February 01, 2003

Bokor by train and bike (from Phnom Penh, via Kampot)

Saturday morning several of us got up at about 5 am or so to begin a trip that could have been done in as little as 3 hours by taxi, but instead ended up taking us about 12 hours. The interesting (crazy?) part is that we actually chose to take a much slower travel option: the train. I had been wanting to try the Cambodian train system for quite a while and finally talked several friends into doing it. Jonathan (ADRA Volunteer), Ross (Australian peanut butter maker and English teacher), Komrong (Cambodian medical student girlfriend of Ross), Quinton (here for a 3 week field study from Avondale College in Australia) and I arrived at the train station by motorbike taxi at about 6 am. We had checked with people at the train station twice the day before to find out about schedules. The first time we were informed that no trains would be going because they only travel every other day in the direction we wanted to go. The second time we were told that a freight train would be leaving before 7 am and we could ride in a box car if we came early enough to catch it. Upon arrival at the train station we were initially informed that the train was in fact going, but that it wouldn’t be leaving until 9 am now. While waiting we had a little breakfast and decided to start planning for the second phase of our trip, dirt bike rental. We called a shop in Kampot, our train trip destination and they said that they had some bikes left for us. When we called back to reserve them, they had already been rented to someone who just came in to the shop. Since it didn’t look like we’d be getting bikes from Kampot we decided to ask the train station officials if we could take bikes with us on the train. They agreed to do it for a total of $2.50 per person including a bike each (for us foreigners, Khmers ride for 50 cents). We then walked a block or two to a bike rental shop that turned out to be closed for the Chinese New Year holiday. We roused the shop owner and he wasn’t interested in renting to us.
tuktuk to train
Not easily defeated, we hired a three wheeled motorcycle like vehicle to take the 5 of us to a couple of other rental shops. One was sold out, one had bikes but said they were already reserved for others and a third was closed. We headed back to the train station with no bikes, the backup plan being to check again on arrival with the shop at our destination and rent a car or pickup instead if they were still sold out. The train guys were ready to load our bikes, but we re-negotiated to go without bikes and pay $1.50 each instead. We put our bags on the train and got on, but after just a few minutes were told to go back into the waiting area at the station. After going back and forth for a while, it turned out that the station master wouldn’t let us foreigners ride the train. Back in 1994 when the Khmer Rouge were still at large a couple of foreigners had been kidnapped (and eventually killed) from the train so I guess the man in charge was a bit jittery. The officials actually riding on the train however were more than willing to take us and suggested that we could meet the train at the next stop, a few kilometers down the line. Back outside the train station we flagged down another 3 wheeled motor bike taxi to take us to the next train station and sure enough, it was no problem at all to board the train there. By the time we were actually under way on the train it was about 10:15 am and we had been awake for 5 hours.

relaxing on the train
The train ride itself was very scenic although we all agreed it would be even more scenic in the wet season when the rice paddies would be green. This time of year they were all brown, but we still enjoyed watching the countryside roll by. The most unique scenery came towards the end of the trip when we passed through some interesting hills and rock formations. You can see some similar hills from the road, but the train passes by many more of them and travels much closer to them as well. Our “seats” on the train consisted of a disintegrating box car with most of the side walls and some of the floor boards missing. We also rode on top of a fuel car part of the time where we enjoyed a panoramic open air view. These cars made up the majority of our train and there was one in front of our box car for easy access. I think most of the fuel cars were empty since the fuel is usually hauled from the port to Phnom Penh, although it seems the train operators may have been selling a little bit of excess fuel along the way (which somehow didn’t get offloaded in Phnom Penh with the rest like it should have). During the trip we all took naps and enjoyed some of Ross’s peanut butter with bread for lunch. Although it was a long trip, we all enjoyed it and were glad we had waited for the train.

We eventually arrived in the provincial capital of Kampot at around 5:30 pm where we opted to walk in to town after the moto drivers quoted us the price of 25 cents for Khmers and $1 for foreigners. We had been sitting all day and the walk of about a mile sounded pretty good to us by then. In town we went directly to the motor bike rental shop and since we arrived later in the day than we originally thought we would, some bikes had been returned and we were able to rent them for $5 each. Another bonus of being late was that we only had to pay for one 24 hour day instead of two like we had thought about doing initially. On the downside we didn’t get to spend the night in Bokor National Park like we had hoped, but instead stayed in Kep a nearby coastal town. We could see the ocean from our guesthouse, but the sea was calm so there weren’t any waves to hear during the night. We also saved some money on lodging since the price of $5 per room worked out to be considerably cheaper than the $5 per person we were expecting to pay in Bokor. After a short after-dark walk to see the ocean, we all enjoyed showers and a good nights sleep.

In the morning we got up, drove along the coast and back to Kampot where we purchased food for breakfast and lunch from the market. After eating a picnic breakfast of hard boiled eggs and baguettes (bread) we got on our rented dirt bikes and headed for Bokor National Park. I’ve already written about Bokor a couple of times before since I’ve been there twice already, so I won’t write too much about the sights now. There was a lot more traffic this time than on previous visits because of the Chinese New Year holiday and we had ‘fun’ trying to pass all of the slow moving vehicles on the way up the mountain. We had lunch in the abandoned Casino/Hotel perched on the edge of a cliff, but the clouds didn’t clear to reveal the view on this visit. They have built several new bridges on the way to the waterfall since I was last there so now you can drive nearly the whole way (before you had to park and walk about 20 minutes to get there). The waterfall didn’t have much water in it though since the dry season is well under way here. Last time I was there we could actually swim in the large pools, but this time it was barely possible to get wet under the remaining trickle. When we were just about to begin our trip back down the mountain we discovered that one of the bikes had a flat tire. After trying to get the one tire repair guy on the mountain to come to the bike (he was running errands in town and wouldn’t be back until dark), we ended up contacting the bike rental shop owner who eventually agreed that we could drive the crippled bike to the guesthouse and leave it there. We actually hauled the bike in the back of a pickup part of the way, but had to drive it the last 3 km to the guesthouse since the pickup was headed down the mountain and not to the guesthouse. So, we went up the mountain on 4 bikes and came down on 3, playing musical chairs along the way to spread the ‘joy’ of riding double on the rough road. Thankfully we didn’t have any more mechanical trouble (unless you count a gas leak on my bike which necessitated switching to the reserve tank to make it the last few kilometers back to town).

We arrived in Kampot just as it was getting dark and proceeded to look for a taxi. After trying several other options we negotiated the price of $25 for an entire taxi to take the 5 of us on the 3 hour trip home. However, just after we thought we had agreed on the deal the driver informed us that his wife also needed to come along to keep him company for the return trip. That would make for a total of 7 people in the car, only one less than the typical taxi load of 4 in front and 4 in back. We ended up telling them that we would either pay $25 without the wife or $20 with her which they agreed to so we were squashed but saved a dollar each on the ride to Phnom Penh (this price was still higher than normal because of the late time of day and the Chinese New Year holiday). We arrived home just after 10 pm, took showers and enjoyed another good nights sleep. Despite a few minor delays along the way we had a great weekend.

For more pictures from this trip see this photo album.

Posted by Andrew on February 1, 2003