8 mins

Back on track: A journey along Cambodia's revamped railway

After more than a decade out of service, Cambodia’s railway lines are ready to take you on a journey of rebirth through the country’s rural heart and buzzing capital...

Cambodia's Bamboo Railway (Shutterstock)
Off the rails... (Shutterstock)

Off the rails... (Shutterstock)

Quick! Get off the rails! Train coming!

I picked myself off my cushion in semi-panic, grabbing my camera almost as an afterthought. Mr Tin and his friend whipped the bamboo platform off the old tank wheels and then pulled them and the outboard motor off the rails. 

We were just in time. A shrill Klaxon sounded around the bend and a heavy diesel train clattered into view out of the trees, swinging on the rails, carriages and rice wagons clanking after them. With bulldozer momentum it lumbered past us – a few feet away – leaving a trail of dust in its wake.

I thought of the tourists further down the track towards Battambang, snapping selfies as they whizzed along on their bamboo-platform trains, blissfully unaware of what lay ahead of them. I hoped they’d got off the track as swiftly as we had.

I asked Mr Tin if there’d ever been an accident. “No. Everyone know the train coming. No one ever get hit - only one time a truck on a road crossing near Phnom Penh. “

The bamboo train (Alex Robinson)

The bamboo train (Alex Robinson)

I believed him. Trains in Cambodia seldom run on time. Yet, like pets waiting for their owner to come home, everyone seems to know when they’ll arrive.

It’s a mystery how, yet locals herald a locomotive’s arrival like a gusty breeze before. Empty stations begin to fill just before the trains pull in, even if it’s long after the scheduled departure.

Riding the rail

Riding the bamboo train (Alex Robinson)

Riding the bamboo train (Alex Robinson)

I had made the trip to Cambodia for the trains. Not only the Bamboo Train, but the regular rail service too, which after more than ten years off the rails, had begun to roll again – all the way from the Thai border across the steamy Mekong in Phnom Penh, to the golden sands of the island studded south.

The line cuts through the rural heart of the country and bisects the busy capital– both places most tourists rushing between Angkor Wat and the Indian Ocean never visit.

I took the train to find the real Cambodia – from the sleepy rice paddy landscapes and local towns to the booming city.

I’d discover forgotten temples, hidden Thai and French colonial towns, pepper plantations, steaming rivers and beach-fringed islands.

I began my journey at the start of the line – rumbling out of the scruffy Thai border town of Poi Pet, past parked trucks and untidy market stalls covered in cheap Thai and Chinese goods.

The carriage was almost empty – just me, an old man with a chicken, and a black bin liner for a suitcase, and a young Finnish couple with shiny new backpacks and the latest iPhones.

The luxurious train from Poi Pet to Battambang (Alex Robinson)

The luxurious train from Poi Pet to Battambang (Alex Robinson)

It took four hours to reach Battambang, with a stop en route to load the wagons behind the carriages with big sacks of rice: newly harvested and dried in the baking Cambodian sun. It would go to Europe, the old man told me, reading the Khmer script on the bags.  

“On the old train, in the ’70s,” he reflected, “we would have to sit on those bags. Or the bare floor. People would hang hammocks off the train’s side. The locomotive ran on steam. And the toilets…. Well I won’t tell you about the toilets but with thousands cramming the carriages you can guess…”

“These new Mexican carriages are luxurious,” he smiled. “Airconditioning, comfortable padded seats. There’s even space for me to put my feet up!”  

French colonial townhouses in Battambang (Shutterstock)

French colonial townhouses in Battambang (Shutterstock)

According to my guide, Mr Tin, who met me on the platform, placard in hand, Battambang means ‘the place of the lost stick’. Legend has it that a local peasant hero had a magic stick, which he used to ward off demons.

He used it to become king, but lost his throne and the magic stick when he refused to relinquish power. Mr Tin took me to meet the hero king – the fierce Ta Dumbong statue – which sits some 30-feet tall in the middle of a roundabout at the gateway to the city.  

A king who refused to relinquish power seems a fitting patron for a town and a country that has seen so many power struggles. From the 18th to the early 20th century, Battambang (like most of western Cambodia) was Thai.

