Elizabeth Briel Braves the Train from Phnom Penh to Battambang
Excerpted from To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
Determined to ride the famously decrepit train from Phnom Penh to Battambang, I arrived at Phnom Penh's Art Deco-style station just after sunrise. Lines snaked around counters. Hawkers howled. Strangers smiled. Cambodia's Pchum Ben Festival was in full swing, so the station was filled with holidaymakers going back to their hometowns.
Every carriage was stuffed with people. They spilled into aisles and down steps, between cars and onto rooftops. I saw several passenger cars, then two "cattle cars" for cargo and passengers. These had the most room, so I climbed up and in, losing sight of the two other foreigners I'd noticed in the station. After a two-hour wait, finally we were off, at the lazy speed of around twenty-five kilometers per hour. My car was directly behind the engine, and its frequent horn blasts rattled my eardrums. Now I understood why everyone was concentrated at the other end of the carriage. I stuffed small wads of wet tissue in my ears.
The Cambodian train brakes were spectacular-the train slowed, stopped, then lurched violently at unpredictable intervals. Passengers crashed into one another, fell over benches, slipped and tripped in the muddy aisles. Packages tumbled from shelves overhead. Each time, everyone shrieked, then laughed as they got to their feet again.
A uniformed guard strolled by occasionally with an automatic rifle slung over his back. At twilight, I wandered through passenger cars, looking for one with electricity, but none of the lights worked anywhere on the train.
"I've worked these railways since Pol Pot fell," said the conductor, who happily recited the train's timetable: "The Battambang line runs once a week in each direction. From Phnom Penh on Saturdays, then back to Phnom Penh every Sunday. The Sihanoukville line almost never takes passengers anymore. Too dangerous."
"When will we arrive?" I asked.
"Maybe ten, eleven, twelve," the conductor grinned. "Depends on the train, track, how many stops for how long, how many passengers." He waved his hands in an arc that encompassed all these variables and more. "You tired?" he asked me.
"I don't know what you call this in English," he said, and unrolled a piece of fabric.
"A hammock!" I cried.
He patted it free of diesel dust. The train rocked, ready to fall off the seventy-year-old tracks. I quickly learned to keep a tight grip on the window ledge when my hammock swayed too far.
An ancient man played his tabla in the aisle, and candlelight flickered, making the space seem cavernous. Fresh air rushed through the window as we sped past fireflies and rice fields. This, I thought, was it: times like these make the sweat, the greasy cans of warm beer, and the slippery toilets of train travel all worthwhile.
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Train travel in Cambodia
Passenger trains in Cambodia have been discontinued, though if you turn up on a Saturday morning you will be able to get a ride to Battambang. The train leaves Phnom Penh at 6:20 a.m., or thereabouts, and arrives somewhere between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m., depending on the condition of train and tracks. Those to Phnom Penh leave Battambang on Sundays at 6:40 a.m. and arrive in Phnom Penh somewhere between 7:00 and 10:00 p.m. One major stop takes place midway through the route in the large town of Pursat.
The Cambodia railway is slated for a complete overhaul to open up a trans-Asian railroad from China to Singapore. In Cambodia that means laying new track and extending the line from Sisophon to the Thai border and from Phnom Penh to the Vietnam border. There is a timetable for this work to be completed, but like everything in Cambodia, that schedule is fluid.
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Published on 11/14/10