Cambodia has two rail lines, both originating in Phnom Penh, totalling about 612 kilometres of single, one-meter-gauge track. Today, due to the lack of funds to maintain the tracks and rolling stock, the trains have ceased to run. However, in 2006, I was lucky enough to ride on one of the last Cambodian trains heading north to Battambang on Saturdays and returning to Phnom Penh on Sundays.
Running at less than 20km an hour, the journey (around 4 hours by road), took up to 17 hours. Pulled by a 1994 Czech yard-engine, “sleeper class” consisted of a hammock and the tracks were clearly visible through the crumbling wooden flooring. The train rocked, often alarmingly, from side to side but the beautiful countryside passing by made up for it. Foreigners paid double, but tickets still cost next to nothing. During the journey, the train became a village market, and if the hustle and bustle became too much, one could escape to the roof. Just be careful to duck when a power line comes along!
“Visitors to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, are able to visit the Killing Fields and the S-21 Genocide Museum, based in the school which the Khmer Rouge used for torture, detention, interrogation and murder. People held there were usually intellectuals – teachers, doctors, anyone – even those who wore glasses – all apparently posed a threat to the ‘revolution’. As the Vietnam War spilled over the border, the Khmer Rouge seized control in 1975 – declaring it ‘Year Zero’, they banned money, suspended the mail, closed the country down and killed 1-2 million people, a quarter of the population. Those who survived were worked to the bone in labour camps, underfed and diseased, often starved to death. As per Orwell’s ‘1984’, they brainwashed children who grew up to be amongst the most brutal members of the regime. One of the reasons that the infrastructure remains so bad today is that the middle class was wiped out between ’75 and ’79, until Vietnam invaded and occupied the country for 8 more years. It is this latter reason that many Cambodians still dislike their neighbours – it was a bittersweet ‘liberation’.
It’s a great adventure and according my calculations, you’ll save 0.84 acres of forest by not flying! There are three main legs of the journey which should take around 30 hours
1) Hong Kong to Guangzhou
2) Guangzhou to Nanning
3) Nanning to Hanoi
You don’t need to book anything, but try to arrive at the Guangzhou and Nanning at least two hours before departure. Remember that travel during New Year or Golden Week is likely to be impossible considering.