The Battambang Bamboo Train is running again – in two locations. There is a new dedicated tourist train near Banan Mountain that lacks the authenticity of the original but is popular with locals, while the old bamboo train has resumed rides for tourists on a stretch of the original line upon which a real train passes twice a day.
The Battambang bamboo train – which has long been one of the most popular attractions of the northern Cambodian town – was stopped in late 2017 so the dilapidated old railway tracks upon which it ran could be pulled up and new tracks laid.
The plan was that the new line would connect with the Bangkok train which terminates close the Thai border and would carry travellers and locals right through to Phnom Penh. That train is now (sort of) running but so, too, is the old Bamboo train – on the same tracks!
The Battambang Bamboo Train Is Running Again – In Two Locations!
21 October, 2018. The original Battambang bamboo train is up and running again – in two locations! After the original bamboo train was halted so the tracks could be replaced for the new train service to travel upon, a new bamboo train, dedicated for tourists, was launched on new tracks near Wat Banan and Banan Mountain.
The location was chosen to provide an additional activity for travellers visiting the hilltop temple of Wat Banan and nearby Banan Mountain, home to the gruesome ‘killing caves’, a viewing point near a newer pagoda offering panoramic vistas of the surrounding countryside, and the dusk spectacle of countless bats flying from the cave to go feed.
Lacking the authenticity of the original, the new Battambang bamboo train proved to be more popular with Cambodians than foreign tourists. The unemployed operators of the original Battambang bamboo train were also apparently disgruntled at having lost their jobs. So a decision was made to reinstate the old bamboo train service.
The original Battambang bamboo train rides operate on the old route in between the new proper train services, which we’re told run twice a day, once a day, or every two days, depending on who you speak to. Rest assured the rides do not run at the same time as the real train.
So now you have a choice of riding the new bamboo train near Banan Mountain with the locals or riding the original Battambang bamboo train through the rice fields near town, which has an authenticity and history (which you can read about, below), despite the shrubs and trees being cleared either side of the tracks, which means it’s lost that sense of tearing through the jungle.
The Battambang Bamboo Train Has Stopped – For Now, Anyway
16 October, 2017. The Battambang Bamboo Train has stopped running – for now, anyway – much to the disappointment of locals and tourists alike. While it may lack the authenticity of the original, local authorities say that tracks will be laid at another location in Battambang for a new dedicated tourist train.
I’ve just returned from Battambang here in northern Cambodia, where we spent three nights as part of one of our ten-day creative retreats, so I can confirm – having seen the tracks pulled up with my own eyes – that much to the disappointment of local and foreign tourists alike, the iconic Bamboo Train has stopped. For now, anyway.
I rode Battambang’s bamboo train earlier this month with participants on my culinary tour on what we were told by the tourist policeman in charge of ticketing would be the last ride before the wonky old tracks were removed to make way for a brand spanking new railway line that when finished will eventually connect Bangkok to Phnom Penh.
They were bittersweet gin and tonics that we savoured on the sunset bridge that afternoon. Yet there was almost a festive spirit, with as many Cambodian tourists as foreigners relishing the experience of their last hurtle through the jungle and rice fields on this most quirky of rides.
Yet the Battambang bamboo train continued to delight passengers for another week during the city’s boat races and subsequent holiday to mark the end of Buddhist Lent and the monsoon season. I think people were secretly hoping that it’s closure might be delayed yet again and it might never stop.
The beginning of our final ride on Battambang’s original bamboo train…
Battambang Bamboo Train Has Stopped – No, Seriously
The Battambang bamboo train has stopped after almost a decade of rumours that it was going to cease operating so that a new railway line from the Thai-Cambodia border to the capital, Phnom Penh, could be constructed. The Phnom Penh Post reported way back in 2008 (and again in 2010, 2011, 2015, and…) that the end was near for the unofficial ‘train’ service ran with bamboo trolleys powered by motorbike engines, known as norries.
These makeshift vehicles were cobbled together in the post-Khmer Rouge period to fill gaps in Cambodia’s devastated single-track railway service, which had been built by the French colonial administration in the 1920s but badly damaged by war and neglect.
Random ‘services’ of bamboo trains trundled the least warped tracks on random sections on the Battambang to Phnom Penh line, conveying locals (and their goods and livestock!) who didn’t have other means of transport to move them between their hamlets, villages and towns. As the economy slowly improved and people upgraded from foot to bicycle to motorbike and dirt tracks to widened and roads sealed, the bamboo trains were utilised less frequently.
While the Battambang bamboo train has still been used to transport locals, over the years it has increasingly become a popular touristy activity, attracting both Cambodian and foreign travellers. Since we took our first ride back in 2012, we’ve seen everyone from Buddhist monks to extended families riding the norries.
Cambodian tourists enjoying one of the last rides on the original bamboo train.
Why The Battambang Bamboo Train Will Be Missed
A journey on the Battambang bamboo train may have been one of the most touristy of things to do in Battambang – and in fact, for many visitors it was the only thing to do in Battambang – but it was great fun.
If you had a driver who liked to go fast, it could be positively exhilarating, holding on for dear life as the rickety contraptions hurtled through the jungle and rice fields at hair-raising speeds. Juddering and clunking over crooked tracks, fear of derailment was always in the back of one’s mind as shrubs whipped our arms, bugs flew in our eyes, and the picturesque views blurred by.
While it was the novelty of the Battambang bamboo train experience that lured most – with its cushions scattered on a colourful mat on a bamboo and wooden platform, it felt a little like a double-bed on wheels tearing along on train tracks – the quirkiness of the rituals of the ride also appealed.
I wish I had an image for every facial expression I’ve observed over the years as one ‘train’ rapidly approached another on the single track in what could have resulted in a head-on collision in less experienced hands. The looks ranged from the sheer shock and horror of a recent Japanese couple to the squeals of delight of small kids.
Then came bemusement as passengers on the norry with the least number of people alighted to watch the drivers disassemble their vehicle, laying its parts on the grass, moving the other norry a little way down the track before reassembling the bits, and both continuing on their way. On a busy day, this could happen numerous times and tourists would often get a kick out of helping the drivers.
The ritual of removing one norry to make way for another to pass on the single track line.
Where The Battambang Bamboo Train Moved To and When
Local authorities have said that a new official Battambang Bamboo Train line will be laid, starting near the bat cave at Phnom Sampeau, 12kms out of town, and extending all the way to Ek Phnom, as part of a new tourism plan, although there’s currently no scheduled launch date. Hopefully it won’t take as long to install a new line as it took to pull up the old one.
While it won’t have the history and authenticity of the old bamboo train, which unexpectedly became Battambang’s major tourist attraction, it will still give visitors an insight into what everyday life was like for locals before the country’s increasingly rapid development. And for Cambodians it will serve as a reminder of a simpler way of life that appears to be fast disappearing.
Lush rice paddy views from our final ride on the Battambang Bamboo Train.
Have you taken a ride on the Battambang bamboo train – old or new? Was it a memorable experience or was it one that you could have done without?