Battambang, bamboo trains & guides

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First published 6th October, 2009

Lonely Planet, as the centre of the guide industry, has the ability to make or break hotels and restaurants. Even a somewhat casual mention within its hallowed pages can reap untold profits for a business for at least half a decade or so. Publication is comparable to a name-drop within the Bible, so far as the budget travel industry in concerned. But can the LP also engineer tourist attractions, due to its tremendous sway over its captive audience? Three kilometres south of Battambang, Cambodia, lies a small swathe of railway track that encourages exactly that question.

Most touristic opportunities are fortunate to receive a paragraph-long mention, their name in bold and a few sentences, perhaps three if they are truly lucky, describing what is on offer, and perhaps a semi-sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek conclusion by a clearly weary and cliché-ridden writer. Not that the Lonely Planet isn't invaluable, but it does lack a certain degree of genuine excitement much of the time. Thus, when an adventurous opportunity is blessed with a half-page box, highlighting it as a regional "must-see", as a rational traveller trying to experience as much diversity as possible while on the road, attention must be paid. The assumed importance is then of course verified on the ground by the myriad of eager tuk-tuk drivers, craving the opportunity to drive a short distance, wait for about half an hour, and then return to the place of origin.

'Only' six dollars for the round-trip tuk-tuk ride seemed reasonable, a few dollars having been shaved off the initial offering price, which was surely as elevated as always. The actual train negotiations proved much more intense, bordering on downright frustrating given the circumstances. Arriving at a stretch of track crossed by a dirt road, plenty of tuk-tuks and motos were sitting around, idle until their precious tourist cargo returned. A solitary bamboo-train sat on the tracks, awaiting pricey posteriors.

The source of all the excitement makes the literary claim that the ride ought to cost $8, or much less to share a local train. The reality is prices start at $5/person, for an unbelievable $30 total (we'd joined forces with some British girls for the negotiations), and local trains are apparently now only legend. After the waves of shock and disbelief had passed, the price dropped down to $3 each, still prompting serious considerations to just walk away.

But the Brits were determined, a guidebook-worthy experience being clearly unmissable, economics be damned. After five more minutes, including involving an arriving second bamboo train in the discussions, as well as two tuk-tuk drivers to help with the English side of the discussion, the price was finally dropped down to the somehow reasonable $2/person, which is still 8000 riel each, a frankly inappropriate amount for a scant 30-minute endeavour.

Assembling a nori

Loading time came quickly, once the almost-bitter monetary exchange was finished, and we were ready to embark on "one of the world's all-time classic rail journeys" which must be treated as a top priority since "rumour has it that bamboo trains will soon be banned." Cambodian transit frenzy having been developed, the "half an hour of clicks and clacks along warped, misaligned rails and vertiginous bridges left by the French" were eagerly awaiting us, as were the dozen or so other tourists we encountered on our brief bamboo journey.

More a platform, or raft, than any sort of train, we piled on with two 'engineers,' who fortunately started cracking smiles soon after departure. Business and pleasure thankfully remained separated for the remainder of the excursion, as we noisily bounced along the antiquated tracks, snapping photographs whenever the tall grasses permitted.

Quickly enough we got to witness "the genius of the system" when we met another train head-on: their car was "quickly disassembled and set on the ground beside the tracks" so ours could pass. That's right, one train loaded up with tourists had to be removed for an oncoming group with more tourists on board. Similar to waiting for the people in front to get out of the frame of your obligatory perfect photo-op, except here it involves two Khmer men lifting a bamboo platform, 6HP engine, and a pair of "barbell-like bogies" into the surrounding lush greenery. At least they cleared out quickly, allowing the self-indulgent experience to continue as planned.

Disassembling a nori. The one with the lightest load gives way

Can a guidebook really create 'culture' that is then masqueraded as authentic to the visiting tourist masses? Certainly the bamboo train must have began as a genuine and ingenious way to harness the long-abandoned resource that the rails provide, but according to the cold drink salesmen at the end of the line, while he does get his beverages brought from Battambang by train, rice is no longer transported on the twisted metal track. Why would it -- with the recent proliferation of tuk-tuks in the area, there is now ample alternate transport available on the reasonably improved roads to get Cambodians their necessary daily carbohydrates.

Yet the bamboo train hangs on, by 4:20pm having already received a dozen visitors, with a queue eagerly awaiting the realisation of the Lonely Planet's promised "unmatched off-the-beaten-track coverage" in this oft-unvisited Khmer city. For those seeking out a unique and amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience -- like dining with a Cambodian family, or finding solitude at a truly abandoned ancient Angkorian temple -- how fulfilled can they possibly be after riding the rails on a raft? The promotion of the bamboo trains begs the question: what goal, and whose, is ultimately being realised?

Guidebooks sell because they reveal the secrets of travel so effectively; locations and destinations are made transparent by a short blurb, and long-anticipated dreams are realised in the tropical heat; but is it the real country that's being explained for exploration, or is the heavily filtered white-friendly version of that place? Lonely Planet Cambodia has two authors, Nick Ray and Daniel Robinson, who are as Western as it comes, obviously tourists if not also quite apparently writers, cameras and notebooks in hand as they make the intimidating accessible.

