A bizarre bamboo train ride in Battambang

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Last Updated on September 9, 2012

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.

bamboo train cambodiaWe 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.)

bamboo train cambodia tracksThe 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.

bamboo train wheelsThis 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.

cambodia countrysideInstead, 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.

bamboo train driverForget 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?

cambodia bamboo train trackLuckily 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.

cambodia bamboo train end stationYes, we were thirsty. Yes we can buy something for $1.
But everything about this felt so wrong.

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!).

cambodia rice factoryThere 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.

cambodia bamboo trainThe way back was much more bizarre.

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.

cambodia bamboo train touristsIt 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.

cambodia bamboo train touristWhat 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.

cambodia bamboo train touristWhat 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.

cambodia bamboo trainWe bought nothing, our lack of purchase based on general principle.

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?

Tags : cambodiaTravel Reflections


  1. Dani, This really struck a nerve with me. I remember feeling like that, too in Cambodia. I felt like an overprivileged pig in princess clothing among the true princes. It’s why I bought bracelets and trinkets from the least aggressive kids in Angkor Wat; lukewarm baked goods I didn’t eat on the road to Snookie. It’s why I didn’t blink when I knew the tuk-tuk driver overcharged me in Siem Reap.

    I imagine I’m going to feel like this in India, too. Did you? DId it bother you as much? Or were you just too busy coping with the Indian-ness of India?

    1. Laura – this is actually an interesting question. I have to say that in India we were much less ‘harassed’ in general, and if we were, it was usually by grown-up beggars. Even the kids who were visibly poor and approached us (they all were fascinated by our cameras) did NOT ask us for money. Even though the ‘overprivileged pig’ feeling we had so often, we still absolutely loved Cambodia and thought that 99 % of the people were super nice!

  2. Battambang was a totally sleepy town when I was there in 2001. No real tourist infrastructure and it was just sort of stopping point on the way from the Thai border to Siem Reap where we stayed for a night. I’ve heard from lots of people how both Phenom Pehn and Siem Reap have been built up massively in the last ten years, but I’m surprised to see tourist-targeted ventures and techy-backpackers abound in Battambang, too.

    This story with the bamboo train reminds me of seeing the Cochi tunnels in Vietnam. First we watched a video about American Imperialist War Crimes, then crawled through the tunnels and when we emerged we were met by dozens of young local boys and girls wearing grubby Nike/Adidas t-shirts, speaking English and trying to sell us bottles of Coca-Cola and 7-Up. I felt sad and ashamed.

    1. We were surprised how many tourists there were in Battambang – for a town that apparently still is ‘off the tourist track’, there were quite a few of us. It seems to become a more and more popular stop on the way from Thailand to Siem Reap though. Yes, the Cochi tunnels sound like a similar experience, Justin – we didn’t get to go there when we were in SE Asia, but we had experiences like this several times.

  3. I enjoyed this post but just wondered if tipping children or buying from them is really a good thing? The children in Cambodian were really sweet and so intelligent but I felt like if I gave them money I was encouraging parents to send their Children to work. It is easy for me to say no to an adult but much harder to say no to a poor child. If the options are between them working selling post cards or working in a sweat shop, I regret not having bought their post cards.

    1. It is actually NOT a good thing to tip them, and we know it – we didn’t tip the kids in Sihanoukville or in Siem Reap but this girl made such an impression on us that we made an exception. She didn’t seem to be working like the bracelet and book sellers in the other cities – we just started talking to her and we ended up walking to the mill with her. I have to say though that we found it very hard to say NO to all the kids everywhere – they are just so adorable, especially the younger ones, but we read everywhere that you shouldn’t support them by buying from them (and discouraging them from going to school).

    1. I don’t know if we would do it again, to be honest, knowing what we know now. But if it looks good for you, definitely experience it for yourself!

  4. In my mind, it sounds like these folks have done something to earn themselves some money from tourists looking for a slightly different experience, so hats off to them. If there was no bamboo train ride, there would probably be no tourist dollars at all, thousands of dollars of tech gear aside. Better a tourist buying a $10 ride and a $1 bottle of water than no tourist spending any money at all?

      1. I mean, I can’t argue with the overall flawed world we live in, where one side can somehow afford to wander around the rest of the world like it’s a zoo, and the other side has to work out how to profit from that, but I haven’t quite come up with a solution to that problem yet. Communism was tried, but we’re basically just not very good at looking out for others before ourselves it seems. I’m waiting to aliens / robots to come and take us over, and run the whole show. People being in charge of people just doesn’t work.

        1. Wow, so true Laurence, though entirely dystopian! We wander around the world like a zoo, while the other half figures out how to profit from it. Ouch.

