The last time we were in this part of the world, we agreed that Cambodia was by far our favourite destination. Six years on, we were excited (and a little nervous) to find out how it had changed.
Phnom Penh, the capital, offers extremes and contrasts that leave you reeling: traffic of dystopian proportions; a jumble of poverty and wealth; friendly locals; ‘girlie bars’ (the more acceptable face of a local sex industry that gets much, much darker); delicious French food (duck terrine for dinner, anyone?); a very young population (average age, 23); flashes of colonial history around every corner; a thirst for education. And we were only there for one full day. We think we detected a general rise in affluence, certainly in the part of town we stayed, but will need to see more to be certain.
One very concrete change is the railway. It stopped running entirely during the war and upheavals of the 1970s. Afterwards, guerrilla activity and lack of money saw it slowly decline. Lately, development agencies and Australian rail companies have injected significant investment. The first regular passenger service out of Phnom Penh re-started in 2016, so we couldn’t miss using it to get to Kampot. And if you’ve been on a Cambodian bus, you’ll probably appreciate why we opted for a slightly longer but safer journey!
We were on the blue train (there’s also a yellow one), which means the seating is a long bank down either side of the carriage. It was a tumble of luggage, kids, locals, tourists and (joy) a big air conditioning unit at each end. We discovered there are just a few rules for Cambodian rail travel:
- It is perfectly acceptable for everyone to listen to music, watch TV and talk hands-free on their phone at top volume. Well, how else will you hear it over all the other phone noise? Duh.
- Eat constantly and from a bewildering array of food options. The family we were seated with managed to munch their way through the following courses in the first three hours: pringles, little pies, pot noodles, nuts, mango, lotus seeds, chicken legs, fried rice. It was quite a holiday atmosphere, and brought to mind childhood road picnics – warm sandwiches and squash in the back of a hot car, while sticking to vinyl seats.
- Language is not a barrier – everyone smiled and laughed, pointed out of the window and were generally congenial while barely exchanging a word.
It took four and a half hours to get to Kampot. Luckily, the air con only broke down about four hours in. Result.