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Train Surfing in Cambodia

Proper The Fugitive stuff, the movie I mean. Or could be from some old wild west flicks. Backs up the Cambodia wild west theme anyway…

The train ride from Cambodia’s second city, Battenbang, back to the capital Phnom Penh. Ticket costs $3, the locals pay about $1. I try the old student card again. I haven’t actually got one, but my scuba diving card usually works; it’s got my picture on anyway! Not this time. We don’t have seat numbers, but we have no intention of sitting on seats, so that’s not a problem. We buy some French sticks – a throwback to when the French owned Cambodia, god bless ‘em – and water. Then we climb on the roof. Yes, the roof. That’s not a typo.

It’s 7am. The train’s been here all night. One day it goes to Phnom Penh, the next day it returns to Battenbang. A 15-hour journey. The station is filled with the usual hawkers selling just about everything. The train was actually built in Australia and appears pretty much like any ordinary train, except it’s in a serious state of disrepair and there’s far too many people on board. It has maybe 10 carriages and every seat is taken; they even put up hammocks where they can, the best way to endure 15 hours on a Cambodian train!

We, a Dutch guy (Ron) and I, are the token foreign contingent. Been told by the backpacking community that the journey by train is unsafe, uncomfortable and unthinkable. The Lonely Bastard guidebook states along the lines of “Do not attempt this journey.” Well, like numerous restaurants and hotels I’ve tried to find, the guidebook is wrong, and it needs updating.

We join about 50 locals on the roof. The train is a mish-mash of carriages, some with dangerously curved and ribbed roofs. Others are comfortably flat. We select – sensibly, for it is my first ride on the roof of a train – a flat one. We set our bags down, stretch out and start making French stick jam sandwiches, acting just like veterans, acting like this is a perfectly normal way to travel.

Surprisingly enough, no it was more than that – gobsmacked, dumbfounded, damn right unfair. I was just digging into the pot of jam at the time and nearly lost it over the edge of the roof, about a 15-foot drop. The train leaves on-time! It’s only 300km to Phnom Penh; the train averages about 20-30 km an hour, just perfect for rooftop riding.

Leaving the city everyone’s understandably excited, it’s a big thing. They only see a train here every two days. People are already running the length of the train on the roof, leaping the carriages, having mock karate fights, actually punching each other and doing shoulder throws! The wild west twist to Cambodian train journeys. I just ain’t seen any AK-47’s yet. Someone must get one out soon. Ron and I, for the moment, are glued, white-knuckled to the roof air-vents.

Electricity cables span the line; unfortunately they don’t take into account stupid bastards riding on the roof. So every now and then everyone has to jump, flat-stomached to the roof. OOO’s and ARRHH’s are shouted, as some people, regular commuters on this train I guess, just duck their heads at the last minute to dodge a cable. No wonder there are so many power cuts!

Passengers reach out to grab huge banana leafs that over hang the track, to use to sit on. This is dangerous in it’s own right. Pick a young, healthy banana tree and the leaf will stay where it is and hoik you off the train. But these crazy fools actually fulfill a service, clearing the line of overhanging branches. Which if you are lying down with your head against one of the air-vents, pleasantly dosing in the sun, enjoying the tropical breeze, can smart you across the chops! I dole out cigarettes to pay them for their line-clearing services. If only British Rail would implement the roof riding idea, we would have no more “leaves on the line” delays.

The ticket inspector, in uniform and hat, actually scales on to the roof and walks the length of the train inspecting tickets, crouching to share cigarettes as he clips. There’s no bunking this train. That would be a dead cert in England. The inspector might search for you in the toilets, but never, never on the roof. Fruit, rice and beverage sellers soon join us, holding onto peoples shoulders as they try to entice us into making purchases. The views are amazing, rice paddies stretching as far as you can see on either side of the track. There’s not a building in sight.

I’m getting braver now. Or stupider. I’m doing the scene from Titanic, where Leonardo DiCaprio is on the front of the boat with his arms outstretched; “Near, far, where ever you are” – except I’ve got a jam sandwich in my hand, not Kate Winslet!

We are getting bored of doing piston impressions, standing and sitting. Time to explore. With a round of clapping from our fellow passengers, Ron and I take it in turns to chase imaginary baddies along the length of the train. It’s easier than it looks; I could be a stunt double. The leap between the carriages is only a few feet, you can actually step across. Course, it don’t look nearly as spectacular if you don’t leap and wave your arms and legs about. The only thing to be aware of are the sudden jolts as the train slows or speeds up. This really will put you off-balance, and you don’t want to be leaping carriages at that point. You have to be especially aware of this when the train is stationary at a town. As it pulls away the carriages rattle together, throwing quite a few people of balance. Fortunately the train’s whistle usually tells you of its eminent departure, and only the pros stay standing.

I took to sitting at the back of the last carriage, my legs dangling over the side, being grabbed, jokingly by the passengers below, just watching the track unfold beneath me. Every now and then, as if from nowhere a flat cart-thing would appear behind us on the track. Each was maybe the size of a double bed, with about 20 people on it, waving and laughing madly. They came from the towns we passed. The carts have small wheels and a diesel motor and are just placed on the track. Almost like a tag team, they speed along the track and actually hook onto the train, cut the engine for a free ride. Then they uncouple when they reach their destination. Pure genius. Who said; “There’s no such thing as a free ride”? or was that “Free lunch”?

We’d been on the roof about 10 hours when the wind built up. In Southeast Asia a strong wind means only one thing: It’s going to piss down, very heavily, in precisely five minutes. Up to that point we had been applying suncream very liberally. This damn, damn heat. Only mad dogs, Englishmen, Dutchmen and a few dozen Cambodians stay on the roof of a train in midday sun. I seriously think you could have fried an egg on that roof. It was smooth black steel, too hot to walk on with your shoes off or to move your sitting position.

All that was about to change. The sensible people tried to crow-bar themselves inside. Although it depends on how you define sensible, moving from the roof through the windows or down the back of a moving train, with luggage, was not to be taken lightly. We held our ground.

The heavens opened. I popped my umbrella and instantly made new friends. Five of us under a one-person umbrella on the roof of a moving train. We all got very, very wet. I should have been selfish, then at least one of us would be dry. Mind you then maybe they would have got the AK-47s out.

Not bad going though, five or six months travelling in the rainy season, only got caught out twice. But boy when you get caught out, it’s a swimming pool scenario. Passport, address book, all my money and clothes – soaked. It was too late now to even attempt to move, the roof was slippery, slick with rain. We actually slid about as the train jolted, and I lost count of the times I said, “I think we are approaching a station now.”

Half an hour later we finally stopped. Gratefully we descended from the roof. That’s when you really appreciate a cigarette.

We passed the last three or four hours sardined inside, in darkness. No such things as lights on Cambodian trains, so passengers bring torches. Actually it wasn’t that bad. A family nudged up and let the soaking foreigners share their seats. They were laughing openly as they pointed to us and then the roof. “You were out there?” I guess they were saying. “No, we are in the Olympic breaststroke team.” Don’t think they understood.

So I continue with my plan not to use the roads in Cambodia, as I’ve heard very bad stories about their condition.

Justin Pushman