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Ray Zepp Rides the Rails Norry-Style

To Cambodia With Love

To Cambodia With Love

To Cambodia With Love

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  • Image © 2010 To Cambodia With Love

Excerpted from To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.

Norries, as they are called in the Battambang region, are small contraptions for riding on the railroad tracks. Used extensively by locals all along the Cambodian railway line, especially in areas far from main highways, to transport local goods and passengers, they are marketed to tourists as "bamboo trains."

Norries are ingeniously simple: a set of wheels, a flat bed of bamboo, and a small generator attached to the wheels. They are becoming increasingly popular among tourists as a fun and adventurous new mode of transportation. If you are riding a motorcycle, you can just load it onto a passing norry, travel as far as you want, and then get off and continue your moto journey.

Just before I left Cambodia, I decided to throw a norry party. Twenty friends of mine rented a van, bought some food and drink, and even gathered together our musical instruments. We headed north of Phnom Penh about ten kilometers past Udong and turned left toward the railroad tracks. There we found a couple of norries ready for departure. We rented two entire norries, and off we went across the countryside.

There can be many norries traveling along the same railroad track, loaded with sacks of rice, vegetables for market, and even children going to school. We met several along the way. When two norries meet on the track, the less heavily loaded one must be completely disassembled and taken off the tracks for the other to pass. Everyone gets off while the driver takes off the generator, the flatbed, and finally the wheels from the tracks. When the other norry has passed, he puts the whole thing back together. This is all very amusing the first couple of times, but on a hot day, when you have to stand out in the sun while all this is going on, it can get a little irritating. Be sure to bring kramas, sunscreen, and hats or umbrellas to protect you from the sun.

The norries let you see a real slice of Cambodian life. They also take you to parts of the countryside where roads do not go. Along our way we passed several old railway stations thoroughly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in days past. We were taken away from the dust of the main roads, and the ride along the rails was much smoother than any motorcycle trip could ever be.

Down the tracks we stopped for a "country music" session near a small village where the folks supplied some freshly tapped palm wine for our refreshment. My friend Dan is a talented banjo player, and I brought along my recorder to play a tune Dan had taught me called "Long Journey Home." Sitting there playing, we enjoyed the peace of the rural setting without the disturbance of cars and motorcycles.

We had planned to end our journey where the main east-west road to Udong crosses the tracks. This was and still is a major station, with piles of interesting old railway equipment lying around.  After we had inspected railway bogies and such, we decided everyone was having such a good time that we should carry on with the norries south to a crossing near the temples at Phnom Baset. We telephoned the van to pick us up there.

There are some impressive modern-day temples at Phnom Baset, including a replica of Angkor Wat, built, it is said, by a rich Khmer man who had a dream telling him to build the temple. But it was getting late, so rather than explore, we had a quick snack and carried on back to Phnom Penh.

FACT FILE:

Riding a norry in Battambang
The easiest place in Cambodia to ride a norry is Battambang. Any motodop will know where to take you. The norries are not allowed to leave from Battambang station, so the motodop will deliver you to O Dambong station, where you will almost certainly see one or two preparing to head off for Phnom Teppedey, about two hours' journey southeast toward Moung Russey. Ray says "almost certainly" because at times when the real train is scheduled to come along, the norries vanish. But right after the train passes is the moment when, at least in the direction of the train, you can travel without meeting any traffic. You can travel by norry to Phnom Teppedey and return by moto along National Highway 5.

Riding a norry in Phnom Penh
From Phnom Penh, the easiest way is to ride a norry is to go to Udong. You can either take the road that branches left just past the Udong market and go out to a major railway station or go through Udong on National Highway 5 and turn left at one of the towns five to ten kilometers north of Udong.

Riding a norry in southern Cambodia
In the south of Cambodia, the norries, which are called lorries in this area, are a bit different. There, a hole is cut out of the flatbed and a motorcycle is inserted. Instead of a generator, the motorcycle engine itself provides the power. The rear wheel is slotted onto the track so that you actually ride the motorcycle on the railroad tracks. There are many lorries of this type available in the area around Kampot, where the rail line leaves the main road. Ray once rode one of these lorries from the Kampong Trach area all the way to Takeo.

Published on 11/14/10

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