Saturday, July 6, 2013

All Aboard the Bamboo Train

A "Bamboo Train" rolls through the Cambodian countryside near Battambang. 

One of the highlights of our Cambodian workshop had to be the bamboo trains near Battambang. The trains run over tracks built by the French when Cambodia was a French protecterate. I doubt that they've been maintained at all since then. 

A daily train used to run over the tracks. Poor maintenance took its toll and train frequency was cut to every three days, then once a week, then eliminated all together and tracks given back to the jungle. 

The bamboo trains are the creation of Cambodians who live along the tracks. They drop a light bamboo platform onto two sets of bogie wheels, attach a 6HP lawnmower engine to the whole contraption and go rolling down the line. 

Back when real trains ran, the bamboo train would stop and get off the tracks when a regular train was on the tracks. Now, when two bamboo trains meet, the people on the fuller train help the lighter train off the tracks, the trains pass each other, the lighter train rebuilt and both trains go on their way. It's a great example of the community maintaining an important resource - in some instances the tracks are the only things connecting distant villages. 

I first rode the bamboo trains in 2006. I was the only foreigner on the train as we putt putted through the Cambodian jungle. It was a bumpy, uncomfortable ride but because the big trains held the jungle back at least we weren't raked over by weeds along the way. 

There have been a lot of changes along the bamboo train. Commercial trains haven't run on the tracks in years and the jungle is quickly reclaiming the line. Weeds and tree limbs now rake passengers on the train. The old joke about keeping arms and legs in the ride at all times is true along the bamboo train, where the jungle grows right up to the trains. Now there are a lot more tourists on the train. There are so many tourists on the train that not many Cambodians ride it anymore. One thing hasn't changed though. It is still very uncomfortable. 
A train driver ducks as the train cuts through the jungle.  


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