Best Train Journey Ever? #1: The Bamboo Train

23 Feb

Z making a faceZ will contentedly nap on motorbikes, ride the tailgate on pickups, sit on the edge of a boat and stand up in the back of anything that will have him.

But Battambang’s Bamboo Train, which leaps and rattles a few inches above rails so warped that they wobble into the distance like a child’s first attempt at perspective, is officially “quite scary”.

Cambodia’s railways are in about the state you’d expect after decades of civil war and a peace dominated by the endemic corruption known in the old days as bonjour. No passenger services. The very occasional freight train.

And one of the world’s great train rides in the form of the Bamboo Train.

Train is, technically, a misnomer. Less locomotive, more glorified bed frame, the Bamboo Train is a platform of bamboo slats placed onto two sets of wheels, powered by yer multipurpose belt-drive motor and, generally, adolescent boys.

It goes like the clappers, through paddy fields, over rivers, across dirt roads. On stretches where the boys have learnt, hopefully not from experience, that the “train” might jump the “rails”, it slows a little.

But, honestly, not much.

When you meet something coming the other way? You simply take the frame off the wheels, the wheels off the rails, and stand by the side of the track until the other train has passed.

Boys being boys, one does not slow down until the very last minute.

Early prototypes of the Bamboo Train were powered not by petrol but by teams of men using bamboo poles to, effectively, punt the platform along the tracks. It evolved into an essential route for villagers taking wares to market, and as an access route for jungle villages where there are still no roads.

And now? Much of the time, it’s simply used by tourists.

In typical Cambodian style, the villagers at the other end of the track have turned their local brick “factory” into an attraction, of a sort.

Factory, in this context, means three domed kilns, a clay pit, a metal press which extrudes perforated clay for slicing with a giant cheesewire, and quantities of low-paid labour.

Adults for the heaviest stuff. Children for the low, nimble stuff, like lugging bricks into the kilns.

It leaves, as often, a funny taste. A great awareness of the disparity between rich and poor. And a sense of quite how spoilt one is, coming from the developed world, and how pampered our children are.

I posted before that the per capita income here is $2000. A typical moto driver makes in the region of $4 a day.

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