2. All aboard The Sihanouk

I am not sure that the train we are on from Sihanoukville, southern Cambodia's beach resort and port, to Kampot, the sleepy town that serves as access point to Bokor National Park (a relic from regal colonialism, a ghost town with the shells of hotels and casinos) actually has a name. But most trains I've taken, like The Canadian or The Indian Pacific, have names and IF this train were named it would surely be The Sihanouk. For in this small, finally-at-peace-with-itself-country, the royal family, currently personaged in King Norodom Sihanouk, provides a lot of names for things. This train has recently opened to foreign tourists, so perhaps in a place when things change so fast, no one's gotten around to the naming game. In any case, that the train is available to tourists is not to say this is a new line. It is narrow gage, probably a relic of French colonialism that has survived decades of fighting.

Tickets went on sale at 0615 hrs for the scheduled 0630 departure. A sign gave the price to foreigners as 45 riels per kilometer. Our tickets (the clerk kept 2 carbons to memorialize the 60 second transaction) for the 90 kilometer trip thus cost about US $1, a penny a kilometer which is certainly a price in contention as the least expensive rail journey on earth (although locals here pay only a fraction of what foreigners do).

There was only one distinction between human and non-human cargo -- the latter was loaded first. Eventually, after the train departed and returned, we crowded into our box car for an actual 0800 hrs departure. This new tourist service seems to be unknown to all foreigners who take it. The tour books have not gotten around to providing actual description. Here is a bit: no toilet. A charcoal stove at one end provides box lunches. Drinks and cigarettes are for sale. It is best to stand upwind from both. Sometimes you can squat down, but it's mostly standing room. Except for those on the roof, in the baking tropical sun. I anticipated arriving at Kampot for some two hours before we finally did, which was after 5 1/2 hours. Need I say more than this was one of those unique travel experiences, something that won't be around for that much longer, as Cambodia develops or the boxcar completely rusts apart, whichever comes first. This boxcar will certainly be replaced by something sleek and modern, also to be named The Sihanouk.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

24 January 2002