Bumpers, Butts, and Bamboo Trains

Bamboo Train Battambang Cambodia

We were barreling down the twisted railway tracks on a Cambodian bamboo train when up ahead, a blue truck came into view. Its big steel bumper hung over the rail line. I tried to shout something to prevent my wife from being decapitated, but fumbled the words and never got the chance to warn her. The driver of our bamboo train refused to slow down and the truck’s bumper grew bigger. Luckily, seconds before reaching the blunt guillotine, the truck driver went in reverse.

The bamboo trains operate a few miles outside the city of Battambang. Before tourists dubbed these machines bamboo trains, these vehicular relics of ingenuity were created after the Khmer Rouge had left the country in shambles. The people recognized that they required a way to transport persons and goods around the country; so they laid down ten-foot strips of bamboo to create pallets that were fitted over two steel axles, which were spun by a lawn mower engine jury-rigged to the back of the cart. (Originally, however, before scrounging together engines, engineers had used sticks and paddles to propel the cart forward.)


Bamboo Train Engine


“Need to get off,” our driver announced, his cigarette held in place by the gap where a front tooth had once been rooted. Two other bamboo trains were heading toward us on the shared track. Policy dictated that whichever side had less vehicles, those would be the ones to dismantle. Since we were the only cart heading away from Battambang, we broke apart our bamboo train. I helped our toothless conductor lift the pallet, which we dropped in the grass alongside the tracks. Then we hoisted the barbell-like axles, each weighing about fifty pounds, from the tracks. After the two bamboo carts passed, we reassembled our locomotive. It was about a three-minute interruption.


Bamboo Train Engineer

Dismantling Bamboo Train

Bamboo Train Assistance

Bamboo Train Engineer Protege


Our bamboo train trimmed back the overgrown foliage as we gained speed on the twisted tracks. I spread my arms and legs, trying to decrease my chances of being thrown from the cart. It seemed we were moving faster and shifting about more precariously than if we had been riding the Cyclone of Brighton Beach. Rice paddies zoomed past as the steel wheels bounced over seams in the steel tracks. This produced a sound similar to someone discharging a shotgun in my ear.


“Duck,” I tried to shot when I saw a cow. But again I was tongue-tied and again my wife almost lost her head. The giant white heifer grazing beside the rail line decided to swing its rear over the tracks. But at the last moment, again, it shifted its weight, sparing my wife.


Our driver was crazier than the suicidal dogs that chose to leap in front of our hurtling carts. He managed to catch up with the bamboo carts ahead of us, despite time lost during our pitstop, and, at about sixty kilometers per hour, tailgated with only centimeters to spare. The kid operating the vehicle ahead of us looked down at our bumper and smiled nervously. Our driver grinned sadistically. I grabbed onto nothing even tighter.


Bamboo Trains Leaving Battambang

Posted on by Noah Lederman in Asia, Somewhere

One Response to Bumpers, Butts, and Bamboo Trains

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