The Cambodian train, an experience...
How to move on was one of the main discussion items during the last days of our stay in Phnom Penh. The roads in Cambodia are terrible. The highways are dirt roads, with a lot of pot holes and other obstacles. The boat directly to Siem Reap is an alternative, but rather expensive. And then there is the Cambodian train. There is a single track from Phnom Penh to Battambang, and one from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. The train to Battambang is considered to be safe again after years of attacks by the Khmer Rouge. The only problem that it�s a slow train: it moves with only 25 kilometers an hour. The 300 kilometers to Battambang would take more than 12 hours. But it is said to be an experience, so off we go.
We are dropped at the train stations at 5.45 AM, early enough to arrange our tickets. Although we pay the foreigner price (3 times the normal price) it is still very cheap. When we arrive at the platform we notice we are not the first ones. The train consists of two carriages with wooden seat, plus a number of cattle carriages, also for passengers. Since we do not fancy those, we get into the �normal� carriages, only to see that all seats are already taken. But we are able to stack our backpacks above the seats and wait to see what happens.
The carriage is not very new, to say the least. The windows on one side are all open. But on the other side,that�s not necessary: there are no windows there. The wooden plates on the ceiling have many holes, and so has the metal roof, the sun shines through many of those holes. The holes are also used for passing cigarettes to the passengers sitting on the roof. Those passengers climb to the roof via the windows.
The Cambodian fellow passengers are friendly enough to offer us to sit on their arm rests, which is less comfortable than standing. At the far end of the carriage, however, two enormous cool boxes with a number of water bottles and their vendors take 8 seats. The only other foreigner in the train, an Australian girl, decides to move the bottles a bit to get a seat. We do the same, creating one more uncomfortable seat. And when somebody leaves, we all have seats and are ready to go.
But the train is still not leaving. Worst of all is that we don�t know why. We ask someone who is offering us accommodation in Battambang (unbelievable, a tout on a train with only three tourists), but he doesn�t know either. When we hear a loud horn, we think we are leaving, but that�s for the only other train, the one to Sihanoukville. Finally, after a delay of 2 hours, the train starts moving.
Slowly, the train passes a shunt area. Here are some even older carriages, now used for housing or shelter. People are practically living on top of the rails in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Soon we make our first stop, many more will follow and the train gets more crowded. It doesn�t take long before the first vendors enter the train, offering different types of food, carried in dishes on their heads. But we do not fancy frogs on a stick, fried cockroaches or other exotic stuff. The rest of the passengers enjoy it, however, we just look at how they are eating the frog legs one by one.
The ice coffee factoryThem it�s time for our cool box guys to start their business. The cool box opens and appears to be full of ice. The vendors start to fill little plastic bags with ice. Then, he fills each bag with a sip of a dark brown fluid from a bottle, and winds a rubber band around it. When the bottle gets empty, a jerrycan with more fluid arrives, later identified as strong coffee. The little bags are put into a smaller box, with which they set off to sell their goods. When they return, the process starts all over again.
It gets more and more crowded in the train. Patrick needs to sit with one leg under the arm rest, on which someone else takes place, almost on his lap. Every square centimeter around Sabine is filled as well, with people how are eating a bit filthy. In no time the floor is full of food remains, as far as it can be seen through the body parts.
ShakingDespite the low speed of the train, it is shaking heavily. We wonder how slanting the rails are and whether it�s possible for the train to tilt. But nobody seems to worry, so neither do we. Later, after arrival in Battambang, we understand that the fear for tilting is a major reason for many locals not to take the train.
The stops of the train are often very short. Yet, people manage to put long shelves and firewood on the roof. In Pursat, a large town halfway on the route, a lot of wood is taken off again.
Meanwhile, it is the middle of the afternoon, and Battambang is only 100 kilometers away. How long it will take, however, nobody can tell. We have made contact with someone who will be attending a wedding in Battambang. He knows that the train will stop a bit longer in Pursat, giving us the opportunity for taking a leak. The toilet here, by the way, is just a separated piece of land.
Fire!!The landscape we pass in general is flat and with little vegetation. Most of the rice fields are dry, planting of the rice will start when the rain comes, somewhere in may. There is also a lot of barren land, not used for cultivation. On this land, we occasionally see fires, which are started to prevent larger bush fires in the dry season. At one point the fire is so close to the railroad that the heat can be felt through the open windows. It causes everyone on one side of the train to jump up in a kind of wave.
CommotionThen, there is a sudden commotion behind us. Everybody look backward through the windows. Apparently, something fell from the train. A bit later, everyone starts laughing. It appears to have been not something, but someone, who fell from the roof of the train, in between the carriages, to disappear underneath the train. But he is seen standing up again, so no problem. The train doesn�t stop, and our fellow passengers tell us he is a drunk beggar who rides the train daily.
In the meanwhile, dusk sets in and we are treated to a beautiful sunset. The train is a bit less crowded now and we can sit a bit more comfortable. Battambang is not far, but the train needs to make several more stops. In the dark we can see there is barely some light in the villages we pass. The only light we see comes from television sets in some houses. The only electricity available comes from car batteries. And the most important item to feed from that is obviously a TV set�
Finally we reach Battambang. Our new friend tells us to watch our gear when the train stops. We put our backpacks on, and indeed, after the train stops small boys enter the train in search for something valuable. We leave the train quickly, only to find several people offering hotel rooms. We say goodbye to our friend and take one of the offers, too tired to search for ourselves.Follow our World Journey!! Next Stop: Battambang
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