A wild ride into Cambodia's past

In the jungle of central Cambodia is a wonderful antique that links the colonial past with the world of today. This triumph of human ingenuity is called the Bamboo Train.

On a recent trip through that country, my wife and I spent the day on the backs of tiny motorbikes, sliding along the muddy paths that pass for roads during the fall monsoons.

Everyone rides motorbikes in Cambodia because there are few cars available and even less money with which to buy them. For about a dollar a day you can be ferried anywhere you wish on the back of a motorbike. Hundreds of young men line the streets, each hoping to be chosen as a guide by one of the handful of tourists beginning to trickle into this once forbidden land.

After a couple of hours, I was the color of chocolate from head to toe, having been dumped unceremoniously from the back of my trusty steed into the mud as my driver struggled mightily to keep us upright. We could have ridden an elephant and I wondered if I had made the right choice.

We passed farmers with prosthetic limbs picking rice, the result of some 5 million landmines leftover from a civil war and an invasion by Vietnam. We visited Hindu temples that predated their touristy cousin, Angkor Wat, by more than 400 years. And we observed a way of life that hasn't changed much for more than 1,000 years.

It was one of those special days that a traveler hopes for. But by midafternoon, when the high humidity equaled the air temperature, I felt apprehensive about our 30-mile ride back to the city of Battambang. I had just stopped trying to scrape mud from my clothes when my guide said he had a special surprise: We were not riding the motorbikes back. Instead, we'd take the Bamboo Train.

I was intrigued at the thought of riding a train through the jungle, yet I had not seen any sign that such a thing existed. I had read that, in their zeal to create a submissive agrarian society, the Khmer Rouge had systematically destroyed modern conveniences such as airplanes and trains.

Aside from the motorbikes, the only other major mode of transport I'd seen were the water buffaloes.

When I asked about the Bamboo Train, my guide smiled the smile of the knowing, and we headed deeper into the jungle.

In a short while, we arrived at a crumbling shack in the middle of nowhere. Wild monkeys screeched at us and Brahma cows eyed us warily as they chewed their cud. Next to the shack was a narrow-gauge train track, no wider than two feet. It looked small enough to be a toy railroad. From inside the shack two young men appeared, carrying two ancient steel axles with cast-iron wheels at both ends.

These were placed on the track - a perfect fit. Next, they produced a long semi-rigid bamboo mat that was about three feet wide and maybe eight feet long.

The axles fit into two steel forks on the underside of the mat. The mat sat atop the wheels, unsecured except by the steel forks. Next came a tiny gas engine that seemed no larger than a loaf of bread. A rubber drive wheel linked the engine to the wheels.

As they assembled the contraption, my guide related the history of the Bamboo Train.

It had been built by the French around 1870, when this land was called Indochina, to haul coffee and bananas from jungle plantations into the city.

Over the decades, larger, more powerful steam locomotives replaced it. Soon it was forgotten, reclaimed by the jungle. When the Khmer Rouge began their crusade to return the country to the Stone Age, larger trains were destroyed, including the tiny steam engine that had once plied these tracks.

These tracks had been spared, however, because they had been overgrown by jungle, until recently.

After the Khmer Rouge fell, people living in the jungle remembered the tracks and quickly reclaimed them. The current Bamboo Train was up and running quickly, but it remains a local secret.

After hearing the story, we were invited to board the train. We were not quite prepared for the three motorbikes and seven additional people who boarded with assorted chickens and small livestock. I figured we were overloaded by at least a ton, but before I could say a word, we were whizzing through the jungle at about 30 miles per hour.

We sat cross-legged with our arms over our heads to deflect tree branches and overgrown vines, and we laughed at the insanity and genius of it all.

Everyone was yelling as we raced past rice fields. If any weight had shifted, I suspect the entire operation would have crashed into the bushes. The only braking system was to turn off the engine and coast to a stop.

For 40 minutes we bounced hard as the wheels skipped over each connection of the track. Several bamboo bridges that had been jury-rigged over small streams caused me to close my eyes and utter brief prayers.

Finally, we began to slow and gradually coasted to a stop at the edge of the jungle.

One must marvel at the creativity of it all. In this country, machinery is as rare as a two-headed fish. In the city, countless cars sit in the middle of busy roads, abandoned where they stopped running because their owners didn't know how to fix them. I saw cars being towed by water buffalo and never an airplane in the sky.

Our guide told us that we had to ride our motorbikes the last two miles into town because the train is considered illegal and unsafe, and the local police would arrest us if they knew we were using it.

Now he tells us!

As I mounted my bike, I watched several men pick up the "train," turn it around, and set it back on the track for its return journey into the jungle.

A woman with pigs and a small boy leading a buffalo were waiting to board. I was grateful that they had not been part of our entourage.

Now when I am tired and hungry, feeling defeated by some obstacle or burden, or stuck in a remote airport where no one can understand a word I say, I remember days like that one. I recall the little bits of magic like the Bamboo Train and I know this is why I travel.

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