Hop Aboard a Bamboo Train for a Rickety Ride

Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Sept. 6 2013 8:18 AM

Cambodia's "Norry" Bamboo Trains Provide a Thrilling, Rickety Ride 

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"Train" is a misleading word for this vehicle. "Queen-sized wooden bed frame speeding along a rickety mine track" is a more accurate description. Known to locals as "norries," the bamboo trains of Battambang consist of two axles with welded-on wheels topped with a 6-foot by 10-foot bamboo raft. A noisy, sputtering engine, stripped from a motorbike or a piece of farming equipment, powers a drive belt that spins the rear axle.

To ride the norry, you simply sit on the raft—observing that your "driver" is a child in flip-flops and taking note of the lack of safety rails or means by which to secure yourself—and hope that your balance doesn't betray you as you hurtle along the twisting rails at 30 miles per hour. It's a thrilling, jostling, bone-shaking ride along an overgrown track in the middle of the jungle.

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Bamboo trains, an unregulated, improvised form of public transport, emerged after decades of Khmer Rouge rule and civil war decimated Cambodia's rail network. Using the poorly maintained tracks the French built in the 1930s, locals began running self-built norries made from scavenged spare parts. A network of norry routes sprung up, allowing people to travel and transport produce or animals.

With the restoration of national railway lines underway, almost all of the norry routes have ceased operation. The sole remaining section runs from the outskirts of Battabang to a small village with a brick factory. Multiple bamboo trains thunder along the tracks in both directions. When two norries meet head-on, the passengers on the vehicle with the smaller load hop off, dismantle the train, and reassemble it once the other train has passed. Reassembly takes about a minute—one of the norry's many charms is that its parts are simply stacked on top of one another, with no nuts or bolts holding them in place. It's a detail you'll remember when you feel the wheels leave the tracks.

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Photo by Michelle Enemark

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