The last Thai governor Chhum Aphaiwong looked like a mini-Rama IV (of The King and I fame) – handlebar-moustached, militaristic and adorned with medals. His faded photographs still hang on the walls of his former palace – a lavish Italian-designed mansion set in lovely frangipani scented gardens next to the river. 

The Buddhist Wat El Phnom (Alex Robinson)

The Buddhist Wat El Phnom (Alex Robinson)

The Thai people made their mark on Cambodia – there are trademark steep-gabled Buddhist temples all over Battambang, with their sabre-toothed guardian figures and head-dressed golden Buddhas.

They were then ousted by French conquerors – whose Belle Epoque townhouses still line the streets around the market. The Vietnamese took over in the 1980s – littering Battambang with Stalinist monuments of noble leaders guiding the destiny of peasants.

But the most lasting influence was left by the Khmer Rouge. Mr Tin took me to the temples of Ek Phnom, built by Angkor’s great monumentalist king Suryavarman I in the 11th century. Now, it was largely rubble; littered lintels covered with elaborate carvings of dancing gods and Apsaras, smashed for construction material by the Khmer Rouge.

A brand new concrete Buddhist wat sits in front of them – a decade or so old, risen from the destruction. We visited the 17th-century Buddhist shrine at Samrong Knong – used as a prison and with a stupa filled with skulls and bones taken from the adjacent killing fields. 

A half-built Buddha statue at Wat Samrong Knong (Alex Robinson)

A half-built Buddha statue at Wat Samrong Knong (Alex Robinson)

“When I come here, I feel very sad,” Tin told me, “I wonder about my parents and my sisters who all died under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.”

Pol Pot emptied Cambodia’s cities, destroyed its industry and infrastructure, leaving Cambodia in ruins. The bamboo trains that I rode the next day were one of the first green shoots of the country’s slow recovery.

The Khmer Rouge had destroyed the old steam locomotives and railway line, so the locals repaired the tracks and built their own trains – simple pallets set on wheels salvaged from damaged tanks and either punted along with poles or powered by water-pump engines. The bamboo trains stopped running in 2017 when work on repairing the railway began. Now they run again. 

Cambodia reborn

Cruise boats on the Mekong River (Alex Robinson)

Cruise boats on the Mekong River (Alex Robinson)

Phnom Penh was a long, slow drift away from Battambang – across the Tonle Sap river, past newly built Buddhist temples topped with prangs decorated with swirling gilt dragons, and endless rice fields.

Then came row upon row of vast garment factories – the industrial drive of Cambodia’s rebirth. Despite the seemingly constant yell of the Klaxon, a young man in a black t-shirt snoozed against the window all the way, lulled by the gentle rocking of the carriage.

It was night-time when we reached the city, which felt frenetic after the calm of Battambang – a whirring buzz of mopeds, tuk-tuks and Korean cars.

If the temples and bamboo train represented Cambodia’s rural charm, Phnom Penh was where modern Cambodia whirred, buzzed and spent its new industrial money.  

Whizzing through Phnom Penh's busy back streets (Alex Robinson)

Whizzing through Phnom Penh's busy back streets (Alex Robinson)

The next day I decided to hurl myself into the whirligig with a motorbike market food tour. My guide was a local film fixer, Mey: tiny, with a permanent smile, perfect English and astonishing skill behind the wheel.

We began with a sedate boat ride to the meeting of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, to watch the sun sink behind the pagodas of the Royal Palace and the neon sparkle-on around the glittering new Chinese-funded glass towers.

Boiled duck eggs at the night food market (Alex Robinson)

Boiled duck eggs at the night food market (Alex Robinson)

Then the adrenalin began to flow as I rode pillion and Mey glided deftly through the traffic, effortlessly dodging oncoming cars, carts and bicycles (all driving on the wrong side of the road). We stopped to sample increasingly bizarre foods.

“Cambodia frog?” Mey asked – presenting me with a steaming plate of little legs cooked in a sticky sauce. It was delicious.

“Cricket?” she smiled. I closed my eyes, popped one in and chewed. It was good too - like grass-flavoured pork scratchings. 

