Cambodia’s rail system was, for years, a cruel joke.
It consisted of a single line. Trains seldom ran. When they did run, the warped, gapped, sometimes missing tracks provided a ride that maxed out around 20 mph and could easily double the time of any other form of transportation. Again, that’s if the trains ran. In 2009, all services (such as they were) were suspended. But now, with the Trans-Asian Railway making headway, choo-choo fever has taken hold and Cambodia is looking to have their new, improved national railways up and running once again by 2013.
With this modernization and the rebirth of the national train line, comes the likely end of another, local train line − the “Bamboo Trains,” or “noory.” The bamboo trains have been a source of transportation, commerce, and communication for those living in parts of Cambodia where access to solid roads, buses, and other automobiles was for years underdeveloped or non-existent.
Unlike the hulking carriages and engines of the national line, the bamboo trains are a tinier, simpler affair - a masterpiece of necessity engineering. The body of a norry consists of a single queen-size platform, often made of bamboo, which lies on a metal undercarriage. Steel wheels on a pair of axles lie underneath. A belt wraps around the rear axle and is connected to a lawn mower or boat engine mounted on the rear of the platform. The driver yanks a cord to start it up, the engine emits its mosquito-on-steroids whine, and down the tracks it goes. Nearly a dozen passengers, livestock, or produce and other goods (or any combination thereof) can come along for the ride. The bamboo trains connect small villages and provide a means of transport for both people and goods in areas otherwise unserved.
As it is a single line of parallel rails, with travelers going in both directions, a little etiquette is called for. When two noory meet on this single line of track, the lighter train stops, empties its load, the drivers and passengers disassemble the entire operation, removing it from the track so the other noory can pass. Then, they reassemble it, re-start the engine, and on their way they go, once again. It all takes about a minute.
The bamboo trains were once found outside of numerous provincial towns anywhere railroad tracks had been laid. It was possible to take the bamboo trains from Battambang to Phnom Penh. Now, with the ongoing renovations to the national train line causing tracks to be torn up, and authorities less permissive of unofficial use, the bamboo trains are disappearing. The norry outside of Battambang are the last in existence.
Tourist dollars will probably keep them running for some time, in some form. A ride on the bamboo trains, perhaps with a chicken, some dogs, and fellow Cambodians, is a great way to see some of the back country and to get a feel (bring a cushion) for just how bad the train tracks once were. All aboard!
- Smithsonian: "Catching the Bamboo Train" (January 2011): http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Catching-the-Bamboo-Train.html
- Go World Travel Magazine: Jungle Express: http://www.goworldtravel.com/ex/aspx/articleGuid.%7B1A58B178-F389-4105-8ECC-2BB8B2C8F567%7D/xe/article.htm
- Lonely Planet "SouthEast Asia on A ShoeString"
- BBC: "Cambodians Ride 'Bamboo Railway'" (July 2006): http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/5110236.stm