Cambodia: Bamboo Railways Give Way to Iron Silk Road

A new regional railway brings hope for growth to Cambodians, and reminds older Cambodians of prosperous times before recent decades of conflict.

Pursat, Cambodia - Cambodia's rail lines tell the story of the country's turbulent history. In Pursat, grandmother Uch Thorn remembers back to the 1950s and 1960s, when she was a young woman, and giant steam engines rumbled past her village.

"Back then the rail service was good. Lots of people traveled on the trains, and we had nice stations," says Thorn.

At its peak, the railway carried 2.4 million passengers and 354,000 tons of cargo, with trains regularly running between Bangkok and Phnom Penh. As Cambodia descended into conflict in the 1970s, the country's rail lines slowly fell into disrepair and decay, and rail traffic declining to a trickle.

Energizing the Economy

ADB is providing US$84 million in support of the reconstruction and repair of Cambodia's railway - 650 kilometers of rail stretching from Cambodia's border with Thailand, through the capital Phnom Penh, and southward to the port city of Sihanoukville. Rail operations have already commenced between Phnom Penh and Touk Meas, near the Vietnamese border, a major step towards the creation of a contiguous Iron Silk Road, a railway that would stretch from Singapore to Scotland.

Once the new Cambodia railroad is finished in 2013, only one remaining link - between Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam - will remain before a pan-Asian railway is complete. Since Cambodia and Viet Nam have already signed an agreement to link their railways, the full route could be ready in just a few more years.

"Infrastructure bottlenecks have been holding back Cambodia's development," says ADB Country Director Putu Kamayana. "The country and the region urgently need better railway networks - as well as road, air, and water transport networks - to fully unleash their economic capacity."

For families in Cambodia, better rail connectivity promises to bring tangible benefits. Prices for imported and locally made goods are significantly more expensive than those found in neighboring countries, due in large part to the country's less developed transportation infrastructure. The new railway will help lower the cost of staple commodities that most households rely on for sustenance.

For Thorn, the advantages of the revitalized railroad rest not only in its economic benefits, but in mobility. "I hope that when the new railroad is finished I can ride to Phnom Penh," she says. Her last ride was back in the 1960s.

Better than Bamboo

Today Thorn and other people in her village ride makeshift lorries, commonly known as 'bamboo trains.' The simple contraptions - wooden platforms with woven bamboo mats perched on iron wheels - still buzz along parts of Cambodia's war-ravaged rail line.

While the number of bamboo rail cars in operation has significantly dwindled since better roads and bus services have come to the country, the wobbly contraptions are still popular with residents in more isolated areas. The larger lorries can hold up to three dozen people, and are often used to ferry fruit, vegetables, rice, and even blocks of ice.

It is hard work for the entrepreneurs operating the bamboo rail cars. When two lorries approach each other from opposite directions, the rule of the rails dictates that the one carrying a lighter load must be quickly disassembled and moved off the track so the other can pass. This can often happen numerous times over a short 10 kilometer trek.

The bamboo trains don't normally go that fast - about 25 kilometers an hour. Still, they are quick enough to present a danger. Accidents are not uncommon, especially along a dilapidated track where, along some small bridges, the wooden beams holding the rails together are visibly rotting away. It all makes for an invariably bumpy ride, the rumble of the track drowning out conversation.

Understandably, some of the lorry drivers worry about their livelihoods once the new trains start passing through. Le Na Uy, 38, has been operating a bamboo rail car for more than half of her life, and says she's not sure what she'll do to earn a living if she can't operate her lorry. Her concerns have been accounted for.

"Every bamboo railway transport operator will be compensated under this project," says ADB's Kamayana. "We have programs in place to make sure these operators can maintain their earnings, including transitioning to road transport services. New access roads will also be built for local transportation, which will both ensure these drivers can continue to work, and also ensure that people in remote villages have good access to markets and social services."

Bringing in Business

Many people along the railway are tremendously upbeat about the new train. In Takeo, a town south of Phnom Penh, store owner Tim Tao envisions big profits in her future. She sells drinks, snacks, and sundries out of her shop by the railway station, and says she is already seeing her business pick up in the weeks since the train commenced its test runs.

"Before I was earning almost nothing. Now we're making lots of money each day, and I think business will be better," she says

The hordes of children along the new railway are excited to see the bright yellow train passing by. But their enthusiasm cannot match that of 82-year-old grandmother Heng Seng, who has lived along the tracks in Touk Meas since 1979.

"I'm so excited to see the train again," she said. "I really never thought I would. I hope that one day we can all travel to Battambang on the train."

It looks like that day may be close at hand.


Last Updated: 1 October 2010