Riding The Rails

Live Music, Friendly Passengers Encountered on Day-Long Journey

A bullet train, it is not.

But the 12-hour, 274-km journey by rail from Phnom Penh to Battambang is an inexpensive, low-key blast for those in no particular hurry.

The train rockets along at a top speed of about 60 km an hour, with frequent, sometimes protracted stops to discharge passengers or pick up additional cars full of freight.

With ticket prices of 5,000 riel ($1.30) for Cambodian nationals and 12,500 ($3.20) for foreigners, however, it’s hard to complain.

Here’s what you get for your money:

• A seat on a surprisingly comfortable (at least for the first six hours) wooden-slat bench in a railway car that looks like it dates from the 1930s and appears not to have been painted since.

• Large, glass-free windows, equipped with shutters for the inevitable downpour, and rudimentary on-board toilet facilities, although many prefer to step discreetly into the underbrush during some of the longer station stops.

• Interesting and gregarious traveling companions, as well as a staggering array of Cambodian snacks, drinks, cigarettes, gum and moist towelettes, carried aboard at every stop by squadrons of vendors. Live entertainment is often provided by blind or disabled musicians who ride along for a few stops, serenading each car.

• The option of climbing up and riding on the roof (which, given the sun’s heat and the sometimes vigorous rocking of the cars, takes substantial nerve).

There’s plenty to see along the way, as the trains chugs through small villages and scrub land, crossing waterways and paddies, skirting mountains and forests.

On a recent trip, train passengers could see scores of trucks and cars stuck in the mud along stretches of National Route 5, where floodwaters had washed away the roadbed and villagers flocked to fish.

The train is supposed to leave Phnom Penh daily at 6 am and arrive in Battambang at 6 pm, but is often plagued by delays of several hours. As the cars have no electricity, that means the last few hours can pass in total darkness.

Cambodian train passengers, however, are resilient and come prepared. Using flashlights, candle stubs and empty water bottles, one recent carload quickly collaborated to fashion lanterns that filled the carriage with soft, swaying light.

Even when the train is overdue, the trip’s end can seem abrupt, as the train pulls into a dimly lit station in Cambodia’s second-largest city and passengers are disgorged into inky blackness.

And as they grope their way along the cars to find the station, it’s a shock to realize the train has doubled or tripled in size on the trip, thanks to all the freight cars of lumber and motos and boxes of goods that have been added along the way.




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