Travelers Memories

Cambodia : Train travelThe Battambang Express March 1999

The latest guidebook editions still insist train travel in Cambodia is sheer lunacy but, after reassurances from Jacques, guest-house owner & long-term Phnom Penh resident, that train travel was now safe & had come a long way from the days of playing Russian roulette at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, I decided that catching the train to Battambang would be a refreshing diversion from the truck,

a more intrepid farewell to Cambodia en route to Thailand.

Author: Dave Inward

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Train travel in Cambodia has had a terrible reputation for a long time. The archaic track & engines only allow the train to literally crawl along, and, for many years, the trains were rich & easy pickings for the Khmer Rouge, who would hijack any valuable commercial goods & rob passengers.

Cambodian trains used to operate with a carriage as a sacrifice in front of the precious engine, should the KR have deployed one of their favourite tactics, that of laying land mines on the track. The train authorities generously allowed any passengers willing to risk this carriage, which would bear the brunt of damage in the event of triggering a mine, to travel for free!!! A second tactic was to destroy the engine using some form of heavy weaponry, such as rocket-propelled grenades or anti-tank machine guns. For these combined reasons, the sane majority would fight for the seats at the back of the train, so the train would fill gradually forwards.

Train travel is the cheapest form of public transport in Cambodia & has always been used by the poorest section of society. The most expensive ticket from Phnom Penh to Battambang, a journey taking some 14 hours & covering approx. 300 kms , now costs 4500 riel ($1.25US) for a seat in carriages inferior to the lowest (3rd ) class trains in other south-east Asian countries. Having spoken to a western tourist who had done a train journey down to Kampot & after reassurances from Jacques, guest-house owner & long-term Phnom Penh resident, that train travel was now safe & had come a long way from the days of playing Russian roulette at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, I decided that catching the train to Battambang would be a refreshing diversion from the truck, a more intrepid farewell to Cambodia en route to Thailand.

The 6:00am departure time was the first stumbling block, I awoke at 6:20am, thankfully having packed the previous night, so jumped on a moto bound for the station, as befits a born optimist, but resigned to another lengthy truck journey unless Lady Luck smiled on me. Well, she was positively grinning, not only was the train still to depart, but my arrival coincided with that of a friendly Cambodian who spoke reasonable English & took me under his wing for the rest of the day. We jumped on just as the train was moving, though to be honest, at something less than walking pace, so no James Bond heroics can be claimed. The back carriage was of the old "guard wagon" style, with the big sliding wooden doors on each side. The carriage was full of military guys, complete with a selection of military hardware, AK 47's, rocket-propelled grenade launcher's etc, impressive enough to start a mobile shooting range where the targets don't move but you do!! There was standing room only but dozens of hammocks had been slung up & it looked a very comfortable option, swinging gently to & fro, whilst staring dreamily out of the carriage as the landscape slipped past. It was tempting to unfurl the hammock & join the swinging throng enjoying life as a pendulum but my recently appointed guru & mentor did not seem too enamoured of the company and determined that we should move carriages at the next stop, which soon arrived.

Our new seating premises consisted of a fairly standard carriage, roughly equivalent to 3rd class seats in a Thai train, but with no electricity for lighting or fans. The local people seemed delighted to see a Western tourist, immediately squashing closer together to accommodate space for the two of us. However, on a Cambodian train seat three into two doesn't go, the metal armrests are like kidney guillotine's so for most of the day we operated an impromptu rota, where one of the three would go for a smoke, a chat or just a wander. The ticket inspector soon appeared, but seemed quite stumped as to how to deal with me. He asked my destination, but that was as far as it got, he seemed satisfied just that I knew where I was going, so continued on his way, leaving me to try & remember another journey where I'd paid less than the locals!

Having stowed my luggage on the racks above & having complete faith in the friendly family we were seated with, I decided to go up on the roof at the very next stop, before it got too hot. My Cambodian friend accompanied, nay guided me out of the carriage, at the end of which there is a set of simple metal steps allowing a scrambled access to the roof. The roof was quite well populated & from here it was possible to see the next few carriages, two basic "coal scuttle"goods carriages, no seating, completely open to the already burning sun & yet densely, I can only presume as it is very cheap. Then came several of the more conventional carriages, beyond which I could see no further, the train being so long that only the occasional puff of diesel smoke in the distance betrayed the engine's approximate whereabouts.

At the next stop we returned to our seats, as the sun was really starting to gain power, making sitting on the metal roof something akin to how an egg must feel in a frying pan. Back down below, food frenzy had broken out, everyone very well prepared, regarding the next 14 hours as a cramped picnic. I was very pleased I had taken the trouble to visit the Central Market last evening, so was able to join in, offering bananas, mangos, lychees & jackfruit in return for rice, chicken, fish, eggs, chunks of sugar cane.... Food sellers were constantly embarking & disembarking at the various stations, plying the feasting throng with all imaginable savouries, sweets & cold drinks, essential as the sun climbed and the heat rose, giving the carriage oven-like qualities, particularly during the frequent unscheduled stops which would immediately stifle the flow of air through the carriage.

The scenery for the majority of the trip is quite bland, vast flat plains consisting of arid rice paddies, dotted with palm trees & the occasional hill in the background. The slow,jolting ride in the wilting heat is frequently punctuated by countless stops at ramshackle stations, where there might be just a cluster of wooden shacks. Later in the day, the vegetation becomes thicker & the landscape more varied , the Cardamom mountains which form the southern part of Thai-Cambodian border encroach ever nearer from the west. By this time, late in the afternoon, it was possible to enjoy the view from the roof, though one eye needs to be kept on the numerous overhanging branches that lurch menacingly by as the train trundles on.

