Riding the Bamboo train in Battambang

Many years ago I came across something that seemed archaic – a train made out of bamboo which was dismantled and re-made as it rumbled along the track. It seemed otherworldly and quaint. When someone mentioned it was in Cambodia, I knew I was making a detour!

Bribery makes the wheel go around

The train ride costs $5 and this involves a ride of about 7km or so. The $5 are paid to the tourist police as officially you’re not meant to ride on the bamboo train and you therefore need to bribe the official! It’s a little insane that something so touristy is still masked in bribery, but hey-ho, here is the $5 and away we go!

The driver climbs on board, wraps the strap around the flywheel, yanks it back and the 6hp engine fires up. He takes his piece of stick and levers the engine back so that the fan belt catches and we slowly build up speed. The engine starts roaring, the wind is rushing into our faces, the rails are whirring and every so often there is a heavy clack as the warped rails bounce and jostle us along. The speed increases, the noise is all encompassing and Matt, Nat and I sit with huge grins on our faces.

Looking along the warped track which weaves in and out, we spot another train coming our way. We are giddy with excitement and anticipation – who is lightest? The trains race closer and we start to pick out that there is only 2 passengers – we WIN! Whoop whoop. I turn my camera on and start filming as our train slows, the engine cuts out and we glide to a stop. Our driver runs forward and they start dismantling the train…

Free revving engines are not a good thing

We start up again and the experiences of the start come flooding back. The speed increase. The noise levels rising. The clickety-clack of the rails. The bouncing around. The bushes hitting me as we speed past. The engine revving freely and then cutting out… uh, what?

The belt has slipped and torn. Our driver starts trying to put the belt back on and it rips some more so he cuts a section off with a rock. He puts it’s back on and it falls off again. This continues for a while until the driver just walks off without a word. We have no idea where he is going and it feels like we’ve been abandoned so that he can walk back to the station. We’re laughing and joking trying to work out what is going on.

After walking a while our man turns, his shoulders downcast and resigned and he starts pushing the train. He’s running along pulling faces at us as he does so and we’re just watching laughing heavily at the absurdity of it all. Matt jumps off and runs alongside. Shortly we arrive in the station at the far end much to the amusement of everyone around. Why on earth are we pushing the train and why is Matt helping?

A strange conversation

We end up sitting down at a little table for “cold drinks” and whilst sceptical at first, the cans are 75c, which is completely reasonable, so we buy one each and another for the driver. We then start chatting whilst waiting for the new belt to be delivered.

The conversation is weird and just continues with the shop owner asking questions, misunderstanding and then translating the answer – at one point he decides that all English people eat Soup for dinner every day much to the shocked expressions of everyone around us. It’s an full hour of this – the chatter, the bemusement of everyone around, the driver hugging Matt, looking downfallen when he realises I’m his elder… It’s entertaining but we start to wonder where the belt is…

I get up and have a wander around, beside us some kids are playing a game similar to “it” – one person is “it” and has to hop about chasing the others who are running. Other children come past us on bikes, cross the tracks and disappear off down a dirt path. Tractors loom large and rubble past… It’s a surreal place, made even more surreal when our drivers runs off again, jumps on his bike and races off to get the replacement belt – he’d been having so much fun chatting with us it’d taken him an hour to go and get the piece.

On the way back everything went tickety-boo and we arrived back at the station 2.5hours after we left. Just as we pulled up, we spot tourist after tourist piling onto trains – literally a tour bus load!

Our tuk tuk driver was visibly annoyed complaining that we’d been so long but was quickly calmed when we showed him the video of Matt pushing the train! He looked on in amazement as the video played and shouted back to the other drivers who all started laughing – I guess we were getting called names in our absence!

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