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Cambodia's Bamboo Railway: Part Three

by Tyler

We slow to a stop in a small village; everyone but us has departed already. As the conductor helps us safely lower our bikes from the platform, we're a bit confused. We're certainly not in Kompong Chnang, and our GPS shows that we have a long, long way to go before we reach it.

Seeing our confusion, the driver nods and motions us further down the track, indicating that there will be another car to take us. So, we push our bikes along the rails, over piles of garbage and mud, heaving our way forward until we reach a clearing, where another dilapidated platform and two bogies wait.

Some young guys are sitting in the shade, and they call a man over to help us. Kompong Chnang? Kompong Chnang? we ask him, pointing down the track. He nods, and helps us with our bikes, then bids us wait in the shade with the others.

While we're stopped, we jump at the chance to buy some fried bananas from a sweet lady nearby. For some reason, everyone in town thinks this is hilarious; we are obviously very far from the tourist trail. Just as we complete the transaction, it is time to board our next bamboo train.

Smiling Cambodian Woman

As we start to roll away, a father runs down the tracks with his daughter in tow, jumping on just before the trail beside the rails becomes impassible.

Beautiful Cambodian Girl

We're cruising along smoothly, when another train appears in the distance. Thus far, there has been at least some question as to who should dismantle during these encounters, but as we watch this car grow larger on the horizon, the conclusion is obvious. There, sitting stationary on the track in front of us, is a platform carrying several tons of wood.

Bamboo Railway Car w/ Heavy Logs

This is easily the most impressive display of Cambodian over-packing we've seen yet. Somehow, they've managed to stack logs ten feet high on what amounts to a beefy wood pallet. The whole perilous collection of lumber, just waiting to tumble off and crush someone, is haphazardly strapped together with bits of questionably knotted rope. It seems the hulking beast in front of us can't get moving. Gee, I wonder why?

As we gawk at the spectacle, another train appears behind us to help. The new arrival is sporting a much larger motor than ours, along with three belts! It looks like they are going to act as a pusher engine so we can get this giant, log-laden mass into motion.

Bamboo Railway Motor

Once everyone gets into position, we have three train cars butted up to one another, all ready to drop the hammer. Amidst a bevy of unintelligible Khmer, the platforms all fire up their engines and pull back on their belt-tensioning levers. The pungent smell of burning rubber fills the air.

Bamboo Railway Motor Smoking

As the acrid smoke billows from the platform in front of us, I am having shop class safety flashbacks. The driver is swapping the melting belts on their flywheel while the engine is running! Mouth agape, waiting for someone to lose a finger, I let out a disbelieving chuckle when they start pouring energy drink on the monstrosity as a coolant.

Changing Belt on Bamboo Railway Motor Changing Belt on Bamboo Railway Motor Cooling the Belts with Energy Drink

All three engines prove too weak to get this beast underway, so we all get off and push. Eventually, once the smallest amount of momentum is achieved, the two platforms in front of us are able to maintain speed on their own, albeit huffing and puffing under the strain.

Pushing Cambodian Bamboo Railway Car

The rest of our ride passes without incident, apart from the fact that it is over much sooner than we expected it would be. To our chagrin, the end of the line winds up being a tiny village nowhere near Kompang Chnang. It's a good thing we are on bikes, because our GPS shows that we're still sixty some kilometers away from our destination!

Little Cambodian Village Tara & Our Bikes in Little Cambodian Village

No matter, we're too excited about the experience we've just had to care. As well, we would never have seen this tiny awesome little village had we not stopped here! Before hitting the dirt road out of town, we stock up on fried-banana-fuel and check our route to Kopang Chnang. Our GPS reads that we have sixty kilometers to go.

Cambodian Woman Squishing Bananas Bananas Frying

The bamboo train dropped us off about twelve kilometers from the nearest highway, so we follow a relaxing route of winding red dirt paths past sleepy villages of warm smiles, naked babies, and men peacefully fishing. Our views are the brilliant green of rice paddies against a pure blue sky, and our only companions on the road are herds of water-buffalo, tromping slowly home.

Cambodian Landscape Water Buffalo

We're feeling quiet and reflective as we pass through the countryside, legs spinning absentmindedly, heads on a swivel, taking in the scenery. On the way, we listen to Ayub Ogada's peaceful album En Mana Kuoyo.

The late afternoon sun is relentless, and the heat, unbearable. After passing numerous children splashing around in cool streams and ditches, we follow suit, leaning our bikes up against a guard-rail eager to submerge ourselves in a nearby, milky looking river.

At first the water is warm, and offers no relief, but as we wade in further, in the depths, sweet coolness chills our bones. As quickly as we leapt in, we climb back out and hop back on on bikes. We have to keep moving or we'll never make it to Kompong Chnang before the sun sets!

Eventually our picturesque ride ends, and we're back on the main road. Earbuds are removed, as we now have heavy traffic to contend with. We pedal and pedal and pedal, and just as night begins to fall, we arrive safely in Kompong Chnang. What an incredible day.

Cambodian Evening Landscape