As we hurtle down Cambodia's decrepit train tracks on a bamboo platform the size of a billiards table, another car rushes in our direction, crammed with 17 passengers returning from marshy rice fields after a day of labour. Their trouser legs are still wet. Green rice fields stretch out on either side. This is public transportation in parts of Cambodia, and it has become one of the the biggest tourism draw in Battambang, a town a few hours south-west of the temples of Angkor Wat.
Decades of slow and unreliable train service prompted Cambodians to make their own use of the tracks and hundreds of illegal "bamboo trains" now run along the single-lane, 596km-line, that begins near the Thai border in north-west Cambodia, extends east through Battambang to Phnom Penh, then runs south to the coastal port of Sihanoukville. "There's only one in the whole world," a Battambang tour guide, known as Tap Tin Tin says, while escorting a Dutch family of five along the bamboo railway. "You see it transporting tourists, but it's very useful for the Cambodians to carry rice or bring a cow or pig to slaughter in town."
In Battambang about 100 tourists ride the cars daily, and hotels and tour guides all advertise rides on the renegade railway. Soon, however, their voyages along Cambodia's makeshift railroad will end. An ongoing, five-year, US$148 million (Dh544m) railway project aims to reclaim Cambodia's tracks from disrepair and connect them to Singapore. De-mining and emergency repair work began in early 2008, and new tracks are expected to go down in November, according to Nida Ouk, an official with the Asian Development Bank, the project's primary donor. In July, an Australian company, Toll Group, signed a concession to manage Cambodia's rails.
In addition to increasing freight traffic and quadrupling current train speeds, Ouk says that the project's funders plan to enforce the ban on the illegal bamboo cars, citing safety concerns and promising to provide alternative skills training to those who operate them. "You can imagine, it could cause a major traffic accident," he says. As we speed toward the opposing car, my 19-year-old driver, Soung Vy, and his co-conductor, Vat Vy, 16, sit calmly atop the platform's rear railing. Each has a pierced ear - Vat also has nose, lip and tongue piercings. Soung lifts his leg off our five-horsepower engine and pushes his foot down on a piece of wood suspended above the wheels to stop us from running into the car loaded with rice farmers. Five people sit on our cart, compared to 17 on the opposing cart, so we are obligated to disassemble and allow the other to pass.
When opposing cars hold equal loads, drivers decide who disembarks with a game of rock, paper, scissors. We deboard. Soung and Vat grudgingly walk to either side of our platform. They easily pick it up and set it in the brush. Each then lifts a set of wheels, hoisting the axle like a barbell, and sets it aside. On the other car, Duk Kun, 40, is waiting to go home after a long day planting rice seeds on his one-hectare plot of land. He wears a cowboy hat and smokes a cigarette. Because his field is 15km from the nearest paved road, he rides the bamboo train every day during planting and harvesting season. Without it, he says, he would walk two hours to work. Beside him sits 10-year-old Ho Makara, riding home after visiting relatives down the line.
Their driver winds a rope tightly around the motor and pull-starts the engine. As they accelerate away, Soung and Vat reassemble our car. Soung climbs aboard the rear railing and wraps a fan belt over a motor gear - the other end of the belt is already looped around the axle through a hole in the bamboo platform. He pull-starts the engine and we're off. The breeze cuts the humidity and clouds of multicoloured butterflies flutter past.
I had wanted to ride a real train, but when I arrived at the stately old colonial station in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, I found the gates locked. The landmark building last filled its atrium corridors when a nightclub hosted a dance party there earlier this year. The afternoon I visited, a few squatters slept on the floor. Ouk Ourk, an official with the Royal Railways of Cambodia, told me that passenger services stopped last year because of the poor state of the tracks. Freight trains derail occasionally, he said, and petrol cars have tipped and spilt.
