Wednesday, October 05, 2011
End Of The Line For Cambodia’s Quirky Bamboo Train
I went back to cooking at the restaurant for a few days to help my friend Josh out. He was in a sorry state. He was heading up to a province near Phnom Penh with his Cambodian wife to see how badly his house had been hit by the country’s worst floods for 10 years (the stilts were leaning but just about holding).
The day before he left, a dodgy-looking Khmer man called Too Jee appeared. It turned out he was some sort of relative of Josh's wife, could speak no English, and wanted to move south (and stay in Josh’s house for free like the rest of the growing family) while he found a job.
In fact, it didn’t take him any time at all. He had a job the moment Josh left town. Too Jee’s cousin, Wee – who also works at the restaurant – had obviously decided an extra member of staff was needed to make the rainy season staff-to-customer ratio look even more ridiculous.
I went in the next day, and saw him skulking near the cash till. Wee pointed at me as soon as I walked in, and muttered something to her cousin, or nephew or husband, or whatever he really was. I don’t know what she said, but it was nothing good. From the dead fish look in his eyes, I wouldn’t have even wanted him drinking in the restaurant, let alone working there.
I decided enough was enough, and spent the next few days looking at restaurants to buy. Josh phoned a few days later and insisted Too Jee would no longer be working there, but I could tell he’d long lost control of the business to the family. It was obvious they were trying to take over. And I’d just been seen as a thorn in their side, or worse. And in a country where you can remove problems for as little as $150 - probably even less in the rainy season, I was taking no chances.
THE NEXT week there was a knock at my hotel door. It was Josh – he’d returned from Phnom Penh. He walked straight in and lit a cigarette, and then another one off the butt. He was so angry he could hardly get the words out.
"I'm so angry...I'm so angry," he kept saying.
It turned out that Too Jee was hooked on ice, and had stolen Josh’s motorbike, all his antiques, jewellery and cash and had disappeared to Vietnam.
Josh asked me to come back, but I was dead set against it. Then I remembered that it was his birthday at the weekend and I’d promised to do the barbecue. Before I knew it, I’d somehow agreed to do the Sunday lunch as well.
I BUTCHERED half a small pig into ribs and chops and then got the Khmer cooks to help me prep some chicken kebabs and wings. We bought six kilos of fillet steak and made 60 or so burgers, and then we knocked up potato salad, coleslaw, and a few plates of nibbles.
The place was soon packed, but it was hardly surprising given the mean-fisted expats that live here. They were probably just disappointed that the drinks weren’t free as well. Trays of grilled meats went round, and then Steve (the railway contractor I mentioned in the last blog) appeared and sat on a stall nearest to the barbecue, and stuck his nose into everything.
“You want to get some burgers on there,” he said.
The grill was covered in ribs and wings. There wasn’t an inch of free grill space – that’s why the burgers were being cooked in the kitchen. But still he knew best.
“Hot enough for you?” he chuckled as I continued to ignore him. He could see the streams of sweat flowing down my front as I charged between the kitchen and the BBQ, but still he thought I had time for conversation with a man sporting the personality of a stuffed frog.
I was desperate to move him away from the subject of cooking – and on to something he might actually know something about. Railways, for instance. But I wasn’t too hopeful. He’d somehow invited himself on to our quiz team the night before, and had hardly said a word. The only time he did was to describe to the waiter in painstaking detail how he wanted his pizza cooked – this time he wanted “a thick base, but thin round the edges”.
He hadn’t known a single one of the 50 questions. When the only railway-related question came up, we all turned to him expectantly, but he just started drawing maps in the air and mumbling names of US states, and it was obvious he hadn’t got a clue, especially when the answer turned out to be Reykjavik.
When he asked about the next day’s Sunday roast, and whether we were doing cauliflower cheese, and whether I’d be pre-boiling the roast spuds, and how I was going to cook the pumpkin he’d requested, I started asking him about Cambodia’s new $142m railway system he was working on, and when it would be finished.
