While we might rely on passenger trains to get us to work everyday, in Cambodia people are lucky to see just four trains in service per month– that is if they don’t get derailed or break down (a common occurrence). The busted trains tend to travel at walking pace and the railways constructed during the French colonial era are so overgrown and dilapidated from civil war and neglect that the last regular rail service in Cambodia was suspended entirely in 2009.
And with these lemons, the Cambodian people made lemonade. In the late 1970s, villagers began building their own improvised rail vehicles to transport themselves and paying commuters anywhere the old track would run. No more complicated than a few sticks of bamboo on wheels found from abandoned tanks of the civil war, the mode of transport has proved more reliable and popular than the official rail service, and in the Battambang province in northwestern Cambodia, it is the only train service in operation.
It is known as the ‘Norry’ or ‘nori’, which comes from the French word for lorry, and has created its own little norry construction industry in trackside villages around the country. They take about four days to build and while they used to be propelled simply by pushing off with a pole to gain momentum, norries now rely on small engines from motorcycles or tractors. They can reach a top speed of 40km per hour (faster than the government’s passenger trains) and accomodate entire families and their baggage which will include anything from bags of rice to livestock.© Gunther Deichmann
When the government passenger trains do decide to come through, the norry drivers simply remove their carts from the rails as they hear it approaching and re-assemble the bamboo slab on its wheels once it passes.
But this efficient little service may not be around forever. When regular train services were suspended in 2009, an Australian company was awarded the contract to reconstruct and operate a new Cambodian rail network that would allow direct rail services into Cambodia from Bangkok for the first time in over 60 years. It’s completion was envisaged for 2013 but the project was suspended in early 2012 due to ‘lack of profitability’ after meeting resistance in relocating local communities for the rail development.
For now the norry business is safe, if not booming. Norry builders and drivers are even catering to the tourism industry, making an effort to decorate their vehicles and operating tourist services between villages.
Take a tour of the Cambodian railway with this video from Journey Man, an encylopedia of the world on video, and a generally awesome place to spend time on the internet…
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