Drivers left in limbo as bamboo trains derailed

May Titthara / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
The original bamboo railway was shut down in October to renovate the state’s railway tracks. KT/Mai Vireak

For almost 30 years, a group of inventive and intrepid people made their living by running Cambodia’s famous bamboo railway, but now they’ve reached the end of the line.

The bamboo railway, about 10 kilometres from Battambang town, was used to transport people and goods along an old set of tracks that was rarely used.

Just over three months ago, the run-down railway line shut for repairs.

Those were recently completed and trains will soon start running along the track that will eventually connect to Thailand, bringing an end to the makeshift bamboo railway, which over the years became a popular tourist attraction, as well as a way to transport people and supplies in the area.

The changes have done away with almost 30 years of regular employment for the group of people who invented and ran the bamboo railway.

Sok Bros, 62, lives in O’Dombang commune and was a pioneer of the famous bamboo trains, known as norri in Khmer.

The former Khmer Rouge fighter said his norri used to regularly support about 50 families who had set up small businesses in the 1980s.

While the civil war in Cambodia ended in Phnom Penh in 1980, fighting continued in some provinces along the Thai border between troops from the Phnom Penh government and the Khmer Rouge.

Mr Bros had the idea to create the norri. He took small wooden-framed decks for people to sit on and laid them on two independent axles and wheels, which he reclaimed from destroyed tanks.

Small engines were put in place to power the wheels and the norri was used to transport people and goods along the railway tracks – at that time it was difficult and dangerous to travel by road in Cambodia.

“It was good for us during the 1980s because our roads were damaged after the Pol Pot regime,” he recalled.

He added that the norri was handy because in the past the few trains that ran on the line travelled at speeds of only about 15 kilometres an hour, so if the norri met a train coming in the opposite direction, they had time to dismantle it and get it off the tracks.

If two norries met on the line, the rule was that the one with the lighter load was removed from the rails and carried around the other.

“I heard that after the construction of the upgraded tracks the trains are expected to be able to travel at up to 80km an hour, so I think our norries would face problems – we could not remove them in time to get out of the way,” he said.

The norri business of transporting people and goods from village to village become famous among tourists in 2005, but was shut down in October to make way for the renovation of the state railway’s tracks.

Mr Bros said that since then, the villagers taking tourists for rides had been forced to stop. They have asked authorities to allow them to continue their work, but there has been no response.

The old, skinny man said that he had not heard anything from authorities about the future of the bamboo train business.

“However, I will follow the authorities’ decision – if they want us to continue or to stop our business, it’s up to them,” he said.

“We are normal people and cannot oppose the authorities, but I really miss the job that I did for almost 30 years.”

Some of the bamboo train drivers are now unemployed and Mr Bros has been forced to work in the rice fields, while other drivers took jobs on construction sites or migrated to work in Thailand.

“I am old, so what can I do? I can do work in the rice fields, that’s all,” he said. “For more than 20 years, I helped people travel around a rural area for the first time since the Khmer Rouge.”

Mr Bros and others are not sure where the name norri originated – he said it was just a name they made up themselves.

In the old days, he used his bamboo train to transport people in his village, starting early in the morning and going 10km to 20km. He said they would have to stop after about 2pm or 3pm because of a lack of security in the area.

“During the 1980s, there was still fighting around Battambang between government troops and the Khmer Rouge, so we could not do business late in the day,” he said. “We had to stop early, otherwise the Khmer Rouge would steal our property along the way.”

“When we travelled at that time we were always scared. We stopped being scared when Untac (the United Nations-sponsored troops) came into Cambodia. Then we could do our business at any time, because there were agreements to stop the fighting,” he added.

The norri, however, lives on, but not on the same track.

There is a piece of abandoned track from O’Dombang commune to Kor 1 village in Prek Taton commune where norries have free reign over a 200-metre stretch.

Three norries are operating there for tourists who missed out on taking a ride on the old railway.

Sok Bros works in the rice fields now the railway is closed. KT/Mai Vireak

Hach Kel, 43, said he set up his business in the new place about two weeks earlier, but did not know if or when the authorities would shut him down.

Mr Kel first started working on norries in 1991 after he returned from a refugee camp in Thailand. At first he only carried rice and students to school, because the track was very run down.

He started to welcome tourists in 2005, since his transport services were no longer needed after the country’s roads improved.

“When the good roads were built, we changed to serving tourists who came to visit our province. Now the railway has also been improved and we are out of work. My family now faces a daily struggle to survive,” he said.

Mr Kel turned his norri back on when three foreigners found the new location.

He said that in the past there were 44 norries and lots of tourists came to take rides.

Now he can only run three norries because it’s a short track. He charges from $1 to $2 for each passenger, to help his family get by.

“Most of the norri drivers went to become construction workers,” he said.

After turning off his machine and being paid by his clients, he explains how sad he felt when local people told him the end was in sight for norries.

Mr Kel said he was not sure if the authorities would allow the norries to run once state railway services resume.

