In a recent article by Harriet Mitch Little and Vandy Muong, The Phnom Penh Post raised new concerns for the operators of the bamboo train and the people of Battambang, including:
-Concerns over the still indefinite timeline of the railroad's refurbishment, and the lack of a plan going forward for sustaining the attraction -Accusations from the government regarding the legality of the bamboo train and the rights of the people who operate it -Implications for the greater impact that the loss of the bamboo train could have over the rest of Battambang, which remains dependent on the attraction for business
According to the government, the bamboo train operators are acting illegally and have little to no rights regarding potential loss of land and income. This viewpoint is consistent with how the government has treated other occupiers of land that the administration wishes to use for 'development', and sets a negative precedent for the potential removal (possibly violently) of people who have lived and worked this land for decades. Many people who live around the railroad do not have legal title because of the events of the Khmer Rouge, but have worked and sustained the railroad for many years. In a communal effort, they sustained the railroad as best they could and turned it into an economic activity that benefited a wide group of people. Not to mention, redeveloping the railroad would be much more difficult had the bamboo train operators not put so much effort into clearing and maintaining the tracks as they have. Does this communal action, maintenance, and investment of time and labour not entitle these workers to some rights regarding the development of the railroad and the loss of their land and livelihood?
Note also that the Asian Development Bank has already agreed that bamboo train workers deserve compensation for their loss should redevelopment end the bamboo train. This payment has not been effective so far, and the government's comments seem to ignore the recognition imposed by the international authority responsible for much of the redevelopment funds. The people's rights remain unclear, washed away by the financial desires of the Cambodian government.
Concerns also remain regarding the impact that losing the bamboo train would have on Battambang at large. As the article points out, 80% of all visitors to Battambang visit the the bamboo train. Without that attraction, visitation will drop dramatically, lowering incomes for businesses across the city - hotels, restaurants, moto and tuk-tuk drivers, etc. - who all depend on tourists for income. I recall a conversation I had with a development worker several years ago, who was excited about the redevelopment of the bamboo train and convinced that the train would only increase visitation to Battambang. Explaining that Battambang is many hours from the typical tourists sites in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, which can be visited by going east around the Tonle Sap - avoiding Battambang entirely, I asked what reason tourists would have to make the extra effort to head west to Battambang. His response: "Our many beautiful temples." Although Battambang's temples, particularly Phnom Banon and Phnom Sampeau, are indeed beautiful, I asked if they were different enough from other temples around the country to merit visitation without other attractions to accompany them. Every town in Cambodia can boast beautiful old temples, and with the Circus also operating in Siem Reap, losing the bamboo train takes away the most unique and compelling reason most tourists have to visit the region. At the current time, nothing seems posed to replace the bamboo train in terms of tourist draw.
Finally, the timeline is still unclear. Bamboo train workers have expressed fear of their imminent demise for years. Since 2010, workers have sworn that "this year will be our last," and yet they persist. But this luck cannot hold out forever, and when redevelopment begins in full, the bamboo train will be ushered out more quickly than anticipated. During this indefinable grace time, efforts must be made to form a plan B. Luckily, this concern is noted by the Battambang Ministry of Tourism. But options are there? Can the bamboo train operate on a private track, and have the railroad go around? Will the bamboo train be shortened, or even become a museum exhibit? Share your thoughts and comments and let's begin this discussion and hopefully come to an effective solution.