**Complete Cambodia photo gallery below**
The railroad system in Cambodia has largely languished in disrepair for the past few decades. The tracks were originally laid in the 1930s and 1940s when the country was still an imperialist French colony. After the civil war in the 1960s-1970s, and during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the train system was dismantled in many places. In the 1980s, train tracks were a target of guerrilla attacks, so much so that the front cars on a train acted as a sort of “minesweeper.” Riding in the front train car was actually free, and the second train car was half price, because of the danger of going over landmines or explosives. Meanwhile, villages that bordered isolated stretches of train tracks would still utilize the tracks by making improvised train cars with two axles, slats of wood, and powering the car with a small engine. These cars would transport passengers and goods between villages. The improvised train cars are called “norry” and are often referred to as a “bamboo train.” The norry have in recent years actually become quite a tourist draw in Battambang, a city southwest of Siem Reap. Many of the norry in Battambang are utilized primarily to provide rides for tourists, and are made with actual slats of bamboo. They are also outfitted with comforts like a rug to sit on and handrails. However, norry are used in many places in Cambodia, and outside of Battambang they often serve a very functional purpose transporting people and goods from outlying farms and villages. Presently, large projects are underway to renovate the rail system in Cambodia, ultimately filling the missing link in the rail system between Singapore and southern China. In 2008, an Australian company was awarded a 30 year contract to repair and maintain the rail system in Cambodia. In places where regular rail service is reestablished, the functional use of the norry cars will likely disappear. In fact, they may disappear altogether. That’s not to say that they won’t maintain a few spots for tourists though. It’s really great for the country, without a doubt. It’s progress. But what that means for us now on this visit is that a very unique transport system will likely disappear in the coming years.
And so, of course, we had to ride one in our brief time here. I’ll admit, I wasn’t completely for the idea when Martha originally showed me pictures. Google “Bamboo Train” and mixed in the pictures are groups of smiling white people on cute little bamboo train cars like they’re on a ride at Disney World. Well, when we were in Siem Reap we went ahead and took a pass on the day trip to Battambang where we could have done this. I’m really glad we did. That’s because we had a free day today to try and find a real one outside Phnom Penh. Our tuk-tuk driver proved to be pretty solid yesterday, so we negotiated to seek out a norry ride today with him. Sure enough, the tracks west of Phnom Penh are under renovation and it’s sketchy as to when and if you can catch a ride there. Our driver made some calls, and we wouldn’t have been able to do it there today. Phnom Penh being the capital though, and tracks spreading out in all directions, our driver thought we could work something out. We headed north, parallel with the tracks, with an ultimate destination where there are known norries, about 100 km away. However, in the hopes that we wouldn’t have to drive that far, every few villages, the driver would pull over and chat up a few locals to find out if they had any norries running. Maybe 50 km in, he was successful, and we managed to negotiate (with plenty of help) catching a ride on one for a little while. Our train wasn’t bamboo, it was old ass worn out wood. Like, the kind that’s been transporting bushels of rice for decades. It had an old generator engine rigged up to an axle, with a plastic bag for a gas cap, and it leaked oil. The driver would apply and remove the drive belt by hand and used a wooden board to apply the brakes. No handrails, no seatbelts, no signals or signs at railroad crossings, cows on the train tracks, and all of this at upwards of 50 km/hr. If this was a ride at Disney World, it felt like a pretty damn dangerous one. It was also a crapload of fun. I told Martha I’m sorry for putting down the idea because it really was a good one. We blasted past rice fields and little farmhouses, a small village, a bunch of kids swimming in a little pond by the tracks in the middle of nowhere. Cows were grazing all around and crossing the tracks. It was pretty cool, and it did feel a little dangerous going that fast when you’re that low to the ground and completely in the open air. I’m glad we did it on this visit because there may be a lot less of them in a few years when we’re able to make another trip.
We also shot a couple brief video clips riding the train, check it out below:
We made it back from the norry excursion in time to tour the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. It was pretty good, almost as good as the Grand Palace in Bangkok. We also checked out Wat Phnom earlier in the day. At this point, we really have seen a lot of temples and palaces though, so we don’t spend nearly as much time at them as we did earlier in the trip.
Tomorrow morning we catch a bus bright and early to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I have to say we’re a little sad to be leaving Cambodia. We really love the place, adore it even. We’ll definitely be coming back again. The people are incredibly nice, the country is beautiful and clean, and the food is great. Next time we’d likely fly into Phnom Penh and just branch out from there.
**Also check out our “Accommodations” page, Martha has been keeping that up to date with reviews of lodging throughout the trip**
Below is our complete Cambodia gallery. It’s bigger than any other gallery so far, so that might also indicate how much we enjoyed the visit. Click an image to expand to gallery view. You can also browse images with the arrow keys and exit the gallery with the escape key.