Transportation plays a key role in the advancement of societies. Sumerians invented the wheel in 3500 BC to aid in the movement of heavy stone as they built their temples; Romans built a vast network of roads across their Empire so soldiers could march and conquer more efficiently; Egyptians built ships to access more markets for trade and later on, canals were constructed to give more passage. In the 1800s, America’s own Industrial Revolution was spurred on by expanded transportation including the Cumberland Road (now part of Interstate 40), the creation of the Steamboat, the opening of the Erie Canal and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.
In Cambodia, a country destroyed by years of civil war and the Khmer Rouge reign, transportation is a struggle. The French colonists created an intricate system of railroad lines to connect the plantations with their lucrative coffee and bananas to marketplaces. But these lines and trains fell to waste after the Khmer Rouge banned the “ordinary” people from using them. Now trains run infrequently in between the villages and the trips are long as break-downs and derailments are common. The Cambodian Government promise an upgrade to the system but little has been done. So, Cambodian villagers long ago took matters into their own hands and built the Bamboo Train.
Their choice of materials is an unusual combination of the strong and abundant bamboo that surrounds them and parts from abandoned military tanks. Described as a “bamboo slab on wheels,” these trains sprung up in the late 70s where they were controlled by a series of levers and hand-cast controls. They have since upgraded to wooden footbrakes and small motors that poured into the country, courtesy of the United Nations relief effort in the 1980s.
Simplicity is key for this train system. They use the existing railroad tracks and spurs to travel. When they meet another bamboo train on the tracks, whoever has the least passengers merely lifts their train off the track to let the other one by. They keep a sharp ear out for the infrequent freight trains that come through and when they reach their destination, they simply pick the train up and turn it around to head back.
These bamboo trains, or “Norries” as they are called by locals, provide a link between villages, a way to get produce and animals to the market, a way to get lumber to building sites and a means of income for many as rich tourists pay up to $2/day to ride them. In Cambodia, that can equal two months wages to most citizens. A local village has even turned into a “little Detroit” and builds up to 10 trains a month for sale and use. Not only are they building them, but they want to make them more beautiful to help encourage the tourists to ride them.
Necessity is the mother of invention and in a country that desperately needs (and wants) to rebuild itself, these bamboo trains are an ingenious solution.
Bamboo offers so many uses to so many countries, which is why we have created Bamboo’s Worldwide Impact section. From trains to bikes, bamboo loungewear and bamboo bedding to earthquake shelters, bamboo is a remarkable and sustainable resource.
For a firsthand and most fascinating look at bamboo train travel, check out this Bamboo Railway – Cambodia Video.