Awarm breeze in the face, a gentle rattling in the ears and curious eyes peering
from the rice fields passing by at 40 kilometres per hour. Glimpsed from the train
tracks, the simple charm of the provinces for visitors is obvious, yet the rails
are a necessity for rural Cambodians. Many have nothing but unpaved roads and decaying
bridges to move themselves and their produce around the countryside. Enterprising
lorry drivers, or raildops, mount carts on the infrequently used tracks to ferry
passengers from village to village, charging just a few hundred riels for the favor.
Raildops: 300 at last count.
Although Cambodia's rail arteries remain decrepit, recent talk of an Asian railway
link from Singapore to southern China could mean new tracks will be laid down in
the next few years. With countries now agreed 'in principle' to support construction
of a new railway and repair existing lines, Cambodia's railway infrastructure is
scheduled for a massive overhaul. That could spell the end for lorries.
Sokhom Pheakavanmony, general director of the Royal Cambodian Railway, said the lorries
were a problem unique to Cambodia. Even with the continual issuing of circulars from
the railway administration and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport warning
of dangers involved in lorry travel, the demand for raildop transport has prevailed.
"The lorries that run on the railroad every day are very dangerous," he
said. "Other countries that have railroads do not allow lorries to run on them.
Here we try to inform them about the dangers and ask them to stop running, but they
still insist on running on the tracks."
Over 300 of these raildops now run on the two major rail sections of the Royal Cambodian
Railway - the 264km line from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville in the south and the 385km
line from Phnom Penh to Sisophon in the north, said Pheakavanmony.
Despite flouting railway authority regulations, they have become an essential mode
of transport for those in the rural areas. As a result, lorry drivers, or raildops,
have brought a taste of economic success to a rail system generally regarded for
its danger and unprofitability.
Most lorries are made of a series of planks over a platform with an outboard motor
attached or a motorbike that slides into a slot in the platform along the tracks.
Modern-day Huck Finns are sent off on their motorised crafts carrying firewood, scrap
metal, livestock, and anything else that might fit. The vehicle rides along on hand
crafted wheels, lauded as "much-better-than-train-quality".
Despite their basic construction, there is a definite etiquette to lorry travel.
When travelling on a one-way street, one must be prepared to give-way. Those with
the smallest load are required to remove the lorry from the tracks so that more heavily
laden vehicles can pass. When using the lorries for tourist purposes, passengers
spend much of their time removing the lorry from the tracks to yield to oncoming
carts. Drivers report that stand-offs with locomotives are thankfully rare.
Using entirely makeshift equipment, raildops now operate regional taxi services that
many claim are the most efficient mode of transport. Scott Worden, 29, a consultant
at Cambodia Defenders Project, a recent patron of raildop travel said it was the
best alternative for some outlying areas.
"It's quite an ingenious mode of transport, and it's a hell of a lot better
than travelling on the back of a moto," he said. "Plus you also get to
experience the country in a way that you can't from the roads."
With the railway lines running through many rich agricultural areas, most served
by deplorable roads, the lorries have supplemented ox-drawn wagons as the most practical
mode of transport. As villagers toil along provincial roads, the railways remain
comparatively flat and unused. Chan Kim, a lorry driver from Kampong Chhnang province,
says despite numerous warnings from the authorities, he has stayed in the business
since 2000 out of necessity and made about 5000 riel per day.
"Before there were very few lorries on the tracks, but now there are many,"
he said. "The authorities used to warn us not to run lorries on the railroads
because they were afraid it was dangerous, but I have no choice; I have nothing to
do besides farming. It is very difficult to make money from it... I have five children
who need money to go to school every day."
Lisa Arensen, 27, who is a long-term resident of Phnom Penh, used the lorries during
her job as an election monitor in Pursat and Takeo provinces last year. She said
that compared to the roads, lorries offer a far more effective alternative for traders,
school children and tourists.
"It's much better [than road travel], much safer and definitely much faster,"
she said. "It's quite communal as well, and because you don't go very fast,
it also seems reasonably safe. There's plenty of time to take everything off the
tracks when you see something coming and I haven't heard of any accidents yet."
But it remains to be seen if lorry drivers can be convinced or forced to give up
their livelihoods for a new ASEAN railroad. History suggests the desire for convenient
train travel is not easily quashed. In the days of the Khmer Rouge train ambushes,
when attacks often came as an added bonus of rail travel, people still used the trains
regularly to transport goods.
Director-General of Public Works and Transport Chhin Kong Hean was sure the lorries
would continue operating, but policing the illegal lorry drivers and their regular
excursions was of far less concern than securing funds to construct a functioning
Cambodia remains a stick in the wheel of rail progress in Asia. Although a new Asian
railway is high on the agenda of ASEAN countries, only the feasibility studies and
discussions are making significant progress. The funding to construct these proposed
railroads has not appeared. So until it does, lorry drivers and their charges will
continue to ride the rails.