He stopped for a moment, and in an apparent attempt at humour, dipped his head slightly and looked out at the night sky. “Jeez! Christ knows,” he said. “Have you got a crystal ball?” I don’t know what he was looking for. There was nothing but a monsoon out there.
Steve was working on the new southern line, which will carry freight between Phnom Penh and the coast. But I was more interested in the northern line, and how it will sadly spell the end of Battambang’s famous bamboo trains – wooden beds resting on two sets of wheels that shoot along battered, broken rails at speeds of up to 25mph (40km/h).
I’d been up there last month, and even though I’m normally sceptical about any “must see” attractions in guide books, it really had been a brilliant, quirky – and bone-shaking - experience.
The locals that scratch a living from running the trains (or “norries” as they call them) said they had been warned they only had a year left at most – and then the wooden contraptions would have to be taken off the tracks to make way for fast trains linking Pursat with Phnom Penh.
I asked Steve how long they had left, but he just looked confused.
“They’ve already kicked them off haven’t they?” he said matter-of-factly.
I took a swig of beer and started flicking through the Battambang photos I’d taken on my iPhone as they began arguing over the quiz score.
I couldn’t blame Steve directly for its impending derailment, however much I’d have like to have done. And I know Cambodia badly needs infrastructure as it slowly emerges from the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal, agrarian-based regime, but the trouble with this country is it’s always the poor that lose out.
The brilliantly-efficient norries they’ve been using to carry people, livestock, timber and rice between impoverished villages for the past three decades will make way for shiny locomotives run by Toll Royal Railway, an Australian-Cambodian joint venture, funded by AusAID and the Asian Development Bank, that they won’t be able to afford to use.
The 50mph trains won’t stop at their little village shacks selling cold drinks and scarves – they’re in far too much of a hurry to deliver goods to and from the capital. And the farm boys who drive the norries will no longer get their $1 per trip (the villagers say the rest of the $10 tourist ticket goes to the station owner – which is why there is so much pressure for tips).
But far worse is what’s happening in other parts of the country, where residents are being booted out of their homes to make way for the new railway, and a long list of other foreign money-backed land grabs. Locals living along one disused section of track near Phnom Penh say they’ve been offered a few hundred dollars compensation to move – and have been threatened with having their homes destroyed if they refuse.
"They asked me to accept it by giving a thumb print. If I don't they will bulldoze my house," one old woman told reporters back in May. "They will hire the drug user to burn my house."
IT HAD taken ages to find the place. I’d set off on my bicycle in the wrong direction from Battambang. But eventually I cut through a trail running alongside a river, where JCBs were carving huge chunks of earth from the jungle, and found a rusty, broken track. I waited for 30 minutes, and eventually a bamboo train appeared with waving passengers.
I cycled along the track, and found a small ramshackle station that served as a pool hall. As I chatted away to the well-fed-looking Tourist Police, who were there to explain and oversee the non-negotiable fare of $5 a passenger, or $10 a norrie, whichever was greater - dozens of holidaymakers arrived in tuk tuks to take the 12km train trip to O’Sralau village and back.
I got on, and soon we were off on our white-knuckle journey – well, it would have been if there was anything to hold on to. It wasn’t that fast, of course, but the incredible noise and the fact you’re only a couple of inches off the ground, and only occasionally in full contact with the buckled rails, makes the train seem as hairy as a souped-up go-kart.
Sometimes, you’ll meet a bamboo train coming in the other direction (the protocol is the lighter-laden norrie gives way) and then the platform, axles and heavy Kawasaki engine are lifted off the track to let the train pass.
We stopped at O’Sralau, and I sat with a local family drinking cold beers under a tamarind tree. They were eating the green fruit straight from the lower branches, dipping the pods in a bag of green chilli, salt and sugar.
They were surprisingly delicious – and reminded me again of the Cambodian love affair with sour food. Then they showed me around the old rice mill next to the track.
I wondered how many more mills would be left standing idle with the hundreds of thousands of hectares of rice paddies that have been hit by the flooding, driving up rice prices, and making the Khmer staple diet less and less of a staple. The last thing they needed was for the tiny trickle of revenue they got from passing tourists to disappear as well.