Bamboo trains derailed

It rattles along at 20 miles an hour, swaying back and forth on uneven rails, the engine so loud it makes your teeth hurt. Then, rather unceremoniously, it runs out of gas and dies.

And you find yourself stranded in the middle of Cambodia on a handmade “norry” train, feeling a bit exposed on a 25-square-foot platform made of bamboo and scrap metal attached to wheels salvaged from old tanks.

Picture one of those hand-pump rail cars depicted in old Westerns, and you’re close. It’s powered (when it has gas) by a converted outboard engine. The brakes (when it has gas and you need brakes) are a wooden board pushed against the wheels. No seats.


All this bamboo and scrap metal give it a makeshift appearance, and appearances do not deceive. Pretty soon, driver Path Chanthorn starts pushing the disabled norry with hands that are missing a few fingers from a run-in with a water buffalo -- “a strong cow,” he mutters.

Another norry approaches from the opposite direction, every inch of its platform covered by a dozen people headed for a festival. With a single track to ride on, etiquette dictates that the norry with the lighter load be taken apart so the other can pass. So Chanthorn and his assistant quickly dismantle their vehicle and let the other one by, then put theirs back together again, all within minutes.

And you are on your way.

Now a government plan to upgrade the country’s rail system may end up forever stranding the norry, an ingenious response to the decades of war, destruction and dire poverty that have afflicted Cambodia.

Under the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s, as the country descended into civil war and mass murder, 2 million people perished. And in leader Pol Pot’s quest to reach “Year Zero,” Cambodia also saw most of its roads destroyed, its trucks blown up, its locomotives charred.

By the early 1980s, as Cambodia started to emerge from the nightmare, people remembered the small vehicles used by rail workers in the 1960s to repair the tracks and started building their own. The norry, a name some say is derived from a mispronunciation of “lorry,” was born.

The humble norry is a reminder of how much Cambodians lost, but it also speaks to their persevering spirit. All but left for dead under Pol Pot’s genocidal regime, they defied the odds to rebuild, sometimes literally: Witness the land mine victims who picked up their lives by crafting homemade wooden limbs.

“It shows how ingenious people can be,” says Ith Sorn, 55, who’s been driving norries for three decades. “Cambodians came up with this when they had almost nothing.”

The unique mode of transportation saw its heyday in the 1980s when other vehicles were scarce. “There were bombs and mines everywhere, roads were destroyed and rail cars a shambles,” says Kot Sareurn, 50, a union leader for 23 norry drivers in Battambang, a picturesque provincial capital along the tranquil Sangker River. “Norries helped a lot of people survive, get to hospitals, get food.”

Initially operators “rowed” the norries with poles, gondola-style, carrying loads of up to 40 people, eight cows or three tons of rice. After a few years, small gas engines were added.

Drivers said that at the peak, thousands of norries operated throughout Cambodia, charging villagers only a few cents for a ride but still making a decent living with so many people and possessions jammed aboard.

These days, the few hundred remaining norries are relegated to short distances in a few provinces, more an oddity for tourists than the lifeblood they once represented, as trucks, public buses and motorbikes fill the gap. They’re still privately owned, but nowadays companies sometimes own several of them, splitting the profits with drivers.

Safety? Not a problem, Sorn says: “I’ve never had a bad accident. Only occasionally, if it’s overloaded, we’ll break down and some goats tumble off.”

They’ve clung to life thanks to the tourists and Cambodia’s catatonic rail system. The last train anyone saw around Battambang’s Odombang station lumbered through more than a year ago. The norry drivers have since taken over the tiny station, sleeping in hammocks on the platform, littering its dirt floor with their cigarette wrappers.

But there’s movement down the line. The government plans to revamp the nation’s two modest state-owned rail lines -- a 230-mile stretch from Phnom Penh to the border with Thailand completed by the French in 1942, and a 150-mile stretch from the capital to the southwestern Sihanoukville port finished with help from China and Germany in 1969. Government officials envision turning the system over to private operators by early 2012.

This would almost certainly see the go-cart-like norries muscled aside by “real” trains.

” Norries are dangerous, shabby-looking and won’t last in the 21st high-tech century,” says Touch Chankosal, an official with the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. “Real trains going at over 30 miles per hour would run right over them. The drivers’ lives are worth more than preserving norries.”

Union leader Sareurn has little nostalgia for the contraptions that have earned his keep for decades. “If the government provides compensation, we’ll all stop the next day,” he says.

Others aren’t quite so sanguine. “I’m worried, but what can you do?” says Chanthorn, 37, who’s been driving since he was 10. “The rails belong to the government. We’re just borrowing them.”

During the Khmer Rouge days, there were no norries, only endless walking by starving people, Sorn says in his house beside the tracks made of beams and tin. His wife, Dorn Mao, 50, shows where she was hacked with a machete by a Khmer Rouge fighter for taking a few bananas. “It’s hard to think about,” she says.

Recently, more foreigners have been riding his norry, Sorn says, including three with big bellies who initially balked, thinking it too flimsy to support them.

“They worried that the bamboo would break, but bamboo is very strong,” he says. “If I can carry eight cows, I can certainly carry a few fat foreigners.”