Saturday, June 25, 2016


Riding the bizarre 'norry' train in Cambodia
I’m riding the rails in Cambodia, and this is unlike any train I’ve ever ridden in my entire life.

I’m sitting out in the open, and the wind is in my hair. I’m riding on a miniature flatcar and locomotive, all built into one. Much of this bizarre flatcar is made of bamboo; it's only about the size of a king size bed! Behind me, the ‘engineer’ mans the engine, which is about the size of a motor from a lawnmower. This is one strange train.

This train is known locally as a norry, a makeshift mini-train. It’s also known as the 'bamboo train', and it just may be the smallest functioning commercial train in existence.

It’s 240 kilometers to Phnom Penh,” says my trusty guide Sok, as we chug along on old tracks just south of Battambang. We pass an old village train station. Like the original train system, it was originally built by the French colonials. There are no passengers waiting today, there haven’t been for years. The real trains stopped running 10 years ago. Service was slow, and it took a lengthy 12 hours to travel all the way to Phnom Penh. Trains occasionally derailed.

I look down as we cross a wooden train trestle, a rarity these days. Few train trestles anywhere in the world are still made of wood. I wonder how much support the beams still have left in them, as the wood is deteriorating in the tropical heat.

Rail service in Cambodia deteriorated gradually, going all the way back to the war years of the 1970’s. Despite their rejection of technology, the Khmer Rouge managed to keep trains running during their repressive years of rule. After they were forced out of power, they returned to attack the trains in the 80’s and 90’s. The new government took measures to protect them. On each train, they transformed a boxcar into a rolling bunker, installing gun ports and a heavy machine gun to discourage attacks.

2 trains meet, 1 is disassembled, then reassembled, so both can pass!
Further south back in 1994, the communists hit a packed train headed to the coast. First they blew it up with mines, shot dead 9 civilians. They then took numerous hostages into the jungle, including three foreigners from France, Australia and the UK. These unfortunate three were later killed when government troops tried to rescue them.

After attacks like this, the engineers employed an old train trick to counter the use of landmines on the tracks by the Khmer Rouge. To keep the locomotives safe, they pushed two flatcars out in front of it as they traveled. If a flatcar hit a mine and blew off the tracks, the more valuable locomotive survived. That didn’t stop Khmer passengers from riding the front flatcars though. With little money, they were glad to ride these rolling mine detectors, since the tickets were cheaper!

But the war is over now, and my translator Sok and I are enjoying the breezy ride on our simple, rolling bamboo bed, I’m serenaded by the loud clackety-clack of the wheels on the rails. I’m out in the open air, and the rails are warped, so the racket is even louder than when I recently road an overnight train to Vietnam. There are wider gaps between the rails here too, making the ride sometimes jarring, but no less fun.

Sok informs me how locals use these mini-trains. “The people use (it) to move the rice to Battambang,” he says, “because we have no roads.”

As we pass rural houses, I see Sok’s point. Without road access, some houses are built right next to the rails, surrounded by flooded rice paddies. The train tracks are their only dry access into town during this time of year.

The norry train's 'engineer'
We scare birds and squirrels off the tracks along the way, and the foliage grows high, leaning over the tracks in places. If it weren’t for these norrys, the tracks would be completely overgrown. As I lie flat, I looking down below my feet. The brown, parallel train tracks stretch straight ahead to the horizon, seemingly into oblivion.

There’s a light sprinkle of rain, but I hardly notice. We’re only going about 15 mph, but the wind in my hair feels great. Some rice farmers out working the fields wave to me as we pass. I’m grinning from ear to ear. This sure beats riding the bus.

Straight ahead of us on the tracks, another norry is chugging along towards us, head on! This ought to be interesting, I think. There are no switches to pull off to the side, so something has to give.

Both engineers/drivers slow as we approach, and we coast to a stop. Apparently there are no brakes. Since the other norry has eight passengers crowding it, it’s up to us to get out of their way. So we do. We climb off, and our driver removes the drive belt, then lifts off the small Kawasaki engine. Then the other norry driver walks over, and helps my driver lift off the frame. Finally the wheels are removed, and their way is clear. Amazingly, it took less than 30 seconds. All the norry drivers know each other, and they have this dis-assembly process down to a science.

The other mini-train moves through, and the two drivers immediately reassemble our mini-train. Wheels down, frame on top, put on the motor, attach the drive belt. He winds up the pull string, yanks it to a start, and we’re off again. Still amazing me, the reassembly took less than a minute. We continue our journey towards the horizon.

I’m amazed at the ingenuity of this simple system. Cambodians may be poor, but these farmers are certainly inventive, in coming up with this strange train.

*NOTE* - Sometime after this trip to Battambang, long delayed plans to resume real train service came through, and the 'Royal Railway' company is finally running trains again in Cambodia.