Pacific 231: the 84-year-old grande dame of Cambodia's Royal Railways was spruced up and hosted a pack of adventurers with a regal ride from Phnom Penh to Kampot. Passengers and rural folk were all smiles along the 166 km track. Photos by Andy Eames.
"A royal train, believe me." - William Shakespeare, King Henry VIII, Act
IV, Sc.1, , Line 37
There's something alluringly romantic about travel by rail for those kindred spirits
infected with an insatiable wanderlust. Add the notion of being tugged back through
time by a steam-driven locomotive and inveterate would-be Rudyard Kiplings feel their
restless blood begin to clickity-clack.
Such was the dream of Bangkok-based impresario Philippe Decaux, alias Don Felipe,
a well-travelled hack with a deeply-rutted visage which belies that of a rough-hewn
adventurer who's been railroaded out of half the capitals in Asia.
Using the good offices of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, the nut of
the idea was simple: Phnom Penh to Kampot by steam for a host of VIPs.
In the event, Don Felipe, displaying his inestimable frog-like genius, orchestrated
a 4-6-2- wheeled, wood-burning concert the likes of which may become a weekly event
in the not-too-distant future.
Decaux came across Cambodia's own barely-surviving steam queen - Pacific 231 - by
chance in the early 90s when she was helping ferry home refugees from the long-suffering
border camps in Thailand.
A second sighting last year mixed with the Kingdom's current measure of stability
spawned the idea of organizing a leisurely break from Cambodia's too well-known,
tortured past - while offering a peek at what a future devoid of chronic civil war
and the train-shooting Khmer Rouge might entail: effervescent tourists sipping champagne
as they chug-a-lug their way past sugar-palmed rice fields towards the seaside delights
of Kep and Bokor.
Indeed! Peace in Cambodia, if it lasts, will usher in a realm of bizarre double-takes:
rural peasants cut off from the planet for more than three decades gawking at dumbfounded,
global jet-setters gawking at a corner of the world time and humanity has tried to
forget (Trial for the KR? What trial? Shades of Shawcross' quadra-peat: "Sideshow
Master of Ceremonies, Philippe Decaux. The man who wrote railroad
history in the year 2000.
"I feel like Livingston! They're staring at us, and we're staring at them,"
said one passenger on the dream train trip-come-true as Pacific 231 rested at a bullet-splattered
station in the middle of somewhere near Takeo.
Decaux got the green light for his luxury train trip idea from everyone he asked.
King Norodom Sihanouk readily offered use of His Majesty's Wagon Royale, built in
France and shipped to Cambodia in 1967, which was used for Royal trips up until the
1970 Lon Nol coup.
Prime Minister Hun Sen added his approval and the dons at the Royal Railways of Cambodia
went into high gear. With only a bit of haggling, engine, supply, passenger, and
bar carriages were rented for $3,150.
Pacific 231 was scrubbed down and dolled up. The octogenarian black lady, built in
1916 in France and delivered to Cambodia in 1936, had faithfully served passengers
for decades and needed a bit of fresh oil for her touristic debut.
At 7:29 am on Feb 5 over 80 eager passengers jumped on board as Pacific 231's whistle
blared twice and the steam kicked in. By 7:39 the bubbly was flowing in the King's
At 8:01, just past Pochentong Station, the exuberant cavalcade came to an abrupt
halt. "One of the brakes is frozen," said an engineer. After a bit of scurrying
under a carriage with a gorilla wrench, and a nervous grimace on Don Felipe's wizened
face, all was fixed and the entourage rumbled off into history towards Kampot at
the heart-soothing pace of 30 kms per hour.
Secretary of State for Information Khieu Kanharith was all smiles. His ministry had
provided a classical Khmer ensemble which added a traditional touch in the second
of two first-class carriages hooked up for the ride.
At 8:49 when the train stopped at Tah Toeung Station some of the Thais on the epic
voyage were doing what Thais do so well when travelling long distance: falling asleep
Tah Toeung looked a bit worse for wear. Secretary of State for Tourism Thong Khon
said the station had been "damaged by war" as he gazed at the shot up,
vacant edifice. When asked "Which war?" he replied stoically, "I'm
The train chugged in to Takeo Station at 10:22 to a red carpet welcome organized
by Governor Keb Chutemar. Lithesome dancers entertained the foreign guests in a style
fit for a monarch; fresh coconuts and kramas were graciously offered to one and all.
Further down the tracks at Thani it was time for lunch. With NASA-like precision
Le Royal's caterers leapt into action once the train came to a halt at 11:48. Silver
serving trays appeared like magic. On the flatbed carriage - probably used previously
for mounting 12.7 mm machine guns - Chef Agus' crew was busily basting B-B-Q chicken,
steaks and kebabs under velvet green beach umbrellas.
Any doubts that the intrepid travellers were gliding through the countryside in first
class, despite the grumbles over having to pay $2.50 for a cup of instant Nescafe
on board, were quickly dispelled at Kampong Trach. Pacific 231 had to stop and wait
for the Phnom Penh-bound regular service to chug by at the only place it seems two
trains can pass each other on the north-south line.
The 20-minute stopover gave the VIPs a chance to mix it up with the hoipolloi, and
wet their whistles: "How much is the bottled water?" "500 riel."
"If I give them a dollar is that enough?" "Should be okay." "Oh
honey, it isn't cold!"
It took 25 cubic meters of wood to keep Pacific 231 well fed.
The up-bound rolled in on schedule. Ten boxcars, diesel driven, stuffed to the gills
with 1,500-plus souls in every nook and cranny, and that's not counting the few hundred
or so on the roofs. The one foreign backpacker stuck in the melee had a bemused look
on his face as the mass of humanity pulled out, with a "maybe I caught the wrong
train" quizzical glare in his eyes.
The final leg to Kampot was a breeze. Only a few of the passengers paused to wonder
where the infamous Nuon Paet/Chhouk Rin/Sam Bith train attack took place in 1994;
the bush was quiet with the ghosts of the still unresolved tragedy.
Pacific 231 rolled in to Kampot at 4:30 sharp, having consumed nine hours of history,
25 cubic meters of firewood and 15 cubic meters of water.
The weary explorers disembarked and headed for the showers, having punched their
ticket on one more mini-thrill of a lifetime, while savoring the taste of having
blazed a new trail in the wilderness. They also had to rest up for the next day's
excursions to Kep and Bokor.
But one passenger, reflecting on the arduous trek, later noted: "After Kampot,
it was all down hill."
Decaux, for his part, was elated with the trip, as were most involved. He plans to
organize another this coming December with a few minor modifications. Royal Railways
of Cambodia seems happy to oblige so train lovers should sign up soon.