Cambodia has only one passenger train that still runs, and I’m on it right now.
Calling it a passenger train is a bit of a misnomer, though. Most of the few seats still attached to the floor are piled high with exotic fruits: durians, pineapples, and several others that I’ve eaten before but can’t name. I think one’s a jackfruit, and another might be a soursop.
Half of the back car is full of lumber which I helped load a few stops ago. I almost crushed my foot.
The train is slow, probably the slowest train in the world. The fastest I clocked it with my GPS was 17kph. That’s fast enough that if you want to take a jog you can just hop out the back and run along.
The journey from Battambang, a city reasonably close to the Thai border, to Phnom Penh takes four hours by air conditioned bus. I’ve been on the train for 17 hours now and there’s been no word on when we’ll finally arrive. The official timetable claimed it would be 5 hours ago.
As I write I’m sitting in one of the wood benches, which puts me in the minority. Most people string up cloth hammocks in front of the open windows or ride on the roof.
I rode on the roof for a good part of the day. The local kids showed me how to jump from car to car as if I was part of an Indiana Jones movie.
When I arrived at the train station this morning there were a dozen other foreigners. Most of them stayed as long as Purset, the big stop 5 hours in which allows the rest of the journey to be completed by bus.
Four of us are left. My friend Todd, a lonely planet writer named Andrew, and Laila who has been traveling for 4 months and is expecting to travel for another 12. Her seat is a huge bag of charcoal that she claims is more comfortable than my bench. She’s probably right.
The train probably won’t run for much longer. Giant holes in the roof douse everyone and their cargo when it rains. No attempt is made at repairing the gaping holes in the rotting floor that expose the wheels and the track below us.
We once stopped unexpectedly because one of the four car’s bumpers had jumped onto another one’s.
You might be wondering why anyone would ever ride this train, and you might be surprised that I couldn’t possible recommend it any more. Why?
Because THIS is how to see Cambodia. Not all of it, of course, but it’s a whopping serving of authentic Cambodian life.
From the rusted roof of the train you get an unrestricted view of the beautiful rice paddies that cover the countryside. You watch as families work together to harvest the rice and direct their Oxen.
Children run up to the train and wave and yell out the few English phrases they know.
The train makes a few short stops, mainly to load or unload lumber and fruits, and vendors run up with trays of food, illuminated by kerosene lanterns.
I’ve been to a lot of countries, and I’m not sure I’ve met friendlier people.
When the monks saw that Laina had only bought one bag of steamed rice, they bought her another bag and some eggs. The woman sitting near us insisted on holding my flashlight while we ate.
When a pineapple vendor started cutting up one of her pineapples on the train, I hurried over to buy it. She gave it to me and then absolutely refused to take money.
Everyone smiles and tries to talk to us. They show us how to tie our hammocks and warn us when the train is about to leave after a stop.
Traveling can be more about the journey than the destination. I haven’t been to Phnom Penh yet, but I don’t know how it will be more memorable and enjoyable than the ride over.
If you’re in the area and you want a train ride of a lifetime, check out this page on seat61.com, which is an amazing resource for traveling by train, bus, or boat.
UPDATE: It took 24 hours total. A parting word of advice – buy a hammock in Battambang before you go. The locals will show you how to hang it.
Check out the pictures from the trip: %Gallery-26075%