All aboard on the Royal Cambodian Railways
The chance to explore Cambodia by rail is an exciting new development for visitors.
For decades, Cambodia’s rail system has operated intermittently. Being affected by wars and neglect, the trains and railways sat idle. But in recent years, the railway has re-opened their boxcars.
Built during French colonial rule in the 1930s, the first line which runs from Phnom Penh to Poipet on the Thai border was constructed between 1930 and 1940. Phnom Penh Railway station also opened during the same decade in 1932.
After Cambodia gained independence in 1953, France, West Germany and China bankrolled the second stretch of track in the south from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville via Takeo and Kampot, which was used to ferry goods to Sihanoukville port – now the gateway to Cambodia’s tropical islands and the mangrove forests of Ream National Park.
Rail services came to a halt again in the 1970s during the height of the Vietnam War and didn’t resume until the early 1980s, but services continued to be disrupted by Khmer Rouge guerrilla activities, bringing passenger train services to an end.
Now the future of Cambodia’s railway system looks much brighter. As of 2016, the Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville line has reopened, and the original northern line from Poipet to Phnom Penh also resumed services last year, passing through the rural towns of Sisophon, Battambang and Pursat.
Clattering along at just over 50 km/h, the refurbished 1960s rolling stock is certainly not built for speed, but this is part of the charm of cross-country train travel and in Cambodia it’s now one of the best ways to enjoy the glorious rural countryside.
While the 11-hour ride by train from Poipet to Phnom Penh is a delight – passing through historical Battambang on the tranquil Sangkae River – the shorter five-hour journey from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville is also an enjoyable option, and one that showcases some of Cambodia’s most beautiful landscape, including the vast rice plains of Takeo Province, known as the ‘cradle of Khmer civilization’ where the ancient Funan Empire once flourished.
The train also stops in the former French colonial town of Kampot, before crossing the wide, slow-moving Praek Tuek Chhu River. Country life along the river banks here has changed little in a century, and from the train, the town’s picturesque riverfront and stunning Bokor Mountains really make for a memorable train journey.
The line uses French rolling stock and sometimes new, single-unit rail cars built in Mexico, but all the carriages are comfortable and have air conditioning. If you’re a true lover of train journeys and the peace of mind they bring to the travel experience, then you’ll certainly want to set aside some time to make this slow trip through the rural Cambodian countryside.
For more information on train travel in Cambodia and other novel experiences, get in touch with us at: [email protected].