On the outskirts of Battambang, Cambodia, is a length of railway track called the ‘Bamboo train’. Previously used as a method for transporting cattle and other animal livestock to the surrounding fields, this mode of transportation is now marketed as Battambang’s main tourist attraction and nowadays it’s people who ride this track, sitting atop a wooden train bed (pallet) mounted upon steel wheels, which is then propelled along by a petrol engine.
When you arrive at the location of the Bamboo Train, you only know you are there because of the snake of waiting Tuk-tuks gathered nearby, with drivers waiting hopefully for their passengers to return safely. It’s located in a village behind some houses, down a muddy lane. At first sight on arrival, there is no official ticket office, instead a ‘policeman’ explains you pay $5 each and then a guy comes along to take your money. He then jumps back into his pickup truck to wait for the next tourists to arrive. When ready to ‘board’, you climb onto a “carriage” and sit on the cushions provided. These cushions are vital. The ride can get bumpy.
So after the rip-cord is pulled to start the engine, the driver physically moves the engine backwards to cause tension in the drive belt and the carriage begins to roll forwards. At this point we thought, All is good! This is fun! The sun is shining, the wind is in our hair and it’s a lovely gentle ride through the jungle bush of coconut and banana palms….
Nice feeling gone.
We are suddenly racing along the tracks at a very fast speed and our knuckles are white. Fear is sweeping across our faces. April’s habit of nervous laughter has returned. Fear turns to panic shortly as we notice another train coming straight towards us.
It is important to note at this point, that there is currently a warning issued by the Australian Government advising Australian travellers to the region to avoid the Bamboo train as the risk of death is apparently high.
Thankfully our ride is slowing and we come to a graceful stop, just feet away from the train travelling towards us. It was clear that the etiquette was for our train to move, as the oncoming train passengers weren’t going anywhere. On a single track, someone has to give way, literally. So, our family jumped off and stood on the muddy bank. I offered to help remove our train from the tracks but I was, for the sake of the blog, politely declined. Right, I’ll take some pictures then!
Our driver was helped by the oncoming driver to lift the train off its axels and it was placed in the bush. The wheels and axels were chucked next to it and the oncoming traffic could then carry on its way. We stood there in the sunshine for several minutes, as 2,3, 4 ‘trains’ trundled on past us, their passengers waving happily, some of them even were possibly Australian. Once the final carriage passed, our train was put back together.
The remaining part of our journey along the track was great. Even though our driver opened up the taps on the engine and we experienced a new level of lateral shaking, the wind and noise seemed to disappear as we took in the countryside around us. In the same way people tell you not to look down when climbing, it’s best not to look at the tracks ahead on the Bamboo train. Straight, level or even touching, they are definitely not. At times, the jolt through your spine from the steel wheels mounting the raised (or dropped) rails is like somebody jumping off a see-saw when you’re at the top. But really, it all adds to the fun. Just make sure you call dibs on the fat cushion at the start.
As we pulled into the station (or lets just call it that where the tracks end…), we were met by a small crowd of young children, aged from 5-15 years, all asking you to buy woven friendship bands from them. They are all sweet kids and if you politely say no thank you, they will mostly get the hint. The many wooden and corrugated iron roofed shacks there also sell t-shirts, scarfs, elephant-print trousers and other small handicrafts. It’s worth having a look, and to stop and talk to the ladies working there. They are all lovely and the prices are good. Our kids negotiated $1 for 2 friendship bands from the young kids selling them, although they drove a hard bargain! Ruben opted to buy his from a girl stood at the back of the crowd, because she was the quietest and hassled him the least. Rosie was overwhelmed by the crowd gathered around her, and so Ruben muscled in to help with negotiations. All were happy in the end.
Getting the train back again isn’t exactly straightforward. Once we had arrived at the ‘station’ and started walking around, we didn’t take any notice of where our driver went. So when we wanted to leave, it was unclear on what we should do, as there are no officials working there to help. So we did what everyone else seemed to do and stood by the track, pointedly indicating that we wanted to leave. At this point our driver was nowhere to be seen. It turned out that he walked home, which was one of the traditional Cambodian raised wooded houses located by the station.
As we waited I took pictures and April talked to the local kids about school and what jobs they wanted to do when they were older. They all spoke amazing English, although they told us that they don’t study English at their local school, but they learn it from talking with the tourists. Absolutely amazing those kids were. They own practically nothing and the threadbare clothes on their backs are evidence to the poverty they are sounded by. However, they are industrious enough to be making and selling friendship bands to the foreigners who arrive in their back garden, and have learnt to speak in the language along the way to help the process. We visited on a Sunday, but I’m sure these kids rarely attend school through the week. They said school is about 2km away. When you look at the panorama from the station you can’t see another building or road anywhere.
Once our driver had finally finished his snooze, lunch and toilet stop, he walked back up to the area the other trains lay in the bushes. By this time, there were about 3 carriage-loads of tourists waiting. The drivers assembled the train and soon enough we were waving goodbye to the kids. The journey back was just as worthy and the kids enjoyed it more knowing what to anticipate.
Before we had left the station, one of the ladies selling food and clothing said that we would be told to tip the driver. She said, “Its up to you if you tip or not, but maybe $1?” Sure enough, just as the wheels of the train had stopped moving at the finish end, the guy from the pickup truck appeared again and said, “Ok, you now must tip your driver!”. This is clearly the business end of the tracks. It was unclear who actually gets the tip money, or even if the driver gets any of the $5 each you pay at the start of the trip. How much you tip is up to you. I gave the guy $2 made up from local Riel currency, but really our driver was grumpy and couldn’t be less bothered to welcome us. Cambodia is a beautiful country and at every level of society we’ve been greeted with warm-heartedness and a smile, except from this chap. Perhaps he was having a bad day?
It didn’t deter from our experience though and I’d recommend for anybody to try. If you are a Health & Safety lover, you may not love this place. To be honest, there were long periods of time during the ride where I couldn’t shift the idea of us derailing and catapulting down the tracks. I still shiver when I think of it. But like I said earlier, just don’t look straight ahead down the tracks, concentrate on the beautiful countryside instead!
I can guarantee that the whites of your family’s eyes will never look so white. Perhaps just enjoy that moment.