Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Battambang Bamboo Train

Location: Battambang, Cambodia
Hopping cities yet again: today we loaded into a minibus that took us to a vintage and ramshackle old school bus, and that wended through surprisingly tight back alleys to get us to the actual bus that would transport us from Siem Reap to Battambang. They said it would be a five-hour trip but I know I wasn't listening to five hours worth of podcasts while we drove over, or else we just made good time.

Upon pulling into Battambang we were swarmed with men waving pamphlets for the local hotels. My wife and I got two of them competing against each other for the lowest rate with the amenities we wanted, which left one man sore but by the look of him we made the right choice. And no sooner had we agreed upon a room (double bed, AC, wi-fi, hot water) than we were pressed to start choosing our agenda for the next couple days, but that was easily settled: we came here for the bamboo train.

One nap and one dinner later, we loaded up in a tuk-tuk, sharing it with a French woman, and headed out to the rails. Lonely Planet and Wikipedia have all sorts of things to say about the bamboo train, but I'll share a few notes with you and let the pictures do the talking.

All the parts lay beside the track,
ready to go at a moment's notice.
The Fanta bottle is full of gasoline:
our car is being refueled.
The bamboo train is currently used as a viable form of transportation, but it's also let out for tourists to ride. It's a fun novelty, if a little hair-raising: some of the models have a handhold on front but otherwise there are no guard rails, seat belts, nothin': you simply sit on a bamboo pallet and whisk through the countryside around 40-50kph. One thing to note about the contraption is that it is very simple and collapsible: two axles sit on the rails, the pallet rests on the axles, and a scavenged gasoline motor is mounted on the back. By "scavenged" I mean it's a component of machinery that could come from any other device. Sheer ingenuity goes into assembling these things--or disassembling, which goes on several times in a trip.

We were told our trip would run out 20 km in one direction and then return. There's no loop or wye for the return trip: you simply haul the rear axle to the other side of the front one, turn the pallet around, and put the engine back in place. The engine isn't bolted or anything: it rests on two metal sleds and the driver controls the tension of the belt driving the rear axle by leveraging it with a large wooden stick. And if you come up against another vehicle, which happens frequently, there's no spare track to go around. One driver stops and disassembles (with the other's assistance) and the other vehicle scoots on through. We did this several times. I tried to help out but our driver assured me repeatedly he had it all under control.

Getting the Motor StartedReaching Max Velocity

Features like rickety wooden bridges further
enhance the already worrisome riding
experience, but it's all in good fun.
There are some things the driver can control and some things lie beyond it. The condition of the track is a bit worrisome: the rails lean to one side or the other (or maybe the pallet itself does not lie flat, suggesting to the riders they may be pitched to the side at any moment) and they don't line up with each other perfectly. When you're racing down the line around 25mph and the steel wheels hit these misalignments, it produces a resounding BANG that rocks the pallet for a moment and commands your attention, if you were staring at the scenery or watching the ground race past. I imagine it must take a toll on the wheels themselves, and I've noticed chips missing out of the corners of the rails, but in the meantime nothing stops these cars from running back and forth all day, each week.

It was five bucks a person to run out on the 40 km round trip. At the end of the line, the rails kept on but we stopped at a small household and had some refreshments. The food stand was run by a family living nearby, a bunch of animated little girls, a cheery mom, and a sharp-eyed grandmother keeping tabs on everyone. I had a beer and treated the driver to one. Rebecca and the French woman walked down the hillside to check out a nearby brick factory, while I stayed back with the family. The little girls, ages ranging from 6 to 16, I'm guessing, were playing with long strips of palm leaf, weaving little rings and bracelets. The youngest girls had a lot of fun placing these on my fingers and wrists. I noticed the teen daughter drawing pictures of a pink balloon and I got a turn at that as well, trying to render an echinacea and a butterfly as best I could. The mother took a moment out to produce a very elaborate ring as well as a grasshopper, which she gave me as a souvenir for the day. I was quite pleased and thanked her much.

The ride back was uneventful, relatively speaking. I still felt like I was going to tumble over the edge but we didn't encounter anyone coming up in the opposite direction. The wheels still banged against the rails and there were more bugs, but the bright orange sunset to our left was spectacular and patched over all these minor ills.

In many places, the rails don't come close to lining up!
We encounter another car of passengers.
These girls make fun crafts from sustainable products.
They're quite familiar with the bamboo train as well.
The mother surprised me with this lovely woven gift.
The suggestion to ride the train at sunset was an apt one.

1 comment:

Molly said...

So very cool! Great videos, too.