Two weeks ago we reported that the Cambodian Government had promised not to close the bamboo train after all. The people of the bamboo train were overjoyed at this news at the time, as CPP officials came to the village announcing in person and via radio that the bamboo train would be preserved. Sadly, the government is now claiming no such promises have been made and are stating that the closure of the bamboo train is imminent - possibly within two months.
The government's new plan is to move the bamboo train to a new location, from which there are two choices. First is to move the train to Wat Kor, not far from the current site. The local Battambang government seems to favor this option, as it allows them to create a tour package that bundles the nearby market and the Ancient Houses of Wat Kor with the bamboo train. The second option is to move the train to a new railroad built specifically for the bamboo train near the ancient ruins of Ek Phnom. This option has more space for construction and additional services such as picnic areas, which Khmer tourists love.
Sadly, neither option is satisfactory. Both routes are much shorter than the current route, meaning that not only will the ride be shorter, but the trains will be forced to stop and be taken apart far more often than before. More importantly, the current drivers of the bamboo train - upwards of 100 families - many of whom have driven the train for several decades, and several who helped invent it in 1979, will not be allowed to continue driving the train if it moves. Instead, the government will create positions for new drivers who will report directly to the government. This system would allow the government a much greater cut of the money, destroying the carefully constructed profit-sharing system that the current bamboo train operators have used for decades. The people of the bamboo train village will be left without any means of support, as most families have multiple family members who drive, depending almost entirely on the bamboo train for income.
Another concern is the increased lack of authenticity. Some tourists complain even now that the bamboo train is "too touristy" and feels fake. Increasing accessibility to the history and symbolism of the train was a primary motivator for the creation of this website. If the train moves, all of the local dependency on the train - for farmers, for religious devotees, for weddings - will disappear. The train will truly become purely a tourist trap, and locals are voicing severe concerns that this will ruin the train's reputation and damage the tourist economy of Battambang.
To this point, it's worth mentioning that we at BambooTrain.com do not condemn the construction of the new railroad. Indeed, the potential for Cambodia to benefit exists. However, the government's current stance that the benefits of the train outweigh the loss of livelihood for the villagers of O Dambong II is insufficient without specific details about how the train will be used to benefit the people, and for how the locals will be aided in this time of transition. Currently, the train is poised to benefit Thailand and Vietnam much more than Cambodia, with the government espousing the railroad as "development" without any context as for how that development helps the nation. Furthermore, the aid money promised to the villagers, which the government often cites as "paid already" to defend their actions, has not been seen by most in the village; even if it arrives, it may not even be a sufficient amount for recovery. We at BambooTrain.com wish to see Cambodia continue to develop , but we don't want to see the livelihoods of an entire village and the cultural legacy embodied by the bamboo train wiped out overnight in the vague name of progress.
Just a quick update today to summarize several major recent events.
After much negotiation, and a plea to Prime Minister Hun Sen to preserve a section of the railroad (and the downtown Battambang rail station) for usage as a tourist site, the Government has promised that the bamboo train will indeed be preserved. Discussions initially indicated that the norry would be moved towards Wat Kor and the original drivers replaced with government-approved drivers (under the guise of "safety"), but these plans proved impractical. Currently, the government is promising that the modern railway will be built around the section of track that houses the bamboo train. Villagers will be allowed to continue the operation of the train as per usual.
While this news is certainly a victory for the villagers of the bamboo train, locals have begun to argue with the government about management of the site. Calls for media attention are also increasing, as the government has slowly increased its presence at the site, allowing the police to receive more money from each ticket sold. Indications are that actual hard tickets will be sold by the Ministry of Tourism in future months, giving the money directly to government officials without passing through the hands of the operators first. The villagers have a complicated profit-sharing system they've employed for two decades and the government's arrival is interrupting this process. As one local stated, "Every year we see more and more tourists visiting the bamboo train, yet we don't make much more money than before. The police take the extra money for themselves. We operated the bamboo train for tourists for 15 years before the police came to 'protect' foreigners. Why didn't they care before, when it wasn't as profitable? We built the train, shouldn't we be able to operate it as we choose and see the profits from that effort?"
Updates on these developments will be posted as they are reported.