  5. You guys always pose some tough questions. In this case, I suppose it comes down to: what would the locals’ lives be like WITHOUT the cheesy bamboo train?

    Regardless, it certainly seems like an interesting experience. I’d never even heard of this before!

    1. Hey Amanda, that’s definitely a good question. They’d be truckin’ it in to Battambang every day trying to sell or provide some type of service. It’s a tough call on how to feel about this.

  6. You bring up some very good points here. In a way, I agree with Amanda posing the question about what their lives would be like without the train. There are always so many perspectives and facts to consider when looking at an issue like this. The hope is that it does benefit the community as a whole and is adding to their sustainability.

    1. Hi Stephanie, that’s our issue with everything. Is this adding to sustainability? The track is about to fall apart and is clearly unsafe. One tourist has one injury that brings attention to that and it would be shut down. And now all these people who have relied on the tourists out here in the middle of nowhere have to think up something else. I don’t know, I guess it isn’t different to anywhere else and that our major issue was how bizarre it was to watch all these people with loads of money interact with this dilapidated and almost purposeless tourist activity.

  7. We felt like this in Egypt and Marrakech. We would bargain with the locals selling trinkets for a saving of 50 cents on a $20 item and walk away feeling proud of ourselves! Ridiculous.

    I am just glad that I think about it when I am sure a lot of tourists don’t.

    1. I really wonder how many people actually think about this and how many leave a country unaffected by these transactions with locals. No matter where we travel, what’s the takeaway if not the people and the culture, right? Just having visited a famous site to check it off the list?

  8. It is really hard to decide where to put your money when traveling sometimes. I think you did the right thing tipping the young girl as opposed to buying stuff, but it’s always hard to know how to best help the locals.

    1. Hi Rease, thanks for your comment. I guess the question in response is – is it our responsibility to help the locals, or just not to hurt or be destructive? I mean, as Laurence said, then don’t our dollars end up helping, even, in some way?

  9. Ah, tricky travel questions! And most responses raise even more valid points–I agree with Laurence that the resourcefulness of creating a tourist attraction out of a defunct industry should be applauded. On the other hand, that wouldn’t do much soothe the familiar queasy feeling caused by coming face to face with (and being part of) such a ginormous economic gap. And the inequality isn’t just in terms of cash (or gadgets) in hand. There’s also an opportunity gap that’s an even bigger problem. Still, this warped little train is an opportunity: for some locals to makes some money and for some travelers to really think about their role in the transaction.

    1. Hey Karen, totally right about all your points. Laurence has a point, but the queasy feeling as you say still doesn’t go away. I guess the other thing we’re not really saying is that this is just an invented attraction. Sure, years ago it was used to transport something or other, but no one really tells you anything about it, you don’t take away any local knowledge or anything. So, why are we out here in the first place? Because it’s all included in some day trip we take from the city because we are traveling through and that’s what you do when you’re in this particular town? Oh, I don’t know…tricky travel questions indeed…

  10. Thought-provoking piece. Really interesting. I’m not sure I quite agree with your point, though.
    What is really important here is how tourism affects the lives of these people. If they are being true to themselves and just trying to run a business, then who are we to judge. Are they any different to the people who build theme parks and work at them in the US, for example? If there is demand, why not provide the supply.
    I think it’s sometimes too easy for us to look at these people and think “oh your poor things, you’ve really sold out your culture for fat white tourists” when actually they’re the ones having a good laugh at us for falling for it all!

  11. I loved reading this post. It made me think. The train surprised me and it seemed like a very interesting, white knuckle experience. However, what is it really about? Honestly, I never knew this existed. I am not sure I would have given much thought to this in terms of the tourist aspect and the high prices we pay to indulge ourselves for the sake of providing a simple income to people. Seems the people are genuinely happy.

    Maybe that’s the biggest message – we don’t need as much as we think we do to enjoy our lives. Travel teaches us that. So does having less? Something to think about.

  12. I think Michael Turtle has a valid point. The villagers are entrepreneurs and the money goes back to the locals, not a big tourism company. The tourists are sustaining a village- without exploiting the natural resources, not a bad deal overall. It would be great if there was a school for the local children and that may come in time as the villager earn more money and decide how best to use it.

