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Jobless bamboo train drivers migrate for work

Mom Kunthear / Khmer Times Share:
An operator mans the engine of his vessel as he rides on one of Cambodia's abandoned colonial-era train tracks in Battambang. AFP

Theach Chum used to love his work in Cambodia, giving rides to tourists on the famous bamboo train in Battambang province.

But the 52-year-old conductor of more than 20 years is now contemplating sneaking into Thailand to find work in the construction sector illegally.

He is desperate because he has been out of work for nearly three months as the government upgrades the train tracks.

“The authority removed the rail track, so we do not have any work any more,” said Mr Chum, noting that at least 40 other conductors were suffering due to the upgrades.

“As I know, at least eight of them left their homes to work illegally in Thailand as construction workers. I want to go, too, but I do not have any money.”

Known in Khmer as “nori”, the trains comprise a bamboo or wooden pallet on top of steel wheels and two axles, powered by a small engine. These bamboo trains were used to transport goods and livestock when the kingdom’s regular train service was disrupted during the country’s civil war.

Work to upgrade the rail lines and then reopen them to tourists began in August.

Mr Chum said before the upgrades began, he was able to earn about $7.50 per day to support his family.

“I do not know when the new rail track will be done,” he said. “I want it completed as soon as possible so I can do my work again.”

Ros Sameth, provincial tourism police chief, said in a National Police report that there are between 50 to 100 bamboo trains that ferry tourists through rural villages to see traditional Cambodian life.

He said the upgrades are being completed during the low season when not too many tourists visit.

Provincial tourism department director Uch Omthiny Sara said yesterday that he expects more tourists to visit the bamboo train once the upgrades are completed, leading to higher incomes for the train conductors.

“We were worried about losing tourists for that attraction so we are upgrading it,” he said.

Mr Omthiny Sara said the work may be completed in December.

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