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On the Slow Train and (an even slower) Boat Through Cambodia

sunny 35 °C

It's been a very busy few days. We haven't done much, but we haven't slept much either!

After a night at the erm interesting hotel booked for us by the tour company we were picked up at 06:45 and taken to the dock about a mile away. There, we finally made it onto the Mekong River and travelled to Phnom Penh by comfortable speed boat in around 5 hours with about 12 other tourists. Crossing an international border by river was a first for us both. Immigration formalities were carried out at the slightly ramshackle border posts at Ving Xuong on the Vietnam side and Kaam Samnor on the Cambodia side. Our Cambodian e-Visas that I had carefully applied for months ago when I assumed we would be arriving by bus, were rejected as expected so we had to pay US$30 each towards the border guards' Christmas piss-up er I mean new visas.


We got off the boat and checked into the hotel and set off to, sadly another very depressing stop, but a must visit when in Phnom Penh. I vowed not to make this blog a history lesson or a guidebook so I'll try to make it very brief. Towards the end of the Vietnam war, the Americans heavily bombed Southern Cambodia as well I'm assuming, to make it difficult for the Vietcong to flee North but I may be wrong. Overshadowed by the events in Vietnam, it was known as The Secret War. It was no secret to Cambodians though. An estimated 100,000 were killed, mostly civilians. The country had already suffered from decades of civil war. When soldiers from the Kmer Rouge marched through Phnom Penh after the 1975 ceasefire, they were warmly welcomed by most Cambodians, who thought it was finally the fresh start they had hoped for. It was in fact the beginning of "one of the most barbaric social restructurings ever attempted" (thanks Lonely Planet). Within hours, every civilian in Phnom Penh and the neighboring cities was driven into the countryside by force and (if they survived the journey) made to work on the land for up to 15 hours a day. The idea was to start from scratch. Anyone who had any qualification or skill apart from those that would be useful to farming would be tortured into giving false confessions and exterminated. Anyone with any sort of suspected intellect was systematically wiped out. The moment the Kmer Rouge took power was declared year 0. Hospitals, schools, roads (and all cars), railways, banks, relgious buildings were all destroyed. It's estimated that over 1.7 million people were killed (either through exhaustion/starvation or execution) before Cambodian rebels and Vietnamese forces arrived in Phnom Penh 4 years later. I had heard of Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) and knew he was no teddy bear, but I feel really naive and stupid to have had absolutely no idea of what had occurred here just a generation ago. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is based in a former school which became the most notorious prison in the country. Around 20,000 people are thought to have been imprisoned here. There are only 15 known survivors. This was just one of 158 prisons and detention camps that are known to have existed under the Kmer Rouge. 2 of the 15 were there to answer visitors questions while we were there. The audio guide repeatedly warns visitors of the extremely graphic content they are about to see and hear and advises they go and sit outside for short breaks in between sections.


Apologies, back to transport very soon! Unfortunately, the only other main attraction, the Royal Palace and The Sliver Pagoda were closed the day we had planned to visit them so the King could pray without being disturbed, or something! Phnom Penh is an interesting place and signs of rapid change and modernisation are everywhere. It appears I forgot to take any photos while we were though!


ANYWAY, back to the trains!! We planned to stay a day longer than we did in Phnom Penh, but couldn't pass up the opportunity to continue or journey North on one of Cambodia's only rail services! After the Kmer Rouge were forced out of power in the late 1970s, a rail service did return but suffered from sporadic guerrilla attacks from the traces of what was left of Pol Pot's supporters. The network fell gradually into disrepair before all rail services were suspended in 2009. In 2016 a service was finally restored from Pnom Penh to the port Sihanoukville (recently in the news because that was where that virus affected cruise ship was finally allowed to dock) and this runs once a day. Even more recently and more useful for the overland traveler was the restoration of services on the line North to Poipet on the Thai border. This only runs once a week, hence the change in itinerary. I was surprised to be able to book online on the Royal Railways of Cambodia website. When I did, I chose two seats in one of 7 available carriages, so was very surprised when this turned up...!


This elderly diesel railcar arrived recently from Mexico and was supposed to be used on the very recently opened line to Phnom Penh airport, about 35 minutes away. Today though, it formed the weekly service to Poipet, a journey of approximately 12-13 hours! It was a comfortable enough journey, with air conditioning and newly fitted seating and thankfully there were only about 15 passengers at most all day! The track was in quite a poor state and at two locations, one of the 5 or 6 members of staff on board had to get out to make sure we weren't dragging down electric cables that had been left hanging 6 foot from the ground across the track! Despite running quite late, the lunch stop was observed at Pursat and all crew and passengers dissembarked to buy food from the locals. A wide range of dried meat and fish, rice, watermelons and (we suspect) fermented eggs were on offer. We left the train at Battambang at around 16:00. One of the wierdest train journeys I have ever been on!


