Cigarette dangling from his mouth, our wiry Cambodian engineer yanked the starter rope on a small motor mounted to the rear of our open-air rail car. The engine sputtered momentarily, then roared to life. Straining at the weight of the iron frame, he pushed our rudimentary vehicle down the tracks a few feet, hopped aboard at the last possible moment and broke into a wide grin. Within moments we were speeding down tracks that looked as if they had melted in the sun and dried warped. I sat back and let the breeze dry perspiration that had beaded on my brow and upper lip in Cambodia‘s unforgiving summer heat and humidity. A pair of butterflies parted before me, narrowly escaping being plastered on my nose, and jungle vines reached out on the narrow right-of-way, whacking me in the arms and face as we sped along at our top sped of 25 miles per hour. Gaps between the kattywampus rails caught the steel wheels; their jarring clunk-clank set my teeth rattling. With no railings on either side and only a thin bamboo platform separating me from the ground rushing by below, it was totally unsafe. And I loved every moment of it!
After the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979, locals needed a way to move people and goods around the country. Trains no longer ran but the track were still in place, so with typical Cambodian ingenuity, they salvaged old train axles and wheels, built iron frames and laid a platform of bamboo on the top. Initially, the cars were pushed along the tracks with large wooden paddles but eventually small motors were installed. When the country reopened to the outside world, tourists discovered this curious means of transport and christened it the Bamboo Train. Today, the train carries visitors and locals alike on the six-mile route between two tiny villages just outside of Battambang. Continue reading