Kampot norry tracking well for agri-tourism growth

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Tourists take the Bamboo train also known as norry in Kampot province in June. SUPPLIED

From transporting goods to restoring the nation’s rail network to becoming a famous tourist attraction in Battambang province, the humble has played a significant role in modern Cambodia.

Norries are a kind of lightweight improvised railway vehicle. Often built with bamboo frames and powered by motorbike engines, they were for many years the only rolling stock on the Kingdom’s rails. The norry experience is now available in Kampot.

The Ministry of Tourism has just announced a new, unique norry ride at “Phnom Vor Natural Paradise restaurant” and hopes it will attract tourists to Kampot.

The site is on an organic farm in Trapeang Khang Cheung village, Trapeang Pring commune, Teuk Chhou district, near the Kep-Kampot provincial border.

Bis Chenda, manager of the restaurant, noted that most visitors to Kep and Kampot are eco-tourists.

With beautiful mountain scenery on both sides, the restaurant uses its norries to transport tourists past the fields, livestock and forest landscapes of the area.

“If tourists want to ride a norry, they usually go to Battambang’s Banan district. The boss [Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler] decided to build one at our place so visitors could ride one here, too,” he told The Post.

The 80ha agro-tourism area was purchased in 2003 from former Khmer Rouge military commander Chhouk Rin. It was developed, cleared of mines and prepared for agriculture.

During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Schmitthaeusler, chairman of the board of the Catholic Community of Cambodia, began to use the area as an agro-tourism site, so agriculture students would have a place to conduct practical exercises while schools were closed.

Chenda, a teacher of agronomy at Saint Francois Technical Private High School in Takeo province, said: “We prepared the land because we want students to study agriculture, and this is the perfect place for it.”

The project has 15 staff that raise animals and grow crops. On weekends, tourism students from several technical high schools come to learn how to organise accommodation, hospitality and food.

Both the restaurant and norry were completed in 2021. They began by only accepting reservations from private groups, but fully opened to the public early this year.

The railway circuit is 3.25km long. It takes about half an hour to complete a trip, and features a twin track lay out. This differs from the more well known ‘bamboo trains’ of Battambang. If two trains meet on their single line, the lighter of the two has to be manhandled off the tracks to allow the other to pass.

The Kampot norry charges tourists 5,000 riel to travel, although children aged under 9 ride for free.

“The land along the tracks is adorned with gardens, animals and stations for guests to take short breaks,” Chenda described.

Between the first and second station, there are flower and vegetable gardens, mango, pitaya and banana plantations, fields for raising horses, cows, wild pigs, and goat pens. From Stations two to three, visitors will see cashew trees at the foot of the mountain, wildflowers and hillside scenery. The third station has kiosks for sitting and playing along with a view of the coconut plantations on the hills.

“In this mountainous area, the landscape is very beautiful. It reminds some people of Mondulkiri. Generally our guests relax at the third stop for about 15 minutes before we return to the restaurant,” he added.

In May, the received a total of more than 5,000 visitors, not including children, although visitor number dropped slightly in June, due to heavy rainfall.

Lay Vanny, who visited the agro-tourism site with her family in May, said: “It’s a relaxing atmosphere for those who enjoy being surrounded by nature. The landscape is beautiful, the fields are abundant, and the animals are beautiful – like in neighboring countries. It is also nice to have a norry to ride. ”

Although there is no clear record of the history of the term norry, it is likely to be from the word Lori, which refers to a flat cart for used by rail repair workers to transport their equipment.

The two-by-three metre bamboo carts were first used during the 1970s. Wooden poles were employed to punt the norry along the track. As they were light, they were ideal for checking tracks for damage. Eventually, they evolved into the motorised tourist-friendly vehicles we know today.

The use of motorbike engines on norries to has been criticised as likely to lose the original identity of the ride.

“At first, we modeled our norries on those in Banan district, in the form of a bamboo raft with wheels and a small gasoline engine. Because our area is mountainous and our tracks run uphill, they did not have the power to make it up the hills, and certainly not with five or six tourists aboard,” said Chenda.

The Kampot norry’s modified motorbike engine has the potential to transport six to eight adult visitors to explore the lush green forests during the rainy season.

“Because he has been in Cambodia for more than 20 years, the Bishop loves the Khmer way of doing things and likes Khmer traditions. That is why he elected to keep an original norry. There are no cushions for the passengers, but they sit together and have fun,” added Chenda.

Currently, the norry receives a small number of Chinese, European and Indian visitors, but the vast majority of tourists are domestic visitors.

“There are some foreigners but not many, because few international travelers have returned,” he said.

He also unveiled a gradual development plan with improvements including housing, tents and a swimming pool.

“Most of our visitors say they want a swimming pool as well as a home stay. They would love to sat and relax here. We are just getting started so we recommend that guests stay in the nearby provincial town. We even cooperate with local hotels and recommend our favourites,” he added.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, almost all provinces have established agro-tourism areas, community-based ecotourism, and innovative tourism destinations to welcome the return of national and international tourists after the Covid-19 crisis.

In a March 31 inter-ministerial meeting at the ministry on “Management and Development of Community-Based Tourism and Ecotourism”, agro-tourism was included in the National Tourism Community Development Policy.

Minister of Tourism Thong Khon noted that “establishing agro-tourism areas has the potential to make a huge contribution to encouraging tourists to visit the country.”

Some destinations in Mondulkiri, Kampot, Siem Reap, Battambang and Kep were developed from private farms linked to ecotourism, according to Chuk Chumnor, director of the Department of Tourism Product Development and spokesman for the tourism ministry.

“Agro-tourism is a link between agriculture and tourism and can be easily established at any functioning farm. Those who already have farms can just build a restaurant to attract tourists,” he told The Post.

“It’s on the rise. This is a tourism product, but it also helps boost agriculture. Visitors can go to farms and learn about different crops, and it provides an extra income stream for the farmer. It is also a point of difference for the tourism industry here in the Kingdom,” he added.