"We were worried about derailment, about someone dying - we haven't had this, but we wanted to prevent accidents," he said. Behind his office at the Phnom Penh station sat dozens of abandoned freight cars and several abandoned passenger cars. Holes dotted the floors and ceiling, broken seats rested in piles, and mounds of human faeces were scattered on the floor, vestiges from the poor who now live in the cars. Freight trains leave for Battambang about once a week and eke along the tracks at 10 to 20km-per-hour, said Ouk Ourk, creeping at a pace that gives bamboo operators adequate time to get out of the way or attempt to outrun it.
Ouk Ourk said the only way civilians ride the tracks is on a bamboo cart, and the best place to do it is in Battambang. Five days later, I arrived at the main train station in Battambang, another decaying colonial building and reminder of Cambodia's history as a protectorate from 1863 to 1954 of the French, who built these tracks and buildings in the 1930s. Once again, the doors were locked. A dozen children, aged two to 12, sat on the station's windowsills and slid their flip-flops along the floor in a rudimentary game of marbles. Cows grazed beside the rails. Two volleyball nets were strung on grassy patches between the tracks.
As I waited for a bamboo train to pick me up, my guide and translator, Thy Racky, 36, got a call from our driver saying police would not let him enter town. Operators are forbidden from entering inner-city stations, although we'd convinced our driver to attempt to sneak in. Instead, a tourist's trip along the rail starts about four kilometres outside Battambang town, at the end of a winding dirt road in O Dambong village. Bamboo platforms are stacked on the ground outside another abandoned train station. A young man sells bubble tea for $0.25 (Dh1) from a mobile cart out front.
There is no ticket counter. Taped to the back of the building's door is a piece of paper listing the names of train operators who share business on a rotating schedule. Cambodians pay about 25 cents for a one-way ride while foreigners pay about $10 for a trip 10km up the line to O Sra Lav village and back. One traveller, 60-year-old Vive Armstrong from New Zealand, boarded a bamboo train without hesitation. "It looks smoother than the roads," she said, referring to Cambodia's notoriously bumpy streets.
After we let the horde of day labourers pass, I am seated cross-legged with two other passengers as we thump over the warped tracks. An emaciated cow occasionally meanders over the tracks. Looking down as we cross a river I see pieces of cement missing from the 80-year-old bridge. I clench my jaw as we jump gaps in the tracks that are six centimetres long. I ask my guide, Thy Racky, if anyone is ever injured. He says six tourists were hospitalised last year when their bamboo train hit a bump and flipped off its wheels.
Railway officials have long utilised similar carts, but without engines, to inspect the tracks. Civilians began using the carts in the early 1980s after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist regime that killed some 1.5 million Cambodians and left the country's economy and infrastructure in disrepair. Our bamboo train slows to a stop at O Sra Lav station, where I meet Pat Oun, 69. He owns a beverage shop catering to tourists, but he also says he built 200 engineless lorries before packing up his chisel and axe in 1983. Each took about four days' labour, he says.
In those days, the operator pushed the cars forward with two long oars - like a gondolier. In 1992, according to local lore, a man named Mr Rit, now deceased, strapped an irrigation pump engine on the cart, creating the first motor-powered bamboo car. "Everyone just thought a bamboo train would be very useful to transport things from here to there," says Pat Oun. Today, a bamboo train sells for about $600 (Dh2,204), he says. The platform and engine each cost about $200 (Dh735), and the wheels, salvaged from the gears of old bulldozers and army tanks, cost about $180 (Dh660).
About 200 bamboo train operators work the tracks near Battambang, with hundreds more toward Phnom Penh and near the coast. Operators tell me that bamboo cars can travel the 338km distance from Battambang to Phnom Penh in 13 hours, several hours faster than the journey by passenger train before service was discontinued. Back in Battambang town that night, while indulging in one of the famous fruit shakes at the White Rose restaurant, I meet Willem Bierens de Haan, a 25-year-old from the Netherlands. Earlier in the day, I saw him and his girlfriend whizz past me on a bamboo train, grinning wildly.
"We wanted to experience how the locals make use of the unused rails," Willem says. "It's like a roller coaster through the countryside."