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            Back to Open Skies

Back on track

1 May 2018

Cambodia’s mothballed Royal Railway is back in service after 14 years, and putting the country’s lesser-visited southern region firmly on the map

Chugging along at 53kmph, the 1960s rolling stock of Cambodia’s Royal Railway is certainly no bullet train. But who wants to get to their destination quickly anyway? To move with any more speed would be an insult to the glorious countryside neatly framed by its windows, and defeat the object of cross-country train travel in the first place.

The Royal Railway passenger service reopened only 18 months ago after a 14-year hiatus, and connects its capital, Phnom Penh, to the coastal city of Sihanoukville. The southern line is one of two tracks that traverse a total of 612km along the western flank of the country, terminating at the northern border town of Poipet. Built under colonial French rule in 1930s, the Phnom Penh to Battambang northern line remains out of action, save for a rickety bamboo ‘nori train’, which rattles along the tracks at 32kmph over a 7km stretch.

After independence, France, West Germany and China bankrolled the southern stretch of track to ferry goods to Sihanoukville port – now a gateway to the country’s tropical islands and the mangrove jungles of Ream National Park. For the road- and plane-weary traveller, the train serves as a more exhilarating way to explore Cambodia beyond Siem Reap’s magnificient but tourist sullied Angkor Wat temples. For Cambodians, the journey is bittersweet – a poignant reminder of its troubled past and a symbol of its brighter future.

A word of warning – the six- to eight-hour journey (which would originally take a staggering 28 days) is at the mercy of track-loitering Brahman cows and the occasional engineering hitch, which calls for unexpected stops. That’s OK, though, it’s an excuse to stock up on the fried shrimp fritters sold by the roadside.

Short cut:The railway connects Phnom Penh with Sihanoukville on the coast. It turned a 28-day journey into a 6-8-hour one

Excess Baggage

They say trains go where cars cannot, but this isn’t entirely true of Cambodia’s Royal Railway. For US$5 you can load your bike onto the train’s flatbed car or pay out US$14 to put your four wheels onto the Blue Train.

Life on track

Life trackside is never dull. Decorative red remorques (tuk-tuks), oxcarts and bike-commuting schoolchildren converge at dusty crossings, vendors hurriedly move out of the way of oncoming trains, and saffron-robed monks casually stroll alongside the tracks.

Station street food

There is a steady supply of mama noodles on board, but for a taste of authentic Cambodian food, hold out for one of the station stops. Kampot’s coffee ladies congregate under its rusting pyramid roof, selling steamed meat buns, spicy fried sweet corn kernels and skewers of pretty much everything – from giant prawns to pineapple. You’ll also find an iced-caffeine hit, which comes in handy during summer.

Vintage Flair

The air-conditioned carriages ooze retro charm, from the stencil-punched seat numbers and pull-down windows to the original padded blue vinyl seats.

Colonial Charm

Built in the early 1930s, the imposing French colonial-style station is one of Phnom Penh’s art deco treasures. Check out the vintage weighing scales and antique Tissot station clock housed beneath the arches of its echoing main hall.

Village life

After slowly chugging through Phnom Penh’s suburbs, where thatched and bamboo homes cling to the railway line, the landscape opens up to rural scenes of rice harvesters, duck farms and canal fishermen.

Sea views

In the final two-hour leg of the journey, the cross-country route carves through lush forests, giving way to glimpses of the sea as it approaches Sihanoukville’s palm-fringed beaches.

Reaching new Heights

The soaring Bokor Mountains come into view as the train approaches Kampot, whereafter the terrain transforms into crenelated, jungle-clad hills.

The details

Route: Phnom Penh – Takeo – Kampot – Sihanoukville
Price: Between US$4 and US$7
Frequency: Four times a week (Fridays, weekends and Mondays) in both directions
Duration: 6-8 hours approx.
Distance: 266km
Capacity: Alternating yellow and blue trains carry up to 200 passengers each


Words and Images: Sarah Freeman