Taking a Train Journey in Cambodia

Cambodian railways have a long history, but troubled with lines being installed way back when Cambodia was part of French Indochina. There was even a line connecting Siem Reap to Phnom Krom built in the 1890’s, now long since gone. Many of the lines were constructed in the 1930’s including many of the quaint countryside stations noting the art deco master pieces of Phnom Penh, and Battambang. Over the years of war the lines fell into disrepair and became impassable, with engines going off the rails becoming frequent due to the rickety tracks. Things got so bad that by early 2009 commercial rail ceased in Cambodia.
Taking a Train Journey in Cambodia

Nowadays the railway has become famous with the invention of the Bamboo Trains, known locally as Norries. Locals use Norries for transporting goods to other towns, while tourists enjoy the thrill of riding through the countryside at break-neck speed on what is essentially a bamboo mat driven by a petrol engine, it doesn’t tick many health and safety boxes, but it is a great addition to and visit to Battambang, the picturesque colonial riverside city.

So, train journeys were wrapping up just as I arrived in the country and I missed my opportunity to take a trip, as it turned out, I had to wait almost 15 years to get my chance to ride. So, on a humid morning in September, I set out for my train journey to Battambang. There is currently only one train a day leaving at a very early 6:30am. Phnom Penh station is now looking pretty smart with a new paint job and some trendy coffee shops. There was quite a bustle on the platform but all very organised. Tickets are a very reasonable $8 for the while journey. The train itself is a pretty dated Diesel, it reminds of the regional trains from the early 80’s, I believe this rolling stock to be from Thailand as the train can now cross into Thailand at Poipet.

Cambodia Train Carriage - Phnom Penh to Kampot
Cambodia Train Carriage

Once on the train, seats are allocated, however you’re free to move around. On that day, the train comprised of just three carriages. There is no air conditioning, but you can open the windows and put your head out (carefully). Journey time Phnom Penh to Battambang is around 7 hours, it is a slow journey as the train moves along at a sedentary pace, mostly not reaching more than around 30km an hour. The seats on board are padded but in no way luxurious, this is a real local experience, I was the only foreigner on the train.

So, windows down fans whirring, horn blaring, of we roll out the station. It’s an interesting glimpse into some of Phnom Penh’s Poorer districts that live very close to the trainlines, it all feels quite intimate as you watch daily life passing by, as you peer into people’s homes and shops just feet from the tracks. Before long, the urban sprawl disappears and the countryside is upon us, rolling rice paddies as far as the eye can see, interspersed with pretty villages and buffaloes wallowing, all set to a backdrop the Cardamom Mountains.

Cardamom Mountain View from the Train
View of Cardamom Mountains in the Distance

Trundling through the landscape takes you back to a different time, even after many years in Cambodia I still like to soak up the atmosphere, it’s not hard to imagine what the same journey would have been like in the 1930’s as in many ways not much has changed.

Some of the most interesting aspects are the stations, the train won’t stop at these very small stations unless requested to do so beforehand. The train makes one main stop for 20 mins in a town halfway up the west side of the Tonle sap called Pursat, here the station has been painted up. The driver hops down to grab himself a coffee and a Red Bull and everyone disembarks to purchase snacks from the local sellers scattered on the platform and have a stretch of the legs. The whole scene is all very quaint, until before long the conductor signals for everyone to hop back onboard so we can continue on our way. There is food available at the end of the food car, however it is limited to local snacks, potato chips and pot noodles, I’d suggest taking your own lunch to keep away hunger. For the next couple of hours, we make our way through the scenic countryside until reaching Battambang, remarkably right on time!

View of Rural Cambodia from the Train
View of Rural Cambodia from the Train

Train travel is a great way to enjoy a local experience and enhance a slow journey between destinations whilst getting off the beaten path in Cambodia. It makes the journey into a memorable trip feature on what can otherwise be an unremarkable transfer. It’s also great for families and children as they can move around and take in the scenery.

For groups we have the option of privatising a whole train just for your VIPs, this includes options of plated dinner service with lounge car and full kitchen, the journey and menu can be tailored to your requirements, the perfect addition for any incentive group.

Currently train journeys available in Cambodia are as below:

  • Phnom Penh – Battambang – Poipet and vice versa
  • Phnom Penh – Kep/Kampot – Sihanoukville and vice versa

There are no train lines to Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) and no trains to Vietnam.

Please get in touch to see how you and your guests can enhance a journey of a lifetime in Cambodia with a train journey in Cambodia.

View from the train carriage.

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