By Robert Carmichael
Nov 4, 2010
Pursat, Cambodia - Legions of children worldwide know flying carpets as a magical way to travel from one place to another, but in Cambodia they have been a way of life for decades.
Cambodia's flying carpets, of course, are substantially different from those found in fairytales. For a start this version is a lot noisier. But they have long proved a convenient way for people to travel with their goods along the decrepit national rail system.
To get from one village to the next, locals pay 50 cents and tourists a few dollars. There is no first class, and there are no seats or sides. Passengers hop onto a bamboo platform the size of a double bed, which sits on two sets of steel wheels.
Next, the driver attaches a small motor, connects a fan belt between the engine and the rear wheels, and within minutes you are clattering along buckled tracks at 40 kilometres an hour, enjoying an uninterrupted view of rice fields, sugar palms and water buffalo.
It is a scenic and unusual way for hardier tourists to see rural Cambodia, but for locals the flying carpet has proved a lifeline.
There are dozens of these flying carpets, or norries, running along stretches of the battered railway, but within a year they will be gone, brushed aside as the country's once-defunct national railway is brought back to life.
The railway rehabilitation project is expected to cost 142 million dollars. Just over half will come from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Australia and the Cambodian government will provide most of the rest.
The railway shut down completely a year ago, and fixing it is an important step in improving the country's infrastructure, which was devastated by years of war and neglect.
Ten years ago many roads were so bad that speeds between the main towns and cities could be as low as 10 kilometres an hour.
So those lucky enough to live near the railway were happy to pay small sums to be transported at much quicker speeds on flying carpets.
Veteran norrie driver Prak Phea has been driving this stretch of track outside Pursat town for 17 years. He has a wife and child, and this job nets him up to 50 dollars a week, a decent wage in rural Cambodia where jobs are very limited.
The railway upgrade is meant to ensure that the local government pays compensation to those affected. In the case of norrie drivers, who are self-employed, that sum is set at 250 dollars.
But 11 of the 15 norrie drivers operating out of Prak Phea's village received nothing.
He says government officials turned up unannounced one day and wrote down the names of only those drivers who happened to head down the line. Prak Phea was not one of those, and he is annoyed.
'It is not fair, because they could have just asked local officials here who could have provided a list of norrie drivers to pay money to,' he says, adding that he tried to complain but got nowhere.
Back in Phnom Penh, the ADB's country head Putu Kamayana promises the bank will take that up with the government.
Then turning to the broader topic, Kamayana explains this project will rehabilitate 600 kilometres of track from Poipet on the Thai border through to Phnom Penh and on to the southern port of Sihanoukville.
The upgraded railway will take cargo off the roads, particularly bulk cargo and dangerous loads such as fuel.
'That will reduce the damage to the highway network and also improve the safety on the roads,' he says.
The first stretch, running from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, officially re-opened to container traffic in late October.
And once the upgrade of the existing network is completed in 2013, the sole missing link between Singapore and China will be the railway between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam.
Earlier this month China announced it would fund the Cambodian stretch, which ought to be finished by 2015.
But long before that Prak Phea will have worked out his next step.
'Perhaps I will plant rice - I have a half-hectare of land,' he says, before adding hopefully, 'Or perhaps I will get a job on the railway.'
And with that he starts the engine and heads for home, his flying carpet skittering west along the rickety track, back to Pursat.