Riding the Bamboo Train in Cambodia
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

With colonial era tracks being the only route through the jungle, enterprising locals in Cambodia have turned scraps of metal and rubber into a major transportation system in otherwise cut-off areas.

On my third run I am getting the hang of things, taking cues from the pig next to me to see how far he leans into the turns while ducking in time to avoid the lower tree branches.

After swallowing several bugs I pull up my bandana and give up trying to keep my sunglasses free of road kill. It is 120 degrees, I am soaking wet, and having the time of my life.

I am riding the Bamboo Train that transits the jungles of central Cambodia and as transport goes, it is a hoot; an over the top, open air thrill ride that could kill you like a bug without warning.

The Norry Train, as locals call it was born during the second half of the nineteenth century when the land was called Indochina and French colonists filled its jungles with plantations. They grew coffee and bananas among other things and built this narrow gauge rail system powered by tiny steam locomotives as a cheap and efficient way to transport their produce from jungle to market. Old photos show that it looked like a children's ride in an amusement park but it did the job.

Fast forward a century to the overthrow of the French regime throughout Southeast Asia by communism and with that the little trains came to a halt. The Khmer Rouge, under Salith Sar, commonly called Pol Pot, took power and brutally emptied the cities, driving the entire population of the nation into the jungle in an attempt to turn back the clock to a stone-age agrarian society. Such an evil regime was of course, doomed to failure, but during this reign of terror the trains, along with every other type of vehicle in the country were intentionally destroyed. For five years, the only forms of transport within the country were water buffalos or walking. Fortunately, the tracks were left behind, seemingly too insignificant to bother with. The jungle people knew where they were, however, and remembered them.

train construction

With the defeat of the Khmer Rouge and the withdrawal of invading Vietnam in 1975, the jungles of Cambodia, experiencing their first real peace in over a thousand years, became the only viable highway system for the poor and the refugees created by those wars. Battles provide tons of scrap metal and the enterprising jungle dwellers cut down old jeep axles to size, welding them together to fit the aging steel wheel wells to the miniature train tracks. On top of these axles they placed an elevated bamboo mat to sit on.

The first trains were pushed along by a long pole, much like the gondolas of Venice, but obviously that method was laborious and slow. Small outboard engines were soon mounted on the back, connected to the rear axle by an oval strip of rubber cut from a tire to act as a drive belt, and the current incarnation of bamboo train was born; in fact hundreds of them began to cruise through the jungle. Today, the government has officially banned them in many places as being unsafe but they still continue to run as most local officials not only turn a blind eye to their operation, but ride them themselves.

pig motorbike

The Bamboo train crosses a third of Cambodia. When it reaches the end of a line, at either end, everyone on board is expected to pitch in to either assemble or re-assemble it for the next run. Sometimes small children are in charge and they know what they are doing. You can board it anywhere at any time because schedules and time do not exist in the jungle; someone is always ready to go. The price for locals is what they can afford; sometimes a coin or just a handful or rice and you might share space with a crate full of chickens, or in my case, an enormous pig. Outsiders, especially westerners are gouged; a full dollar for a ride and it is one of the best bargains in all of Asia.

If you want to know the real people of Cambodia, the jungle people, the hill tribes that tourists rarely see or the simple farmers, this is the way to do it. Cambodians are open, friendly and ready to talk with strangers. They are quick to invite you into their homes for a meal. They are a social people and the train is a favored gathering place. Vendors haunt favored stops selling roasted crickets in peanut oil or betel nut wrapped in palm leaves to munch along the way. Robed monks rub elbows with tourists swathed in REI duds and the entire crowd is surrounded by beggars seeking a handout. Waiting for the train is a major social event in the jungle.

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