Sunset was fantastic, offset by the silhouetted presence of the Cardamom Mountains, the sky & clouds displayed a wide & ever-changing array of soft colours emanating from the reddening glow of the sun. After sunset had gently faded away, I made my way back to the carriage to find it plunged in complete darkness, no electricity...no light!! I stumbled across "my family" & was able to regain a seat, but the train suddenly came to a lengthy halt & the hot, stuffy air soon drove me back up on to the roof. A couple of army personnel were on the roof communicating via walkie-talkie with an unseen ally. Once we were moving again, they disappeared, casual precautionary security measures seemingly still in place. By this time, countless stars illuminated the inky black sky. For the remainder of the journey, it was possible to lie down flat on the roof gazing up at the sky above, a shooting star concluding what had been a truly memorable trip. We reached Battambang at around 8-30pm, all that was left to do was to find one of the two guest-houses I'd been told of & I had only enough energy to celebrate with a fruit shake before retiring, declining the persistent offers from the management to broaden my days' experiences still further.

Battambang is an unremarkable, typically Cambodian town, based around a large Central Market, with crumbling French colonial architecture along the Stung Chas river & many well-stocked shops a sign of its' proximity to the Thai border. Battambang Province was for a long time disputed territory between the Cambodian Army & Khmer Rouge and is still infested with land mines. The town is home to dozens of NGO offices, their associated aid projects and their 4x4 trucks, as well as a disheartening number of urchins, beggars & amputees. Statistics concerning estimated figures of deployed land mines & the clearance programmes give a fatalistic understanding of the sheer enormity of the task of mine-clearance.

Battambangs' most interesting sights lie outside the town, so I hired a moto driver for a day. First stop was Phnom Sompou, a large hill 12km west of Battambang on the road to Pailin.. A pagoda at the top of the mountain affords a panoramic view across surrounding rice plains to hills & mountains, near & far. There is also a Killing Field memorial on the mountain, the natural beauty of the limestone cliffs & caves given a surreal legacy through their use as a primitive death trap by the Khmer Rouge. 10 km the other side of Battambang is Ek Phnom temple built in the classical Khmer style. No restoration has been effected, so the temple is a ruin in the true sense, allowing Mother Nature to re-assert herself, but in a more gentle, tranquil manner, not so defiantly imposing as at Ta Prohm. The journey between Ek Phnom & Battambang is a delight, the red sandstone road follows every curve of the picturesque Stungchas River, & is banked on either side by lush vegetation & beautiful raised wooden huts.
ACCOMODATION - Battambang
Golden Parrot:
Road 3 facing market. Basic rooms $3-$5, with b/room fan. Bargain.
Monorom GH: Road 1 by river. New, clean, friendly GH: ab f s$5, d$6, t$7.

SIGHTS
1) Phnom Sompou: 12km from Battambang direction west to Pailin
2) Ek Phnom: Khmer ruin, 10 km along Stungchas river east
Pleasant journey along river, red sandstone road
3) Wat Som dach: Khmer ruin, 11km over river. Bad road, through rice fields.
Difficult to find (I couldn't!!) reputedly very difficult journey , ask at Monorom GH

I would definitely recommend hiring bikes and making a day-trip of the above sights if you don't mind getting lost/constantly asking directions too much!!

Battambang has a small cultural museum on the river near GPO.
Opening hours are Mon - Fri 8-11, 2-5

BANKING
Battambang has 3 banks offering exchange services. Due to its proximity to Thailand, the Thai baht is widely accepted in Battambang. The rate to the riel is 1 baht:100 riel

Cambodia Commercial Bank: Near train station, on road towards river
M-F: 8-15:00 Cash advance: Visa, MastercardCharge 2%, min charge $10
T/C (US$ only): Charge 2%, min charge 1$ . No other currencies.

Pacific Commercial Bank: On new large road crossing river.
Closed when researched but their national policy is:
Accept major currencies (US$, Sterling, Fr.Franc, Sw Franc, Ger Mark, Jap Yen,
HK$, Can$, Aus $, Sing $, Thai Baht)
No card advance. T/C: Charge 3% if you request US$, min charge $1 . Charge 2% if you request riel, (poor rate!!) min charge $1 All non US$ currencies convert T/C value to US$ using their ex-rates which are low

Canadia Bank: On road alongside market M-F8-15.30, Sat 8-11:00
No credit card cash advance. T/C 2%, min $2.
Accept many major currencies but at prohibitive exchange rates

FOOD
Battambang has a large market, which dominates the centre of the town. In the morning & evening stalls offer a wide range of local foods.
In the evening along the riverside is another area where food stalls & fruit shake stalls offer cheap food & drink. At the other end of the scale, the nearby Neak Poan is a glitzy restaurant with live entertainment.

TRANSPORT
Truck
Pailin:
2 hours, 80km reasonable road. 4000-5000 riel outside, 10,000 riel inside
Phnom Penh: 7 hours. Outside $2, inside $5.
Sisophon: 1.5 hours, 2000 riel outside, 5000 riel inside.
Poipet: 3 hours, 4000 riel outside, 10,000 riel inside.

Train
Battambang to Phnom Penh, departs 6-40am. Cost is 4,500 , approx. 14 hours.
Battambang to Sisophon departs 6-00am. Cost is 700 riel, approx. 5 hours

COMMUNICATIONS
There are many private offices offering international phone & fax services. Typical costs are:

Japan Europe/America/Oceania
Tel $1.5/min $2.0/min
Fax $2.0/min $2.0/min

To send an E-mail (not Internet) costs $3/page!!


Copyright
Dave Inward, 1999.


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