I stared at my meager wardrobe that morning, discarding the dirty, frayed pants and the shorts that would not be considered modest in Cambodia, and settled on the skirt. I berated myself for that decision as splinters from the hard wooden shafts poked through the thin cushion during our journey on the bamboo train. The train is a bare platform of bamboo shoots attached to a four-stroke lawnmower engine laid on top of leftover military wheels and axles. Passengers sit upon the rickety structure mere inches from the ground as the train barrels along the uneven tracks at a heart-wrenching 40 kilometers/hour.
These trains were built in response to a need for public transport which, like much else in Cambodia, the government would not provide. Because the government had not repaired the train tracks wrecked by Khmer Rouge militants, the weekly train from Phnom Penh to Battambang often derailed or moved at a walking-pace, finally resulting in its closure in 2009. The Cambodians responded with an ingenious solution: a train system built on spare parts.
Within minutes of leaving Battambang, our lawnmower engine picked up speed and my skirt began flapping at my legs. I pulled the edge of the fabric tightly over my knees and held my hands in place as the train jerked over the thick metal ties. Tree branches lunged towards me and I brushed them aside to view the long expanse of the Cambodian countryside.
The sand-colored rice fields filled the sides of the railroad, empty and sad, save for a few roaming cows. A man standing in the field with a long rake looked up as our train trundled past him. Two naked children splashed water in a tin bathtub in the valley below while their mother hung laundry in front of the grass-thatched house.
My mind drifted past the bumps in the road and the deep blue sky. I wondered how I would respond if my government did not provide a good transportation infrastructure. Would I accept this as an inevitability or complain about the injustice or inundate my Congressman with letters? Or would I take actions to remedy the situation as best as I could as these enterprising Cambodians had?
Our train reached the station, a small hut in the middle of the rice fields, where our teenage train driver flung himself into a hammock. We purchased Coca-Colas from a wrinkled woman in a maroon sarong who offered us bags of peanut brittle and chips. She looked at us and smiled, separated by the wall of dissimilar languages.
An incoming train came from the other direction, crowded with seven passengers, two motorcycles, and three large Styrofoam containers. Our train driver leapt out of his hammock, dismantled our train, and moved the platform, engine, and wheels to the side of the tracks, allowing the other train to pass on to Battambang. A passenger laughed at our incredulous faces and waved. It was merely another commute for the Cambodians on the bamboo train.