“Boiled Egg?” I cracked open the top with a spoon, expecting a golden yolk, but it was meaty.  

“Baby duck,” said Mey, tucking in to hers. “You afraid?” she mocked, seeing me hesitate.

I took the plunge. “Mmm. Very nice.” But the thought still made me wince.  

City lights

Cambodia's frenetic capital, Phnom Penh (Alex Robinson)

Cambodia's frenetic capital, Phnom Penh (Alex Robinson)

I had two more days before heading south. I visited the Eclipse Sky Bar where the city glistened in corporate glass before me, and then the Grand Palace – ancient rococo carved stupas, polished teak and golden Buddhas.

The Tuol Sleng Khmer Rouge torture museum’s stark horror left me wandering numbly along the banks of the Mekong, hoping for something to restore my faith in humanity.  

I found it at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, a 40-minute drive from Phnom Penh. There were gibbons calling to each other, clouded leopards with mottled paisley coats and a massive bull elephant who’d lost his foot in a forest snare. He walked thanks to a prosthetic limb.

Changing a bull elephant's prosthetic foot (Alex Robinson)

Changing a bull elephant's prosthetic foot (Alex Robinson)

The next morning the train south lurched out of Phnom Pehn 90 minutes late. This time it was almost full with backpackers on their way to the islands.

Unlike them, I would stop en route at Kampot – an old French river port on the Preaek Tuek Chhu river, and Bokor mountain where the French, in white linen suits, retreated from the sweltering summer sun to sip cocktails and gamble in the relative cool.  

I walked around Kampot in under an hour. It was a mere cluster of streets – the prettiest sat facing the riverfront with balconied facades. Many had been converted into arty restaurants, decorated with grainy black and whites and antique crafts. With softly swirling ceiling fans Atelier looked particularly enticing. I promised myself I would eat there later.

Picking chili peppers in Kampot (Alex Robinson)

Picking chili peppers in Kampot (Alex Robinson)

But first, Bokor. I hired a motorbike from one of the little rental shops in the backstreets and was soon rushing past black pepper plantations fragrant with blooming pepper flowers and fields where locals in conical hats plucked red-chillies from the vines.

After 20 minutes I began to wind-up the hair pin bends which cut through Bokor’s forested slopes. I stopped to see green magpies flitting through the trees and macaques grooming each other in the shade.

Finally, I reached a pass where a huge statue of local Buddhist hero Yeay Mao stands. Legend has it that she gave her life to save her husband and now sits for all eternity looking out over the edge of the escarpment.

I reached the old French casino after another 10 minutes – a spittled ruin in scrubby bushland. Although the building was not much to see, the view looking out over the hazy lowlands to the blue South China sea certainly was.

The next day I motorbiked to Phnom Chhngok where a rocky path brought me into an empty cavern and a tiny Khmer temple lost under dripping stalactites.

And in the evening I finally visited Atelier and ate big, juicy tiger prawns cooked in a tangy green pepper sauce as the sun sank over the river. 

End of the line

Children on their way to school in front of the Thai governor's palace (Alex Robinson)

Children on their way to school in front of the Thai governor's palace (Alex Robinson)

Finally it was time for Sihanoukville and the towns and beaches of the south coast. We got there slowly. At one point the train was overtaken by a boy on a bicycle, racing along a levee next to a lotus pond, his toddler sister balanced on the handlebars.

Sihanoukville was the first ugly place I’d seen, packed with tourists and backpackers nursing hangovers on the tawdry, plastic-covered beach, huge groups of Chinese crowding into casinos, with cranes and concrete mixers everywhere.

This was a tourist boom town in the making. I left on the first boat I could for Koh Samloen – an island you could walk across in half-an-hour. 

A fishing village near Kampot (Alex Robinson)

A fishing village near Kampot (Alex Robinson)

That afternoon I swung in my hammock outside my air-conditioned bungalow, mojito in hand. The soothing lilt of Bob Marley-reggae drifted across the sand from a flashpacker beach bar. It seemed a long way from the hidden Cambodia

I’d travelled through on my two week rail adventure. But with turquoise waves gently lapping white pepper-sand and palm-fronds swaying against a powder-blue sky, this was the perfect end of the line.  

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