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Cambodia's train back in time, by Tristan Rutherford

Daily Telegraph, March 2018​

Phnom Penh railway station radiates the ghosts of passengers past. It’s a gigantic white wedding cake where signs point commuters to consignes and toilettes. The destinations listed above most of the guichets are optimistic. After Cambodian dictator Pol Pot held court on the concourse in 1975 only a few lamentable carriages continued to totter around the network until 2002. Now a bugling peep from the platform edge suggests there’s a gentler revolution in train. 

Two trainsets painted with a thick shell of blue gloss twinkle in the afternoon sun. Like the SNCF Autotrain service that carries vehicles from Paris to Nice, here cars and scooters toot onto wagons to be pulled gently towards the sea. They recently carried a Rolls-Royce. The passenger carriages were built in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Like renovated hotel rooms, each one contains fitted carpets, air conditioning units, ceiling spot lights and, plugged into a socket, the sort of WiFi router that sits atop your address book at home. 

Our departure time is strictly adhered to. There are simply no other trains on the network so we don’t have to wait for the late running of the 8.10 from Eastbourne. With a lickety-click we’re off.

Our destination is the Cambodian Riviera. Although the French left Indochina in 1954, the country’s Francophone elite continued to sip Sancerre on the Gulf of Thailand shore. (The French also built the line to the Thai border, due to reopen in 2020, which will allow trains to run all the way to Singapore.) As this route hasn’t run for 14 years it scythes through a cross-section of urban life like a clinking voyeur. It sees backyard barbeques. People doing dishes. Makeups, breakups and dusty games of football. Then the wagons sway out of the city limits like an angry boxer and pummel through jungle scrub.

Dusk brings a timeless portrait of South East Asia. Silhouetted palms and rice paddies that glow ochre in the winnowing twilight. Calves run alongside our irregular service, while their mothers chew on with world-weary indifference. Rural life travels by bicycle, not car. Goods by tuktuk, not truck. When the train stops, all is silent. You can even open the carriage doors for added birdsong and the occasional monkey shriek. Then stay perched there as the train picks up pace, and the 21st century is airbrushed away like the warm wind on your face.

A plunging sunset offers a violent ball of red. Moments later the tropical darkness heralds dinner. We putter into Takeo station for fast food. Here that means chicken legs and boiled eggs with salt from a communal shaker. Plus river fish spatchcocked over an open fire. There are tubes of crisps too, but not ready salted. Only squid and berry flavours, with 50p cans of Angkor lager to accompany. I wash my hands in the spotless toilet (‘serviettes utilisées’) as the little train wanders into the humid night.

Old elites alighted at the colonial outpost of Kampot. Now the riverine town is a place where backpackers come to die. Silver-haired travellers who once ate apple pie in Afghanistan can take an Airbnb apartment, attend evening yoga or sip sunset G&Ts while reading Albert Camus, albeit on their Kindles. The rococo riverside strip is charming. Under droning fans one can savour steak-frites, play vingt-et-un or indulge in a £7 massage. It’s as if a French colon could bluster in at any moment and sink a pastis.

My destination the next morning is even more chic. In a return to the swinging sixties the reinstated train will also call at Kep-sur-Mer later in 2018, but until then it’s a 30-minute bus ride from Kampot. Before the Khmer Rouge, this beach town was Cambodia’s Deauville. I hire a bicycle of the Parisian sit-up-and-beg variety for a tour.

 

Kep-sur-Mer's ostentatious villas host more ghosts than Phnom Penh train station. Derelict art deco dreams gaze seaward like abandoned ocean liners. One has a rubber tree growing through the middle. Another Normandy chateau sits strafed but unbowed, with fleur-de-lis ceramic borders guarding the overgrown perimeter. During Cambodia’s ‘Golden Age’, before King Sihanouk was exiled in 1970, a casino hosted games of chemin de fer.

Cambodia’s modern elite adore Kep-sur-Mer. They crowd the blissful beach with its imported white sand. Many hit the seafood restaurants – the town is famous for its sweet crabs – built on stilts over the emerald sea. Others recline inside a uniquely Kep invention. These are open-sided platforms, built seaside to catch the breeze, and rented by the day. Half the family can picnic on mats, while the rest doze in hammocks strung even high above, a duplex if you will. Scooter hire, dive schools and fried banana stalls usher in a new breed of tourists. The welcome memo was evidently not read by a family of macaque monkeys. From the branches of a carob tree they lob seeds at nouveaux riches applying sun block in an attempt to stay pale in the tropical heat.

I ride the £4 return boat to Rabbit Island. That’s a 30-minute splash through limpid sea with a family of queasy Cambodian landlubbers. They are as pleased as I am to see the nodding palms and lines of hammocks along a half-mile of golden sand. Snorkels are a dollar a day. A bungalow with a ceiling fan and mosquito net doesn’t cost much more. At 10pm the generator ceases, rendering the island as tranquil as a rural train stop.

 

The lights never went out at Ile des Ambassadeurs, King Sihanouk’s former private island, where feted nabobs were fed local crab and imported Champagne. Nor does the partying stop at the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc a few miles away. TUI started direct flights here from Gatwick in 2017, meaning I could trade a Robinson Crusoe lifestyle for rural Sussex in one swift move. A sobering thought.

My flight home is from Phnom Penh. The morning train from Kampot illuminates the picture I missed by night. Temple wats in jungle. The green sheen of paddy. Naked children swim in rivers, with water buffalo not far behind. The air-con is set to freeze so I open a train door and watch Cambodia in 3D. With another lickety-click four hours pass in seconds, before we arrive to the tick-tock of a Tissot station clock made in Paris.

Tristan Rutherford won a British Guild of Travel Writers award for this story