Train travel may be (somewhat) safer now, but as Hurley Scroggins reports, the
Golden Age of Rail has yet to hit Cambodia.
After some confusion of how two Westerners were let aboard, the train pulls out of
Phnom Penh at daybreak. A man with his face covered by a krama and a boy with his
tee-shirt pulled over his head are ordered to disembark at Pochentong station. Lepers.
"Persons carrying infectious-sporadic diseases are not allowed on this train,"
announces the conductor. They comply sheepishly and disappear into the morning mist.
So begins the 13-hour, 265 km, $1.25 drama to Sihanoukville. It is a relaxing trip
if nothing bad happens. At no point does the train travel too quickly to hinder smokers
on the roof from lighting up easily.
The train doubles its speed to about 20 kph as it breaks out of the city. After bending
southwards, the rails leave the road and plunge through the countryside on their
own. Surrounded by slow-moving rice fields and sugar palms, passengers on the roof
relax and talk during the dust- and bump- free ride.
"Do you enjoy the train in Cambodia?" asks the chief of the security unit
sitting atop a carriage. The last Westerners he asked that question were abducted
and later executed by the Khmer Rouge.
Kao Kim recalls the fateful trip on July 26, 1994 which resulted in the deaths of
Australian David Wilson, UK national Mark Slater and Frenchman Jean Michel Braquet.
"I was sitting next to them when we came under fire," he says. "Everybody
ducked. Myself, I fought back with my men. All the passengers were taken hostage,
but the soldiers had to run or we would be killed. I never saw them again."
As the train passes through the badlands of Phnom Vour, where the train was ambushed,
he remembers how dangerous his job used to be. "We ran over four mines here
once on a single trip," he says. "I cannot count how many times we have
been attacked by the Khmer Rouge - too many times. During the civil war three or
four people were killed a month on this line alone."
Attacks on trains have become less common, particularly since Khmer Rouge forces
along the southern line defected to the government in July 1996. Despite a marked
increase in security, Western journalists have only recently been allowed on the
rails. "Railway stations were not allowed to sell them tickets. Now the railroad
is safe," he claims. "So we can allow foreigners to travel anywhere in
Security forces have been scaled down since the Khmer Rouge threat in the area diminished
in 1996. "We used to have two or three cars full of soldiers. Now we only take
about twenty," says rank-and-file soldier Yim Phon. "If they attack, we
keep shooting until they stop."
He was also on the train when it was ambushed in 1994. "It is difficult when
incidents like that happen, because we have no defensive position," he explains.
"If the engineer sees a man with a B40 [rocket-propelled grenade] on the tracks,
he is under instructions to stop and let us soldiers deal with the situation."
Flat cars deployed in front of the locomotive to set off mines have been removed.
"They were not so effective anyway," he recalls. "They were not heavy
enough and the locomotive would usually set them off. We hit at least one mine every
day between 1980 and 1994."
The explosions have taken their toll on the line over the years. A recent report
by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport gave a candid analysis. "The activity
of transportation at the present is somewhat dangerous as it is unclear which sections
of both lines are susceptible to sudden collapse," it reads. "It is a serious
The carriages pitch violently when the train passes over repaired sections. Bridges
are even more dubious. "At present all bridges are supported by wooden sleepers,"
the report points out. Railway staff with sledge hammers shore up some of the spans
before the train passes over.
Between harrowing sections, the ride is peaceful. Like trains anywhere, there is
a sense of rolling through a scene without disturbing it. The soft purr of the Czech
diesel locomotive doesn't drown out the sound of birds and voices.
As the rice droops, villagers and family members from the cities take to the fields.
This is when young people can see each other away from the watchful eyes of parents.
Rows of colorfully-clad young women harvest, while animated young men clown for their
"I'll be back tomorrow to help you," shouts Puol Sokhon at one group. He
says that several times along the way. Like many, he prefers to ride on the roof
to escape the crush below. He has ridden the train nearly every day for the past
seven years loading firewood for $1-$2 a day.
In front of him, thousands of ducks sit on the roof, heads bobbing in unison. "It
is better up here. It is windy and it doesn't smell," he says. "I spend
most of my life up here. I take the train down one day and come back the next. Sometimes
I even sleep up here when we get to Sihanoukville."
Conductors deftly jump between rooftops collecting fares, a remarkable feat considering
the seemingly independent movement of the carriages. "Sometimes the workers
fall. If they land to the side, they generally live," he says. "They usually
don't though and they die."
He too recalls the last time he had seen Westerners on the trip. "When the Khmer
Rouge attacked, I was faster than anyone else," he says. "I ran into the
forest, but they eventually caught me. I never saw the foreigners again."
Since Khmer Rouge in the area defected to the government, former guerrilla fighters
have re-integrated into the populace. "I see some of them on the train sometimes,
but never the ones who took us hostage and killed the foreigners," he says.
As the track bends up a hill at the base of Bokor mountain past Kampot, the train
slows and soldiers eye the tree line with trepidation. "It's not like we used
to get attacked here sometimes. We were attacked - or at least harassed - every time
we passed through ," says the security chief. "It feels normal now, but
if we see anything unusual, we still shoot until the train passes through."
Approaching Sihanoukville two hours after nightfall, soldiers on the locomotive shine
torches into the forest. At one point they see movement and fire a warning shot,
but nothing comes of it. Other soldiers hardly look up. They have seen worse.