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on the bamboo train
in battambang

Riders on bamboo train

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.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo-HomeAway travel writing competition for April.

04/26/2010 13:04
Great piece! Thanks for sharing! And good luck, too!
Daniel's recent blog post: Cusco: Va para ti!
04/26/2010 13:14
We passed on the train and have regretted it since... glad you shared your experience!
Cameron Wears's recent blog post: Our Favourite Countries
04/26/2010 20:30
Ah, sweet! We're going to have to do that when we get there!
Kyle Crum's recent blog post: Now Departing AnywhereInTheWorld
04/27/2010 00:48
Fascinating post. I had heard of the "bamboo train" but did not know anything about its origins. It must have been a fascinating way to see a different side of Cambodia.
04/27/2010 02:14
Makes you appreciate our rail system, no matter how bad it seems at times.
04/27/2010 07:08
It's amazing how ingenious people can be when they put their minds to it. I love the fact that they can just dismantle it and haul it off the tracks at a moment's notice. It's the ultimate in instant transportation.
Katja's recent blog post: Daydream in Blue
04/28/2010 05:41
I'm so sorry! I read your beautiful piece last week, but I just realised I didn't thank you for it and say so - not sure what happened... sorry about that! Thanks again for entering our competition and good luck!
04/28/2010 13:40
Thanks all!

Kyle, you can take the bamboo train in Battambang, Kompong Chnnang, and in a few villages outside Phnom Penh but most people take the train in Battambang. Ask your guesthouse owner and he will find an English-speaking tuk tuk driver for you who can take you to the station.

Jess, it was both interesting and illuminating that these people had created their own railroad. It was a very different lifestyle than what we saw in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Gourmantic, absolutely! I always complain about roads and that sort of thing in the U.S., but we have it really good.

Katja, our eyes must have popped out of our head when we saw them dismantle it. Crazy smart method!

Thanks lara! I have enjoyed submitting our posts and reading everyone else's.
Akila's recent blog post: on the bamboo train
04/30/2010 11:15
Fantastic, and wonderful photo. It is only when we travel to places like this I think we can truly put things in perspective and realise those things we grumble about on a daily basis (like waiting for a late commuter train!) are not that bad and that we should be grateful for what we have, and learn to take joy in the smaller things in life, like a great view, a kind gesture, a new friend or a cold coke!
05/01/2010 17:29
Wow, I had no idea that people might travel like this. Thanks for the fascinating glimpse.
Lisa @ The World is Calling's recent blog post: Comment on Temper Tantrums on a Plane by theworldcalls
05/04/2010 15:18
Thanks for posting about my guest blog on AlmostFearless. I just found your site through there and it's really cool! I have heard of these trains before but never actually heard a personal account about traveling on one. It seems pretty cool and something that I will def. have to check out on our journey there this fall. I'm going to sign up for your RSS feed now. :)
- Beth
02/26/2012 22:33
Enjoyed viewing your whole web-blog. Loved your article about on the bamboo train. It’s no wonder your blog has such a high rating.

Regards, Roman T.
03/11/2012 17:09
Thank you so much Roman! We really appreciate your readership.
Akila's recent blog post: spain: the low-down
04/16/2012 23:07
Brings back wonderful memories of when I went there.
Spencer's recent blog post: Ten Top Hotels in Copenhagen
04/25/2012 11:04
Thanks Spencer!
Akila's recent blog post: airing that dirty laundry abroad
07/04/2012 22:48
Ingenuity and recklessness that can only be found in Asia. Thanks for sharing.
Lawrence Michaels's recent blog post: Phuket Zoo
07/05/2012 07:16
Lawrence, absolutely! They've got plenty of both.
Akila's recent blog post: grilled meats of turkey
08/11/2012 10:24
I'm in Battambang right now and your piece has steered me to take to the tracks. Thanks.
Noah's recent blog post: 37 Hours in Hanoi
01/11/2013 07:58
I missed the bamboo trains when I was in Cambodia last year. Loved the country and the people though -- would love to get back.
01/18/2013 07:48
Its new thing that I heard about the bamboo train... thanks for sharing
04/18/2013 05:49
Great post. Thanks for sharing.
10/29/2013 17:45
Is it odd I'm total intrigued by this train and have a deep desire to take a ride? A plethora of bloggers have written about this peculiar mode of transportation and despite their stories of being haggled or completely uncomfortable, it still looks like a blast. Fantastic description!
11/03/2013 17:05
Morgan, it's actually incredible! Uncomfortable, yes. Genius, yes! A must do, yes!
11/29/2013 02:23
Sounds and looks great! Definitely on my list to do there!
01/13/2014 22:40
Great blog post.
03/05/2014 19:10
Very detailed and picturing description. Another and more lyric way to write about a train trip. You definitely have a touch for rich expression of something which could, but wasn't, quite trivial.

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