    1. Ah, Mary, yes and no. First of all there were cops there taking money, so we have no idea how much the people get paid at all. Second, this just isn’t a safe practice. The minute one traveler gets hurt,they’ll shut it down (obviously they aren’t going to rebuild the track, etc), so their reliance on the money is short term only. And it’s not sustaining a village, just the four or five houses around it where people are squatting right now (could be years, who knows) while they work this strange attraction. I don’t know, I agree with the entrepreneurial spirit on their end bit, I see that, I do…

  13. I’ve gotta agree with Michael here. If they’re asking for a handout, that’s one thing. But creating something from nothing in an effort to turn their tiny village into a tourist attraction (especially one that doesn’t seem to harm or exploit the environment or the people in it)?I’m all for it. When we travel, it’s places like this that we tend to spend the bulk of our $$$ for souvenirs, etc, because it’s these communities that are so desperately in need of economic influx. I think it’s great that you guys are asking these questions, but in the end I personally would have spent a little more cash to help them create a sustainable local economy. Great post!

    1. Hi Bret, thanks for commenting. I see what you’re saying, my concern was the sustainability of the whole thing. The ‘train’ is completely unsafe, the rails are broken, and if something were to happen and they shut it down, then what? There is nothing for them to do there, as it’s not a community of people, it’s a makeshift arrangement of a few shacks that have sprung up around it. I guess our main issue was that the entire experience felt so wrong, with all these rich foreigners, and they were particularly rich on the day we were there, taking part in silly tourist experiences like this, not thinking twice about the irony of the chasm between them and these ‘drivers’ throwing their cameras in their faces, etc…

  14. I backpacked around the world for two years about 25 years ago and this conundrum was debated at length by all us travelers where ever we went.

    I chose to be the fly on the wall, the bird soaring above, an observer only. It’s a huge world, and I’m occupying it for the blink of an eye with respect to the vastness of the universe and infinity of time. I choose my battles and know the war will go on, but also that nothing gets done unless I do it and promote change.

    I’m planning on voting this fall. Have you ordered your absentee ballots yet, to be sent to a pick-up location, if you still plan to be out of the country?

    Keep questioning and Happy Trails!

    1. Oops, as I’m a newcomer to your blog, and I’ve just read several of your posts, you are Germans! As I’m an American, I’ll be voting this fall. However, I’m sure Germans vote too (ha, ha).

      So, the voting thing still goes. It’s the least thing we can all do, no matter where we call “home”.

      BTW; all my ancestors are Germans.

      1. Hi Steve, welcome to our blog 🙂 Thanks a lot for commenting and sharing your story. I wonder how different it must have been to backpack 25 years ago!! It must have been much more adventurous, without being constantly connected to the rest of the world like we are today.

        By the way – one of us is German (Dani), one of us is American (Jess)… and she’s going to vote of course 🙂

  15. I’m commenting on this like a million years late, but I got so overwhelmed with reading blogs at one point that I started a “to comment’ folder… just getting to it now! First of all, thanks for the shout out!

    Second, I’m sorry you didn’t have as great of a time as I did. I have to say, we had a completely different experience. We passed one group each way, there and back, and I was by far the one with the fanciest recording equipment. The others were also off-the-track looking backpackers. So maybe it seemed more authentic to me. I’m pretty sure I would have asked similar questions if a guy was there taking photos with an iPad… ha.

    1. Alex- I wish it had just felt a little bit less like a tourist circus… Reading about it on your blog I loved the idea of taking this old, rickety train through the Cambodian countryside, it just sounded so dreamy and unique. It was still an interesting experience and I don’t regret that we did it 🙂

  16. We were riding motorbikes around Kampot when we came upon a few shops and a railroad crossing ,with somm guys on a small bamboo type train they were using for work.[they were working on the tracks about 3-4 k away.
    They were super friendly and next thing we knew,bikes were parked and off we went ,with the wind blowing through our hair,sitting on bags of cement,heading out into the wilderness.
    When we arrived we were introduced to the other workers [quite shy] and we got out and spent some time out on the railroad bridge a short distance away.
    after an hour or so we said our ”byes”,hopped back on and back we went.
    It was an awesome ”no strings attached” experience that highlighted the wonderful ”Cambodian nature”
    i guess we traded our somewhat ”foreign novelty” for a cool little adventure for us.
    we were very fortunate to have been in a situation a bit different to some of the previous posts–a tiny bit like the little girl experience.
    I know there’s an element of danger with motorbikes but the freedom they allow to get out in the middle of nowhere with the people is worth the risk IMO
    We later found an Outfit that used donations to build water tanks for villages in need ,so hopefully we have done our small part.

  17. I too notice the large amount of money spent on gear that we use to photograph the poor villagers in cambodia. However, I just took the bamboo train and there were more locals using the trains than tourists. 4 times we had to get off and dismantle our train because trains with 20 locals on them were headed the other way. we also saw a few trains being loaded with huge blocks of ice and sent down the tracks. I commented on how bad must the roads be for these villagers to use the train line to go between villages. we stopped at the turn around for a while and had a coffee and saw sever trains with locals coming and going. so its not just for tourists.

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