However, the government recently cooperated with a private company to construct a norri track in Banan district.

“We would like to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to please help us and intervene to let us do our business at the same place,” he said.

Mr Kel said in the past he had been very busy and depended on his business to support his family. He also said he had not bought any farmland because his business had been doing well, but now he had nothing.

Cambodia’s mainly single-track rail system dates from the 1930s, with the 388km northern line from Phnom Penh to Poipet, which was built by the French and financed with WW1 reparations.

Tourists enjoy a ride on a bamboo train in Battambang province. KT/Mai Vireak

In 1942, a connection using steel sleepers was made to Thailand’s network, but international services as far as Battambang ceased after a few years for political reasons.

Cambodia’s second line – the 266km southern link between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville – was built after independence in the 1960s, with assistance from France, West Germany, China and Australia, which donated rolling stock.

Sihanoukville port was built to reduce Cambodia’s reliance on neighbouring countries’ port facilities.

During the American war with Vietnam, the railway line was repeatedly bombed, while considerably more damage occurred during the Khmer Rouge regime.

In February 2008, a project was announced to rebuild the railway lines from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh to Poipet and on to Sisophon and the Thai border – a stretch completely destroyed by the Khmer Rouge regime.

The first line to be reopened was the 117km section between Phnom Penh and Touk Meas. The complete southern line to Sihanoukville port opened for freight traffic in January 2013.

Scheduled passenger train services between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville resumed in May 2016 after having been suspended for 14 years. The line between the Thai border at Poipet and Battambang was under reconstruction during 2017, with the remainder of the line between Battambang and Phnom Penh planned to be reconstructed at a cost of $150 million. It is expected to open in April.

The railway between Poipet city and Sisophon is part of the eastern corridor of the rail link between Singapore and China’s Kunming province that will eventually connect all of Asean.

The agreement to link the railways between Cambodia and Thailand was made by Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thailand’s General Prayuth Chan-o-cha in late 2015 and aims to boost trade and travel.

It is hoped it will boost bilateral trade to up to $15 billion by 2020.

Mr Hun Sen and Gen Prayut agreed to get in a train together to cross the border at the official inauguration ceremony. To restore the poor track conditions in the northwest, an estimated $17 million was needed.

The Asian Development Bank and oil producing countries’ cartel Opec agreed an $80 million loan in 2007 for the rehabilitation. Australian aid agency AusAID added $23 million and the Cambodian government put in $15.2 million. One year later Cambodian conglomerate Royal Group and Australian company Toll Holdings entered a 30-year, $143 million joint venture.

The ADB estimates that 189 norri operators and approximately 1,100 families will be affected by the loss of the bamboo train and has set aside $5 to $10 million for restitution funds for these families.

Sophoan, 62, another local resident who began working on norries in the 1980s, now spends his days sitting in front of his home. He has been jobless since October. He said he would like to ask the government to allow him to operate his business again.

“We have no jobs, so please let us do our business as before. They do not allow us to do business where the new norri is in Phnom Banan,” he said.

“They played a trick with us – they took our norri as a sample, then they copied it and now operate their own business,” he added.

He said the new government-backed norri site on Banan mountain had not provided them with any information on what it was doing.

“On the first day they started to test their track, they let me drive my norri for tourists three times per day and they gave me only $2.50. They have not improved business for villagers, they have killed our business off,” he said.

In a quiet house in O’Dombang commune owned by Meas Sophea, there are lots of souvenirs and gifts on display.

Ms Sophea said she stopped her business selling souvenirs on the day the track repairs began.

Hach Kel, who began working on norries in 1991 after returning from a refugee camp in Thailand, guides tourists on a bamboo train. KT/Mai Vireak

She has not yet found a new place to continue her work.

“When they shut down the norries, it also affected my business too, because I don’t have tourists coming to buy my souvenirs and gifts. I am looking for a new place,” she said.

The new bamboo train is more than 20km from the city and the line starts near the base of Banan mountain, on which sits an Angkorian temple, in Kanteu II commune’s Sang village, before ending 4km down the line at Chhoeuteal commune.

Sun Chanthol, the Minister of Public Works and Transport, said the train connection from Cambodia to Thailand will be finished at the end of this year.

“Before we thought that it would be finished in July this year, but maybe not,” he said. “It will be delayed to the end to this year.”

Chan Samleng, the director of the government’s railroad department, said the people who had norri businesses had received compensation from the government already.

“They cannot run a norri as before on the main train line. They should find other jobs. We cannot allow them to do their business,” he said.

He added that the national railway redevelopment is on track to be finished this year.

The line between Poipet city and Sisophon is already 95 percent finished, from Sisophon to Battambang is 75 percent done, from Battambang to Pursat is 50 percent finished and from Pursat to Phnom Penh will be completed soon.

“We plan to finish before the national election,” he said.

Sitting with his former bamboo train driver colleagues, Mr Bros said: “I want the prime minister to help us because our business and our family’s living standards have gone, but we could also be an attraction for tourists to come and visit Battambang province.”

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