For nearly two decades Ngul Nguon has relied on the trade brought by tourists visiting Battambang’s bamboo railway. But his life is about to change as the famous railroad looks set to be closed as the government moves ahead with plans to refurbish the country’s railways.
The heavily tattooed 56 year old says he will have to seek work as a moto-taxi driver or a construction worker to make a living after the line closes.
As a bamboo train driver, he earns between $7.50 and $12.50 per day plus tips to support his family of three.
Rumors that the government may relocate the railway in an attempt to keep tourists coming to the area would be welcome if true, he says.
“I don’t oppose [the closure], but there should be something for villagers who have been reliant on that business,” he said.
Another bamboo train driver, Pheach Tum, 52, said he was saddened by the news of the railway’s imminent closure.
“I am so sad. I am old and cannot migrate to Thailand [for work]. I only have a smallholding to grow things,” he said. “I don’t know what to do yet. Perhaps I can feed cows and raise chickens and ducks.”
Located about 10 kilometers from Battambang town, in O’Dombang commune, the bamboo trains, known as norry in Khmer, support some 50 families who have set up small businesses at stops along the line.
The small wooden-framed decks sit on top of two independent axles and wheels reclaimed from destroyed wartime tanks. Powered by an on-board motor, each cart cost about $500 to build.
A round trip on the railway takes about an hour and costs about $10.
Chan Samleng, director of the Railroad Department, said the trains would stop operating next month to make way for the repairs. “They can find other jobs,” he said, referring to the local residents and adding that the government had paid out compensation to some of the train operators.
The government plans to rebuild Cambodia’s French colonial-era northern railroad between Phnom Pen and the Thailand border, which is expected to open in April.
Since it was officially closed, the disused railroad has been plied by the bamboo carts, carrying people and freight to the border. But the government aims to put a stop to the “illegal” use of the railway.
Phuong Sophoan, 62, another local resident, asked for government help to find a new job when the train stop moving. “I don’t know what to do,” she said.
Nou Seng, a tourist police officer, said there had been no serious accidents or other incidents on the railway in the eight years he has manned the area.
Meanwhile, Chum Nhor, a local district governor, said the authorities were investing in a new bamboo train in nearby Banan district. “There will be a new place,” he said. “I hope there are more tourists since there is also ecotourism.”
Ian Sokeng, 40, a vendor living along the current bamboo train route, said the changes would affect her business. “I can’t move to another place. It’s far from my home.”
(Watch video: Bamboo train railroad in Battambang)