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As in many of the dusty, provincial cities just off the trail in South East Asia, Battambang has several tourist activities, which can be covered on a one-day tuk-tuk tour and we already had certain images conjured up about this bamboo experience from other travelers we had met on the road, guidebooks and other travel blogs. We first heard about it over on Alex in Wanderland’s post: A Weekend in Battambang.
We knew there would be a single track used to transport goods years ago and I pictured an old-fashioned train made out of bamboo, or maybe the tracks would be bamboo, too. Maybe out in the Cambodian countryside we would find another piece of evidence in favor of the world’s most eco-friendly and sustainable building material. Either way, other travelers we had met made it seem like a really fun, possibly ‘awesome’, rustic experience not to be missed. (Check out the video at the end and let us know if you would take part.)
The next day, our guide drove us in a motorized tuk-tuk on a main road out of town, then onto a smaller road which eroded into a bumpy dirt road and eventually pulled up next a couple of falling down tourist stands.
We were hastily herded to the track. In the distance, the sun bounced off the steel in a way that revealed weathered metal forming a warped line of track. Looking down, a flat contraption made of simple wood planks was the ‘train’ and the only bamboo was a woven netting we would sit on to keep us from falling through to the track below. The mechanism was just set down on two steel pulleys. It was not bolted down or even tied together with a piece of string. This is because it would be taken apart and put held together several times throughout the next hour.
This wasn’t the first time we found ourselves confronted with a strange and definitely unsafe oddity but thought we would be enjoying the sprawling Cambodian countryside slowly as if on a flying carpet on wheels, past vast forests of palm trees and open spaces of farm land, watching families of white cows grazing and endlessly swatting flies with their wiry bald tails.
Instead, we were nudged by the police officer for our $5 each, told to sit down and face forward and before we even glimpsed our ‘conductor’, the ‘train’ was speeding down the track faster than we could have imagined possible. We whipped our heads round to see a young guy in a straw hat, a red T-shirt and stylish skinny jeans with a cigarette hanging out of a disinterested smirk.
Forget the countryside! Our knuckles had now turned white gripping the only piece of second-rate timber in front of us and I began calculating… If bamboo train A is traveling at 100mph in one direction and train B is traveling at the same speed in the other direction, how many bones would be broken if we all crashed?
Luckily we had arrived early and not one train passed us coming the other direction all the way to the end. Unluckily, this meant miraculously flying over gaps in the tracks and thundering over broken bridges for fifteen minutes and reached the end of the track wind-whipped and relieved, only to find more rickety stalls selling typical Cambodian handicrafts and fruit and beer.
These people live deep in the countryside in shacks surrounding a track used only for tourists, their entire income dependent on selling useless goods to foreigners.
Instead we accepted a ten-minute tour of the nearby rice factory from a nine year old girl with perfect English and honest eyes. She explained how the rice is milled and showed how the sacks were separated into the stocks that feed the people and those for the livestock. At school they don’t learn English, she told us, and she learned just from talking to foreigners here at the end of the Bamboo train track. She left a big impression on us and we gave her a tip instead of buying beer (at 9am!).
There were now half a dozen bamboo trains lined up and tall, white people mulling around the shacks and two sat drinking Angkor beers. Our cart was now at the back of the line (there is no order to this) and as we waited for everyone to finish I decided I would film the trip back.
This time several trains came toward us and we rarely reached full speed. Instead, we all took turns dismounting and taking apart our ‘train’ off the track for the others to pass. First conductors lifted the top part off and then each of the pulleys was lifted off the track while all the tourists, Europeans, Americans and a few Asians waited amused on the side of the tracks. We passed a mix of well-dressed, older tourists and young backpackers.
No matter the age, we all shared one thing in common.
It wasn’t just us with cameras out. All the tourists were documenting the bamboo train experience with their video cameras, iPhones, iPads, iPods and DSLR cameras, some with lenses as big as paparazzi lenses. Dani and I were no longer documenting the bizarre train experience.
Instead, we could not get over the tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of technology that filled this stretch of track.
This gap-filled warped track.
The $5 ride.
The $1 beers at the end of it.
What about the $15 price of hiring a guide for the entire day, or the ‘For Rent’ sign on a newly built apartment building in the center of Battambang. Written in English and aimed at foreigners, monthly rent was set at $70 per month.
And here we all were, collectively totting around gear that can film, photograph, even edit and upload to the internet like some sort of technology trade show and not one of us is a filmmaker.
What I could stop thinking about was how this scene, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us, is a seven-day-a-week operation. Every day those involved see well-dressed foreigners with enough technology to build an entire village even at cut-rate resale price, some of whom don’t even buy that $1 scarf or bottle of water.
But what is the principle again?
In Cambodia, no matter where we went, locals smiled at us, ran out of their houses just to wave as we passed by. How do they not hate us? The bigger question, though, is why everyone else seemed so okay with this bamboo train experience.
Why did no one mention this awful irony of a railroad system no longer used for shipping commerce now charging $5 to send rich foreigners with enough money to rebuild the city down a track on a rickety bamboo train to make $1 purchases at the end of it?
Would we have gone anyway? What good is withholding the $10 they made from us that day on the bamboo train?