Battambang’s bamboo train is certainly one of the world’s most incredible rail journeys, meandering its way through stunning provincial Cambodian landscapes on otherwise disused lines left by the French.
The bamboo train, or Norrie in Khmer, first started running in the early 1980’s with small rail vehicles originally used to carry out repairs on larger engines. Up until more recent times, the bamboo train was an extremely practical way for the local people to transport goods and themselves around at a minimum of cost.
The bamboo train may look fragile in construction but like most things made of bamboo, it is actually very strong. Tons of livestock and vegetables can be taken to market in addition to it being used as a fast way to get people to hospitals in times of emergency.
Initially, the Norries were man-powered, using poles to push the train along not dissimilar to a gondola in Venice! After a few years small petrol engines were making an appearance and by the late 1980’s there were said to be thousands of bamboo trains operating along the network of 600 kilometres of track in the country.
Nowadays there are just over 100 operating in several provinces but running shorter distances from when they were at their peak. With the arrival of better roads, the bamboo train would have become extinct if it hadn’t been able to reinvent itself for tourists and it certainly comes high up for those wanting to experience something a little bit different in the Kingdom of Wonder!
Just a few kilometres outside Battambang is O’dambang village, situated right next to the railway line. It is worth noting that about 1 km from O’Dambang towards Battambang is a silk weaving NGO project providing education and work opportunities called KNK Cambodia.
There is a showroom with many silk woven products and a silk farm at the back of the grounds, visiting here is highly recommended. From here you can take a 12-kilometre journey to O’sralau village for a $5 fare. The Norrie itself is a rickety looking construction of bamboo and wood nailed to a platform sitting on the axles of an old railway block with the engine mounted at the back attached to the flywheel on the axle. For added comfort, pillows are provided so you can sit back and enjoy the ride!
Anybody who has experienced the bamboo train previously will know the heightened sensation of speed due to how low to the ground you are. In reality, the train trundles along at 30 kilometres per hour but this is fast enough for most passengers as you want to take in as much of the beautiful scenery and wildlife as possible.
It is not uncommon to find another bamboo train on the single tracks wanting to pass in the opposite direction. Amazingly, the platform of the lighter laden Norrie is simply lifted off, the axles removed and then replaced back on the tracks.
Currently, work is underway to completely renovate Cambodia’s rail network which has been used for transporting freight from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh on the southern line for several years. The northern line project (which includes Battambang) has now started with a passenger service to Bangkok promised for 2018. Passengers are currently able to travel from Phnom Penh to Takeo, Kampot and Sihanoukville on Fridays and weekends. Please read our article on using this service here.
Unfortunately, this will spell the end of the bamboo train running on these particular lines as the new trains will be running at over 80 kilometres per hour!
Although all is not lost if you still want to include the bamboo train experience on your holiday to Cambodia. Local entrepreneurs are planning to open new lines specifically for Norrie’s along particularly picturesque parts of the beautiful Cambodian countryside.