The Bamboo Train – Sept 2012

Getting to Batang Bang from Siem Reap had been an adventure in itself. A local bus, strange stops along the way at roadside restaurants (if you could call them that). Obviously, the nexus of the bus drivers and owners of these places was intent on us spending some of our money there. We had to pay to use the toilet (which was super clean btw) and on the way to it were greeted loudly with a, “heloooooo, heloooo, welcome, welcome” by a parrot in his cage.

Outside were women selling huge baskets of some kind of crisply fried insect. It was even garnished beautifully with red and green chilies. There were several eager buyers for this delicacy.

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We got to the local market at Batang Bang. Asking around, we finally found a tuk tuk that would take us to the Bamboo train. His name was Chai. A sweet Cambodian boy with a cherubic smile, eager to please and intent on speaking to us in his quaint english. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old. He assigned himself our tuk tuk driver for the day. After much deliberation, trying to figure out if we REALLY wanted to go to the Bamboo train, if we wanted him to wait for us, bring us back and so on, he sped of excited at the prospect. Zipping through narrow lanes and obscure parts of town, we finally reached the ‘station’. I had made up my mind that I would sit in the station and wait for my friends to take the ride. I was squeamish I said, maybe next time. Somehow what I had seen of the Bamboo train online had not impressed me. Frankly, I was petrified!

On getting off at the station however we were received by a very genial stationmaster (not sure if that’s what he was, but he seemed very much in control of that little station). He escorted us to the “train”. Somehow, I found myself being shepherded on to it along with the others. I was too embarrassed to protest at that point.

The ‘train’ was essentially a plank of bamboo placed on four wheels. Imagine two barbells with the plates for wheels; well the plank was placed on these barbells, which by the way were not even connected to each other. How they stayed symmetrically under that plank and carried it forward without the barbell in front running away ahead was beyond me. In any case, we were on it and now there was no turning back for me. The ‘engine’ was a small motor place on the plank operated by the ‘driver’ of the train. Chai decided to come with us. Somehow I felt safer!!

And... off we go!

So then, we started down the track. The thing picked up speed until we were literally tearing down the tracks and bouncing over the gaps on the rails. The bushes on the sides of the track slapped us cheerfully in the face as we sped along. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. The wind whistled in our ears as the train picked up speed.

Operation ‘make way for me’.

It got better. Up ahead we saw another such train approaching in the opposite direction. Hurtling towards us. There was only one track, of that I was sure. The two drivers reflected on each other’s passengers. Am not sure how they figured it out or even agreed on protocol, but the passengers on the other train were requested to get off. There were about five of them I think. Perhaps the heavier train was supposed to unload. An unwritten rule? The two drivers lifted their bamboo plank off the barbells, and then lifted the barbells of the track so we could pass by! It was incredible! We set off again waving to our equally bemused fellow travelers. Our train picked up speed once again and we flew blithely down the track. I noticed Chai was grinning all the way. Maybe he was amused at our reaction to the whole experience.

After about 45 minutes of this mind-numbing journey we finally reached another ‘station’. With a lot of fanfare, we were greeted by a bunch of terribly cute children and ushered in to have a drink. There was beer, (that seemed like the national drink in Cambodia) and some other juices. The kids displayed some of their wares. Grasshoppers, spectacles, bugs, people …. all made from grass. It was amazing. We sat around admiring their handiwork, chatted with the old man who seemed to own the restaurant. He told us many of the children were his and the lovely lady serving us was his wife. Quite a story that!

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Finally, bidding farewell to the merry family we climbed on to our tremulous means of transportation again and set off back to our station. The ride back was not quite as intimidating. In fact, we felt like quite the professional riders!

On reaching our station our bamboo train was dismantled and set aside near the tracks by a couple of local men for the next group of visitors. Those men were certainly not weight lifters, but they picked those barbells with the ease of professionals. I furtively felt the barbells. My god they were heavy! The men looked amused.

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Our charming stationmaster then proceeded to entertain us with a little history of Cambodia as he stood leaning stylishly against out tuk tuk, gesticulating for emphasis. The invasion by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The terrible massacres and the worlds worst genocides of the twentieth century. And yet, listening to this gentle man who had evidently lost several people close to him in that horrendous time, I could sense no bitterness. His tale was told with a calm and detachment that was truly admirable.

Heading back with Chai in his tuk tuk, besides the incredible journey we had just experienced, it was the stationmaster’s stories that stayed with us. His ability to move on in life with such dignity was only to be admired. A lesson learnt. Overall, an amazing experience.

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