Why take a 24-hour train over a 4-hour bus?

Because it’s the last running train in Cambodia. Because it’s packed with locals transporting fruit to the capital. Because you can ride on the roof!

Cambodia train roof

The train from Battambang to Phnom Penh used to run three times a week, but these days goes just once on Sunday. We took a taxi 150 km for the privilege.

When the lady changing money outside the station (who gave me an unbelievably fair rate) needed more Rial, she picked up her cell phone, and within one minute three dudes swooped in on motorbikes from separate directions and handed her huge wads of cash.

$1 is worth roughly 4000 Rial, and the biggest bill is the 10,000 note, so your pockets fill up quickly. In exchange for a guaranteed seat, foreigners are charged roughly 5x the normal rate. Even so, it was only $6.

We loaded up into the last car and spaced out the seats, which had been detached from the floor and stacked in a pile.

Wandering through the other cars, most of the seats were occupied by durians, lychees, bags of charcoal, and the women transporting them. The only men on the train were the railway police.

As the train left the station, the overgrown tree limbs on either side of the train started scraping along the train and snapping into the open windows. They say the last maintenance on the track was 8 years ago.

Having read about the roof, I headed up the ladder between cars. Rice paddies and fields stretched as far as I could see, mountains on the horizon. Some kids had clambered up after me. Ty saw my shadow and came up a few minutes later.

Soon everyone was up and enjoying the morning sun. We jumped from car to car, thinking of Indiana Jones.

The train bounced and rocked from side to side, but at the 17 km/hr top speed (Ty measured with GPS) we kept our footing even on the roof. Then the train stopped.

We looked around – no station in sight.

All the men congregated in front of our car, which had somehow gotten enough air to jump the next one’s bumper.

One of the guys tried in vain to separate them and they radioed the locomotive to try starting quickly and jerking them apart. No sweat. The train rolled on, past paddies, villages, and some of the cutest kids we’d ever hope to see.

It moved so slowly that we couldn’t resist jumping out and running next to the train. Outrunning it wasn’t hard and the kids joined in.

As we left Pursat, one of the policemen asked us to move to the next car “for our safety,” though seats among the durians and dragonfruits were scarce.

After we’d moved up, I glanced back toward our previous seats and saw logs filling up the now-empty car. Safety, huh?

Nori, aka bamboo trains, are little cars rigged up using spare tank parts, train axles, bamboo, and go-kart engines. Since the tracks are essentially unused, villagers travel and carry cargo with nori. And now one was behind our train, offloading logs into our former digs WHILE WE WERE MOVING!

Didn’t get a photo, but here’s what they look like.

One after the other, four of these things stacked high with wood pulled up to the back of the train to make a contribution. That was just the beginning.

When we pulled into the next village, there were huge stacks of logs everywhere and a lot of eager-looking people . The second we stopped, they started loading into the boxcar, on the flat car, into our old car, and on the roof! The women seemed to be doing most of the work as usual.

Though we were already hours behind schedule at this point, the train started before the wood loaders had finished. They hustled to get the last few logs stacked up. I’m proud to say moving trains have never kept me from my wood loading either.

We also had to watch out for the fruit. Bags full of it would appear in the windows, passed up by old ladies that could break Ty in half.

This repeated itself for every stop in the next few hours until the train was packed to the gills.

The sun started to set, so we went back up top and found the wood guys perched on their stacks. The paddies reflected everything.

Back in the cars, everyone was getting into sleeping position. The kid next to me curled up on a bag of charcoal. The woman on the other side climbed into her hammock.

Ty strung his up and made a hilarious contraption with cot poles. If he’d fallen, it would have been into a load of durian. I put mine safely out of range and locked myself in with a carabiner.

When we stopped around 5 am, the sun was coming up and the wood and fruit were being unloaded. Another hour and change and we were rolling into Phnom Penh.

Houses (using the term loosely) line the railway, and people were out bright and early eating and walking around.

A full 24 hours after we’d left Battambang, we rolled into the station for an average speed just over 12 km/hr.

It felt like we saw a lot of the Cambodian spectrum, going between its two biggest cities and seeing the towns, villages, and people in between. Traveling overland here may be a little short on comfort, but you’ll see things you wouldn’t have by air, bus, or car.

The train and track have been deteriorating steadily for years, so if you’re in the area and on the fence, go for it. If the holes in the roof, walls, and floor are any indicator, one of these days it’s going to fall apart. Hope you catch it before that.