The train to Sihanoukville is running again after a 14-year hiatus. Photograph: Xinhua/SIPA USA
Trains are again running to and from the Cambodian capital and popular destinations in the south – including jumping-off points for unspoilt islands
Saturday morning and Phnom Penh’s French-built station is buzzing as excited groups board the inaugural passenger train from Cambodia’s capital to the coastal town of Sihanoukville. After 14 years, regular rail services between the two cities restarted in May – offering a safer option than road for travellers aiming for some beach time.
“This should be much more fun than the bus,” says 30-year-old Ouk Sivonshe. “No crazy driving!”
Twenty minutes after we’ve left the city, the views from the large windows are of bucolic scenes synonymous with the lower Mekong region – water buffalo ploughing fields, palm trees and, in rainy season at least, green rice fields as far as one can see.
The service, which currently runs from Friday to Sunday – plus extra dates for national holidays – uses two refurbished trains, holding around 200 passengers each. The 266km journey to and from the coast takes 6½ hours, but this will be cut by two hours later this year – matching the bus journey time, and at almost half the price of some bus tickets. Passengers’ motorbikes, and even cars, can be transported on the train at an additional cost.
So right … Koh Rong island – a boat trip from Sihanoukville. Photograph: Alamy
For now, the train stops at two stations between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville: Takeo, two hours south of the capital, and home to some little-visited Angkor temple ruins; and Kampot, another two hours on.
On the edge of Bokor national park, Kampot is a peaceful coastal town, famous for its pepper and salt farms. It is undergoing something of a revival, with a handful of new guesthouses and restaurants forcing older places to up their game. Kool Kampot is a new hostel with a riverside location (its address is simply: Riverside), and Portuguese seafood restaurant Tertúlia (Tuek Chhu Road) is already proving popular. Tiny Cafe Espresso, known for its coffees and brunches, has just started brewing its own cider and ginger beer – worth the pilgrimage.
Buddhist monks board. Photograph: Alamy
Nearby Kep, once the playground of Cambodia’s elite, has largely recovered from the ravages of the Khmer Rouge era, and some of the renovated villas are opening as guesthouses. Walks in Kep national park, home to macaque monkeys, build up an appetite for dinner at Kep’s famous crab market.
Those following the line to the end at Sihanoukville, named after the former King Sihanouk, can stay to enjoy the lively port city, or jump on a boat to the islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem – the latter light on modern amenities and with miles of near-empty golden sand.
With train travel in neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam featuring on many visitors’ itineraries, Cambodia’s gentle resumption of passenger services is bound to be popular. The restoration of a second line, linking Phnom Penh with the northern border city of Poipet – from where twice-daily trains run to Bangkok – is due to finish in February 2017, and prime minister Hun Sen is proposing a new line to Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat. The newfound enthusiasm for railways in the kingdom looks set to continue.
• A one-way ticket from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville costs $7; Phnom Penh to Kampot $6. Buy tickets at Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville stations, or via Royal Railway at +855 078 888 582
Source: The Guardian