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Catching the Bamboo Train

Rural Cambodians cobbled old tank parts and scrap lumber into an ingenious way to get around

  • By Russ Juskalian
  • Photographs by Russ Juskalian
  • Smithsonian magazine, January 2011

  • We
    were a few miles from the nearest village when we ran out of gas. The
    motor, a small thing perched on the back of a queen-size bamboo
    platform, spat out a few tubercular-sounding coughs and gave up. There
    were three of us riding this Frankenstein’s pump trolley, known in
    Cambodia as a norry, including my interpreter and the conductor, a
    short, elderly man with sunbaked skin and the permanent squint of
    failing eyesight. The morning was wretchedly hot, and in addition to a
    long-sleeved shirt and pants to block the sun, I wore a hat on my head
    and a scarf around my face. One could stay dry when moving along, the
    oncoming air acting like a mighty fan. But as the norry rolled to a
    slow stop, sweat bloomed on the skin almost instantly. I’d traveled
    across a broad stretch of Cambodia on the “bamboo train,” as this form
    of transportation is known in English, and now I considered what
    getting stuck here would mean.

    rickety platforms—”norries” to the locals—carry passengers and freight
    on wobbly rails left over from an abandoned transit system.
    Russ Juskalian

    The old man pointed down the line and mumbled in his native Khmer.
    “His house is nearby,” said Phichith Rithea, the 22-year-old
    interpreter. “He says it’s about 500 meters.” All I could see was
    heat-rippled air. Rithea pushed until he was ready to collapse, and the
    old man mumbled again. “He says we are nearly there,” Rithea translated
    as I took my turn pushing. The old man told me to walk on one of the
    rails to avoid snakes sunning on the metal ties. I slowed down as we
    approached a lone wooden train car converted to a house near where the
    old man had pointed.

    “That’s not it,” said Rithea. My head spun with
    heat and exhaustion. When we reached the old man’s house, we estimated
    that it was more than a mile from where we had broken down. The
    conductor filled our tank with a light-green liquid he kept in
    one-liter Coke bottles, and we were on our way, headed toward the
    capital, Phnom Penh.

    If you have the time, money and inclination, you can travel almost
    11,000 miles from London to Singapore exclusively by train—except in
    Cambodia. It wasn’t always so. In the 1920s, the French started work on
    a railroad that would eventually run 400 miles across Cambodia in two
    major sections: the first from the Thai border, via Battambang, to
    Phnom Penh; the second from Phnom Penh to the coastal city of
    Sihanoukville to the south. The rail was a single line of meter-wide
    track, but it did the job, and people used it.

    The years after French colonial rule, which ended in 1953, were
    characterized by instability and then civil war. In 1975, the Khmer
    Rouge regime evacuated Phnom Penh, reducing the city’s population from
    more than two million people to 10,000 in a single day. From then until
    the regime fell, in 1979, an estimated 1.4 million Cambodians, or about
    20 percent of the total population, died from execution, starvation or
    overwork. A new psychology took root: say nothing unnecessary, think no
    original thoughts, do nothing to stand out. In other words, to
    demonstrate the very qualities that make us human was to consign
    oneself to a torture center like the notorious S-21 prison, and
    eventually a mass grave. The Khmer Rouge had a slogan:

    To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.

    From 1979 to the late 1990s, a guerrilla war burned through the
    country. Remnants of the Khmer Rouge mined the railroad extensively and
    frequently ambushed trains. An official from the Cambodian Ministry of
    Public Works and Transport told me that the ministry still wouldn’t
    guarantee that the rails had been fully cleared of land mines.

    I went to Cambodia last June to ride the norries, which I’d heard
    about on previous travels to Southeast Asia, and to get a glimpse of
    rural life along the way. Passenger trains hadn’t run in over a year.
    And for quite some time before that, there had been only one train a
    week, taking about 16 hours to cover a route that took only five hours
    by bus; at speeds just faster than a jog, the train tended to break
    down or derail. At the train yard in Phnom Penh, I saw rows of derelict
    cars, some with interiors overgrown with plants, others whose floors
    had entirely rotted out. All that was left was the norry.

    A norry is basically a breadbox-size motor on top of a bed-size
    bamboo platform on top of two independent sets of metal wheels—all held
    together by gravity. It’s built from bamboo, old tank parts and motors
    ripped from broken motorbikes, rice harvesters and tractors. To
    accelerate, the driver slides the motor backward, using a stick as a
    lever, to create enough tension in the rubber belt to rotate the rear
    axle. Though no two norries are identical, a failing part can be
    swapped with a replacement in a few seconds. Norries are technically
    illegal but nonetheless vital and, if you know where to look,

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