The Story of Battambang’s “Flying Beds”

Photo by Long Ton

Located nearly 300 kilometres from Phnom Penh, the province of Battambang offers visitors distinct features, which are at times quite unique and not found in other provinces in Cambodia.

In addition to walking through its architectural landscape that blends buildings of Indochina style going back to the French Protectorate with those from the 1960s and older landmarks, both domestic and international tourists coming to the area never fail to experience an old style and rather exciting mean of transportation known as the Bamboo Train. While this name was given to the “train” by the English-speaking community, Cambodians who use it to go from point A to point B usually refer to it as “Kre Hos,” that is “Flying Bed” since its bamboo platform clearly resembles that of a traditional bamboo bed found in the countryside.

The Bamboo Train is a makeshift conveyance. It rolls on four metal wheels, is powered by a small engine and moves on the train tracks. Before the name Bamboo Train became popular, people who lived near the tracks along the country’s first railway line between Phnom Penh and Poipet or the second one between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville used to call it a lorry, which is a French word for handcar.

Apart from its function as a tourist magnet, the Bamboo Train is also used by railway technicians as they perform routine maintenance. At first, there were two types of Bamboo Train: a manual type and a mechanised type. Between 1980s and the 1990s, people living close to the rail tracks used bamboo trains to transport people and goods.

From the year 2000 on, foreign travellers started finding this mode of transportation interesting, especially in Battambang Province. Between the Ou Dambong station and the Ou Sralau station in that province, one can usually see tourists hopping on these improvised trains with at times several platforms and which zoom past the green countryside landscape on either side. 

One Bamboo Train lorry cannot carry more than four passengers along the one-track railroad between these two stations. So when a Bamboo Train is about to reach destination, the train operator must put the bamboo train already at the station out of the way so that the one on the way can get to destination. So, that begs a question: Whose and what direction is prioritised when this scenario takes place? The rule is simple: a bamboo train with a higher number of platforms gets to stay on the track while the one with a smaller number has to be disassembled. Furthermore, the main conductor of the prioritised train must help disassemble the other one that is put on side of the track. In return, the conductor of the last platform of the prioritised train helps reassemble the train set aside and put it back on the track.

A mechanised bamboo train with four to five people onboard can reach a speed of 25 kilometers per hour. Currently, as regular train service has resumed, Bamboo Train owners from these communities must respect the schedules of those regular trains. The local people simply have to wait until the regular trains have gone by or the regular train service is over for the day.

Long Ton is a Cambodian with a passion for Angkor and that era. A university graduate who speaks several languages, he has conducted tours at Angkor

Song Daphea contributes to the story. 

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