Robinson clearly loved his bamboo train ride -- it's featured, alongside what might just be a bulging pocket protector, in his authorial photograph. These gentlemen are surely hard workers, and clearly hardy travellers: the rough life of a true travel writer has certainly been exposed as being virtually exploitative of those willing to poke their heads in every hotel, eat at every restaurant, and try every attraction. On a tight time schedule then, corners must be cut, and excitement must occasionally be created out of nothing -- after all the "worthwhile" Battambang Museum is primarily a pile of broken former temple rocks, certainly carved by ancients but uncared for in modern times.

Another slow day on the Cambodian rail system

Travellers crave authenticity, no matter how trodden a path may be, and what's more desirable than a truly original and indefinite transit system -- when you're always on the go, something that's completely unique, not to mention soon to be no longer available, is pretty much top-shelf. Maybe it once served a real function, but now the bamboo train hangs on solely for tourists, a literal trap for those so willing to put their faith in a magic travel book.

Yet what choice does even an educated adventurer have -- missing a cultural rarity, only to hear how great it is later from other travellers, is embarrassing -- and going all the way to Battambang just for the French architecture and Wat Ek Phnom seems a bit underwhelming, never-mind that 'happy' isn't even a pizza option in this former provincial town. Maybe that's why the Bamboo Train hangs on, because its legacy is guaranteed so long as the guidebooks keep selling and the tourists keep appearing -- and at least it's providing a profitable enterprise for those Khmer men boldly willing to ride what remains of Cambodia's railways.

All quotes are taken from Lonely Planet's Cambodia, 6th ed., p. 247 and back cover.

We'll be running a new entry from Anderson and the team every Wednesday for the duration of their trip across Asia. We hope you find it an interesting view into what another's journey through Asia can be like. There's a delay of a few weeks between where they are and the story appearing on Travelfish, so if you want to know where they are right now, be sure to check out their blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.

Note from Travelfish:
While the noris ferry a lot of tourists on short hops like the one described above around the immediate Battambang area, elsewhere in Cambodia, particularly in areas not well served by the road network, they remain an integral part of the local transport system. We reckon it's well worth a try, but perhaps not to everyone's liking -- and we LOVE Battambang!

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Read 4 comment(s)

  • Hilarious! I had the same experience as the author, as my girlfriend also insisted on going on the train.

    However, Battambang, as Travelfish notes, is a great town. Very few tourists, quiet, with super friendly people. A family invited us into their house when a huge downpour struck and fed us lunch. It's a great stop between Phnom Phen and Siam Reap. The surrounding countryside and some of the Wat's outside of town are amazing. I strongly suggest hiring a motoscooter driver on a tour around town. Our driver, Phalla, told us this story:

    Battambang is definitely worth an extra nights stay, but the train....ehhhhhh.

    Posted by Spencer on 7th October, 2009

  • I just rode the Bamboo Train outside of Battambang and absolutely loved it. The author seems more than a little cynical to me. These open-air rail cars have been an integral part of transporting goods and services all over Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from the country, so riding them is a true cultural experience (on the day I rode, I saw several Cambodians availing themselves of the service). Given that there are still only two freight trains running each week, one up from Phnon Penh to Poioet and another back down, the Bamboo Trains are a vital means of transport to this day. The rumors of the demise of the Bamboo Train are not just rumors. China seeks access to the Gulf of Thailand for exporting goods and is cooperating with both the Cambodian and Lao governments to build rail lines. They are building from east to west, with the central portion being constructed last. Once the new tracks are laid, some version the Bamboo Train may well continue to run in between trains, but it will never again be the same.

    Posted by Barbara Weibel on 30th August, 2012

  • @Barbara,

    Cynical? each entitled to their opinion -- if you'd read to the end of the story, you'd have seen we also didn't agree with the author's POV and said:

    "While the noris ferry a lot of tourists on short hops like the one described above around the immediate Battambang area, elsewhere in Cambodia, particularly in areas not well served by the road network, they remain an integral part of the local transport system. We reckon it's well worth a try, but perhaps not to everyone's liking -- and we LOVE Battambang!"

    Other points:
    There's a freight train service between Phnom Penh south towards Kampot, but the freight trains on the Battambang line do not run twice weekly. When I was in Phnom Penh earlier this year there were no trains running on that line at all.

    The rail refurbishment by Toll Holdings (an Australian -- not Chinese -- company) on the PP - Battambang line been suspended, so there is no new railtracks being laid in any direction out west.

    It's Poipet -- not Poioet.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Posted by somtam2000 on 30th August, 2012

  • I did read to the end of the article and saw your comment. My comment was directed at the original author, as I said. I was in Battambang four weeks ago and I personally saw trains running through there at that time. Our cyclo-rickshaw driver confirmed that there were about two per week. You are correct about Toll Holdings doing the refurbishment, but my understanding is that a huge portion of the funding is from China, just as they are funding the construction of dams on the Mekong River throughout Laos. Yes, I know it's Poipet - I've been there - I'm just not much of a typist. If you can, appreciate it if you'd correct my typo.

    Posted by Barbara Weibel on 30th August, 2012

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