After checking into our hotel we set off for what was (for me at least!) the main event in Battambang! During decades in which either a very limited rail service or none at all existed in Cambodia and with the roads in such a poor state, enterprising locals living near the tracks took matters into their own hands. Wheels and a small engine were fitted to a few bits of wood and the bamboo carts were born. The brake leaver is another piece of wood and if you meet another cart coming the other way one of them can simply be lifted off to allow the other to pass. Now that the roads are vastly improved, they mainly serve as a way for idiot tourists like us to have some fun! Their time, at this location at least is limited. Incredibly, we travelled about 7km on exactly the same stretch of track that we had just arrived into Battambang on (on a real train)! Royal Railways are expected to clamp down on them when the Phnom Penh to Poipet service is finally increased from once a week. On top of this, the stretch we went on goes right across an under construction dual carriageway. There are plans however to lay a stretch of track elsewhere in the region for use purely as a tourist attraction and some articles I have found online suggest this may already have happened. I'm really glad we were able to use the mainline though. Not sure what Network Rail health and safety would have to say!!


Another early night in Battambang before another early start. We had decided to go against most of the advice online and take the boat from Battambang to Siem Reap along the Sangker River. The journey can be done by bus in 3-4 hours. The boat we took takes 6-9 hours, at ៛88 (£17) costs 3 times as much as the bus, has no toilet and only stops once for a comfort break! Apart from all that we were hesitant because there are some horror stories online of it getting stuck and even one where everyone was made to get out into the mud and push! Thankfully though that didn't happen and it turned out to be one of the highlights so far. The locals sat on the seats underneath. The idiot tourists sat in the blazing sun on the roof all day but had a much better view. We sat on old tyres and sacks that were being transported. We're in the middle of the dry season and the boat crew navigated the narrow, shallow sections with impressive skill. At times the river was so low the propeller at the back barely seemed to be fully submerged. We got stuck twice but only a long wooden pole was needed to free us! It was incredible to see a different way of life along the river with houses, churches, temples, schools and everything else you would expect, all either floating or cleverly designed to float once the water levels rise again. For a time towards the end we went past loads of alegator farms with dozens of them splashing about just inches from families having their lunch! We made it to the outskirts of Siem Reap at about 15:30 (8 hours after leaving Battambang) and took an auto-rickshaw for the final 8km to the hotel.


The temples at Angkor are SouthEast Asia's premier attraction, in fact in the late 17th century they were amongst the first localities to offer free Wi-Fi and develop a social media presence. According to Lonely Planet they are "...one of the World's most magnificent and foremost ancient sights... better even than the superlatives... with the epic proportions of the Great Wall of China, the detail and intricacy of the Taj Mahal and the symbolism and symmetry of the pyramids, all rolled into one".
After checking into the hotel and getting clean (we were filthy from the boat journey) we set off for the ticket counters 7km away. Tickets bought after 17:00 are valid the following day so allow two sunsets and a sunrise (for the determined tight fisted Yorkshireman). After watching the sunset we had an evening in Siem Reap followed by a early night then up at 04:30 the following day to catch the sunrise. We did our best in the suffocating heat but gave up after about 9 hours having only managed a fraction of the sites included in the ticket and went back to the hotel for some air conditioning! The temples are spread across an enormous area and many have really steep steps to climb. Just as in Vietnam we have been lucky that the crowds normally experienced here are much smaller than usual at this time of year because so many people seem to have been put off travelling. None of the photos we have come remotely close to doing the epic scale and incredible detailing of the temples any justice whatsoever, but here is a selection...

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng...

Dawn at Angkor Wat

Angkor Thom South Gate



Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King

Chau Say Tevoda Temple

Thommanon Temple

Ta Prohm
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Probably, by the time you read this we will be on our way to Bangkok having got up for our 5th stupidly early start on the bounce. Definitely time for a bit of lie in tomorrow. In favour of doing as much by train as reasonably possible we have shunned the possibility of a direct bus and instead will be taking a bus to Poipet, walking into Thailand and then onto a train from Ban Khlong Luk to Bangkok. We have been warned to allow up to two hours for border formalities. We have 2 and half IF the bus is on time so it's a little bit tight. We're going to miss Cambodia and we're sad that we have had to rush through so much but we need to get to Bangkok in time for Emma's flight home on Thursday night.

The Corona virus continues to cause trouble in my tracks! 2 and a half weeks ago I was on a train traveling through Daegu, a city now in complete lockdown! I have just received an email from Passepartout John who is now in South Korea himself. He's understandably worried as he is flying home via Vietnam who are quarantining anyone arriving from there for two weeks! Good luck John whatever you decide to do! That's it for now, sorry it was a long rambling entry. Next one will be in a week or so.

Posted by around129 16:11 Archived in Cambodia

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- just speechless - will say more when I can think of something other than 'wow'

by RayEliz

Great - Elizabeth has just had a look at your notes and photographs. She is speechless too. It is nice for me to be experiencing such a quiet day!
Safe travels ….

by RayEliz

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