Riding the Rails

Trip Start Nov 01, 2006
Trip End Mar 07, 2007

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Sunday, January 14, 2007

Following on the heels of my motorbike journey through the north, I moved on to a new form of transportation: the train.  There's only one train still operating in Cambodia, and it only runs once a week.  Soon it'll probably be gone, so I decided to ride it while I could.  The train leaves from Batambang in the west and chugs slowly towards Phnom Penh.  When I say slowly, I mean it.  I think it averaged less than 20 km per hour for the trip.  This translates into a 19 hour train ride, to cover a distance that can be done in less than six by bus.  All that extra traveling time provides plenty of opportunity to see a different side of Cambodia.
The train was scheduled to depart at 6:40 am, so I was at the train station before sunrise, and it only left about half an hour late.  There were only two other tourists there, a couple of Belgian guys (Niko and Sax).  The train was quite empty when it left, maybe 20 passengers spread out over three passenger cars, a cargo car, and a flat bed.  That meant plenty of space to roam around from car to car.  By that afternoon it would be so full that some people were sitting on the floor.  One of the other attractions of taking this terribly slow train was that you can ride up on top.  I spent a while in the mid-morning sitting on top, watching the scenery go by.  Definitely a trip highlight for me.  Unfortunately, every now and then a conductor would come around and ask you to get down.  This was mainly done when nearing a station.  I think perhaps they were afraid of getting in trouble, so the riding on top was only unofficially OK.  We went up again in the late afternoon for sunset, and at night to watch the stars.
We stoppped maybe twenty times over the course of the day, mostly at very small towns that I imagine will disappear when the train stops running.  People load on their rice, vegetables, or whatever they're transporting to market.  At most stops we also picked up lumber (skinny tree trunks) which was loaded onto the flatbed, then filled the cargo car, then the roof of a passenger car.  At one point that night, we stopped for an hour for no apparent reason, and we later learned we were waiting for a train going the other way to pass us.  We spoke with lots of Cambodians, mostly train employees eager to work on their English.  These guys all bring hammocks which they hang in the big windows.  I got to use one for a while while the guy who it belonged to was collecting tickets.  Quite a bit more comfortable than the wooden benches.
Arrived in Phnom around 3am and got a moto ride back to the same guesthouse as last time.  Met up here with Gina and Chris (from Lung Prabang) and also bumped into Peter (Luang Prabang) and Ann (Tadlo) as well as a few other familiar faces.  Good to see them all again.  Have a had a relaxing couple of days.  Catching up on blogging, swapped a few books, arranged my Vietnamese visa, and bought a cheap fake ipod nano at the central market.  I couldn't take missing music any longer, especially after all the hours of sappy Cambodian pop karaoke videos I've endured on various bus rides.  Filled the the device at the Boom Boom Room here in backpackerville.  Better selection of music than most record stores back home.  Now I'm all set for tomorrow, when I head off to a nearby beach.  Oh, also: last night we went to a real movie theater (my first in SE Asia) to see a Thai horror/comedy called Ghost Variety.  We were the only tourists there along with a few dozen Cambodians.  The film was dubbed into Khmer and subtitled in English.  It was kind of a Scooby-Doo like plot involving a TV show production that drove around in a van visiting places where ghosts are reported to be found.  The girls in the audience dutifully screamed at every scary shot, and a fun spooky time was had by all.
 The Flickr photos for this entry are combined with those from Preah Vihear Province.
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