here,” said Heng. “It’s a lot of fun.” We had an hour to spare before we checked into our hotel, so we said OK and off we went, driving down meandering dusty lanes to a little house that served as a station.
I imagined that the bamboo train would be a cross between Puffing Billy and the little trains that the steam train enthusiasts like to build for kids to ride on. But I was wrong (Wrong? Can this be true, Dunk? Ed).
The bamboo train is a tourist ride that beats anything Luna Park has to offer. Little trolleys called ‘norries’ run on the disused train tracks that end up in Phnom Penh. A norry is a wooden double bed frame covered in bamboo slats, holding about four people, with the ubiquitous Asian power unit of a lawnmower engine or similar sitting on the back, driving the rear wheels by a simple fanbelt. The wheels are said to come from the tracks of abandoned military tanks (of which Cambodia sadly has quite a few) and modified to fit the old French 1 metre railway gauge. This single line Cambodian railway runs the length of the country, but since the Khmer Rouge days has been largely abandoned and unloved, quietly rusting away and totally overgrown in parts. Still, people need to travel, and tourists need things to ride on and take pictures of, so enterprising locals have appropriated a short section of the train track and run these ‘norries’ up and down it. The cost for a 5 kilometre return trip is $5US per tourist; probably a fair bit less for the Battambangers.
Our norry must have been a deluxe tourist model because instead of having to sit directly on the bamboo slats, we each had a cushion! Sheer looxury. But that was it as far as any concession to OH&S or comfort went. Shock absorbers to smooth the ride? No, the wooden frames sat directly onto the axles. The suspension – a wheel bolted to each corner – reminded me of an early Austin-Healey or MG, ie. non-existent!.
How about a safety rail all around the sides, to stop you falling off? Forget it and just hang on tight. What about brakes? Nope, none at all. In case the driver needed to stop for a cow wandering along the track he had a thick stick which he could jam behind the lawnmower engine and tilt it so the fanbelt would loosen and the norry clatter to a halt.
So off we went, along the 5 kilometres of twisted, wonky and very bumpy track at about 20 kph. It was enormous fun, better than any roller coaster. The only really scary bits involved going over bridges, since the track often had missing planks, sleepers, and no fences at all. If you looked down you could see directly into the river through the rails. We soon realised that it was far better not to look!
At the other end of the line was a stop; to call it a station would imply that there was some infrastructure there. There wasn’t! Young children played the guilt card for all it was worth, selling you drinks, scarves, hand plaited bracelets, and t-shirts. After about 20 minutes shopping time, our norry came back and we went back down the way we came. I mentioned before that it’s a single line track. What happens when a norry going one way meets another one coming towards it? An interesting question. The bamboo train etiquette is that the norry with the fewer passengers on it has to stop, and then lift the whole thing off the tracks while the one with more people continues past them. It’s a slick little operation; everyone gets off, the two drivers pick up the bedframe of the one giving way and put it by the side of the rails. Then they take a wheel axle each, lift them off and replace them behind the one with more passengers, put the bedframe back on, and the two norries continue on their respective ways.
The next morning, to return to the start of this story, we headed off to Angkor Wat and the end of the holiday. But, judging by the amount of pictures on the net of people enjoying themselves on the bamboo train, it was a highlight of many people’s Cambodian trip as well as ours!