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  • Writer's pictureAlain Catzeflis


Updated: Aug 9, 2020

Riding on Cambodia's first train since the end of the Khmer Rouge

There are few trains where you can sit (willingly) on the floor by an open door caressed by nature's air conditioning and watch the world go by at a stately 30kmph. Cambodia's only one such train.

Cambodia has two trains that run, once a day, 3 times a week at weekends from the port of Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. (There's one that occasionally does the run to the Thai border from Battambong).

It's pulled by a massive ancient Czech-made diesel engine driven by large cheerful Khmer who poses for Victory signs. No wonder. He has the best job in Cambodia.

The country's roads are in a shocking state. The Chinese are supposed to be funding 70% of road improvements. But traveling from south to north I don't think more of a fraction of Chinese investment is going into anything other than casinos, jungle clearing to plant rubber trees, apartments, oil and gas and windowless, 4-storey birds' nests factories that dot the landscape like giant Leggo.

So the revival of the train service in 2016 after a 14-year break is a welcome sign of progress. It's the only way to see a country unless you fancy riding around in lycra, shades and helmet.


But back in the days when the Khmer Rouge massacred their people back into the stone age this train was called " The snake that takes you all the way to hell".

During the period when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge resolved to recreate what they called Year Zero by emptying the cities - killing up to 2million people in the process - trains were an essential part of their strategy.

You couldn't move that many people without them. In the 'second wave' of forced relocation in 1975 they ran the trains 24/7 cramming silent, uncomplaining people, families, in cattle trucks out to remote the countryside.

There were four carriages to our train and two cattle trucks. The ride cost $7 per person. Three carried passengers - mostly expats and tourists but a few Cambodians .

One carriage was entirely empty save for three security staff and an army officer in a crisp, brown uniform reclining on one of the long, leather-upholstered benches listening to piped music of a particularly nasal kind.

When we came in he sat up and frowned. When we sat down he told us - unusually for a Khmer who are by and large meticulously polite, to ' Go Away". I sat, smiled at him, said 'Thank You' in Khmer and greeted him:

Cambodia judging from this ride is making progress. In fits and starts. Life is slowly coming back and wealth is being created, sometimes at a frantic pace and mostly unequally.


But some things have not changed. Sex tourism is still here buttressed by what you might call Sexpat tourism. It's cheap to live here and you see a disproportionately large number of scruffy middle-aged and elderly white men.

Cambodia is also one of the most littered countries on the planet. There must be as much litter in Cambodia as in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP).

There are a handful of garbage trucks in big towns but mostly stuff gets thrown away by the side of the road. Just as we were boarding our train at Kampot the elderly lady who sold me some Chinese moon buns for the journey tottered unsteadily across the track and dumped a black, plastic bin liner on a pile.

Along the 4-hour journey plastic runs like a ribbon all the way by the track for perhaps two hundred km.

This of course is a very privileged westerners view from someone whose carefully recycled rubbish is collected once a week. Cambodians have hardly any public services and their first preoccupation is to make a living. But I wonder whether the wars ( French, American, Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese) that have decimated families have stripped the country of a sense of civic duty.


Another recent and disquieting consequences of the war is the trade in children. Nearly 60% of Cambodia's population is still under 16. There are said to be 13,000 orphans in 360 generously funded orphanages by foreign NGOs and children's charities.

Tragedy and compassion attract big money. Adoption is big business. And yet UNICEF estimates that only 28 percent of those children are in fact orphans.

It's a shocking statistic which begs the question of how much of this abandonment is due to poverty, social change or greed and how much of it is encouraged (like sex tourism) by the west.

I am woken from my reverie as we clickety-clack towards Phnom Penh by one of the two attendants, a young woman who looks 16, wearing a cat hoodie with big ears. She tells me off sternly for sitting by an open door and shoos me back to my seat. It's like being told off by your grand-daughter. Another farang importing bad habits.

Alain Catzeflis

On Cambodia's only train

January 2019

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