Cambodia: Sitting In A Puddle On A Train

Derek Cambodia, Travel Tales 25 Comments


“Hello,” the young man shyly whispered after tapping me on the shoulder several times.

“Hello,” I replied somewhat groggily.

“Thank you,” he then said before turning around and victoriously running back to his group of friends who showered him with endless high-fives and pats on the back. My morning nap had been interrupted but I couldn’t help but smile.

I glanced around and sure enough, I was still surrounded by the same 150 Cambodians as when I had fallen asleep. We were all waiting for the same train, the only train of the day. And the train was late.

Five hours late so far. Not five hours late arriving at its destination, but five hours late in arriving at the station to begin the journey. Not one of the handful of staff at the train station could provide any details as to where the train might be, so I had no choice but to sit in the 110 degree heat, sweat myself thin and wait.

The train was scheduled to leave Kampot at 9:00am for the six hour trip to the capital city of Phnom Penh. Regular buses covered the distance in only three hours, but I had been in the mood for something different. And still sitting in Kampot when I could have already been in Phnom Penh was definitely different.

12:00pm…1pm….2pm….all came and went as I passed the time in and out of sleep, eating what appeared to be skewers of grilled chicken buttocks and engaging in basic Khmer conversation with the friendly people who approached me out of curiosity.

THE WHISTLE

But alas! At 3:10pm, the loud, undeniable whistle of a train! As I stood up in anticipation, I observed a rusted locomotive pass by, followed by cargo car after cargo car. All I could see was a quarter-mile long train of cargo cars.

“Wrong train,” I concluded and quickly sat back down. But then I noticed something strange – everyone else around me was gathering their belongings and gravitating en masse to the edge of the train.

My conclusion was immediately proven incorrect as I watched a teenage boy climb up the side of one of the cargo cars, using the holes and dents in the metal to propel himself towards the top. He swung his legs over the edge and landed on the light blue tarp that covered whatever goods were being transported. The boy then reached over the edge with a blanket and helped pull his mother, sister and father up the side as well.

I looked to my left and I looked to my right and observed dozens of people climbing up the sides of over ten different cargo cars. Five year old children, elderly men and women and even a woman with two babies strapped to her back carried on as if this was the only known method of boarding a train in the world.

Not wanting to remain in Kampot for the rest of my life, I walked over to one of the cars and tried to map out a climbing route. I looked up and saw the widely smiling face of a young man hanging over the edge looking straight down at me. He motioned for me to throw my backpack up to him and without hesitation I did. And then he motioned for me to climb, as he clapped and shouted encouragements (I assume they were encouragements!) in Khmer as other passengers poked their heads over the edge and joined in.

Without too much trouble, I reached the top and tried to stand on the unsteady blue tarp, full of crooked hills and deep valleys resulting from the what appeared to be haphazardly organized cargo underneath. Walking on it was like walking on a bouncing trampoline and I chose to crawl over to where my bag had been placed instead. Five minutes later the train left the station.

THE JOURNEY

Unique scenery this ride most certainly did provide. More scenery than anyone could ever possibly want from a train ride. Once the train inched out of the station at a speed of approximately 5 miles per hour, it remained at that speed for the entire duration of the trip.

The train moved so slowly that throughout the evening, passengers casually climbed down the side of the train, jumped off, relieved themselves in the nearby forest and then jogged back to their car and climbed up again – all while the train was moving!

Picking up additional passengers and purchasing food from the food stalls scattered along the way were also done in the same manner. Each time we rolled through a tiny village, a handful of new passengers would climb on board and a few hungry passengers would climb down, grab some snacks and climb back on.

At one point, a train conductor actually came around, stumbling over the tarp himself, in order to collect the train fare. However, he walked right by me without asking for any money. Due to an out-dated Khmer Rouge-era law, foreigners were not to be charged for government-operated transportation. This certainly wasn’t a generous gesture of the Khmer Rouge, but instead, a way to ban foreigners from moving around the country. Why nobody had changed the rule in the years since the reign of the Khmer Rouge had ended, I have no idea.

As soon as the sun set, the darkness left everyone with no option but to lie down and stare at the star-filled sky. It was the only option, that is, until the stars suddenly disappeared and the rain began to fall…and fall hard.

Almost every passenger had nestled into one of the more comfortable ‘valleys’ in the tarp, so it didn’t take long for all of us to find ourselves sitting in waist-deep puddles. At one point I tried to shift my position slightly, but this caused a not insignificant amount of water from my personal puddle to pour over onto the man next to me. So, for fear of drowning a small child, I just sat there motionless, occasionally letting out a slight burst of laughter at the situation.

THE GUNSHOTS

The rain fell for about an hour, which was more than enough to ensure that I would remain soaked through my clothes until whatever time we might finally arrive at our destination.

That time turned out to be 2:00am. The scattered lights of the outskirts of Phnom Penh eventually gave way to the city center and as soon as the station was in sight, the people around me began packing up their belongings and inching towards the edge of the car.

And naturally, nobody waited for the train to come to a complete stop before tossing their bags and boxes onto the platform and climbing down themselves. I stood up, squeezed as much water out of my shirt as possible and grabbed my backpack.

Then came the gunshots from within the train station. Three shots were fired and then after a few seconds, two more. People instinctively hid behind walls, laid down on the ground or ran as fast as they could down empty train tracks away from the station.

Two dozen police officers immediately rushed onto the platform to prevent anyone else from climbing down from the top of the train. Two more gunshots were heard from inside the station. I dropped my backpack back on the tarp and took a seat once again.

I had finally reached my destination, but in Cambodia, as I’ve now learned is the case with every adventure we embark on in life, reaching your destination does not indicate that your journey has come to an end.



Have you reached this conclusion as well? Do the journeys we begin ever end?

Since 1999 I've been traveling and living around the world nonstop. Sign up below for personal stories, real advice and useful updates from my adventures. Only good stuff, no nonsense.

Are you ready to earn money and travel?

How to Work on a Cruise Ship and Travel eBooksClick above and get started!

Comments 25

  1. Cody

    Riding on cargo trains is one of those legendary beatnik type of experiences that you dream about and imagine as reaching the point of ultimate freedom. Unfortunately the reality is actually extremely uncomfortable and rather a regrettable experience. However the STORY you are able to tell afterwards is usually worth the pain you went through and in that light, the regret vanishes…after a few years.

    And this is my cargo train story…
    I did it in the States when I was a crazy teenager traveling around the U.S., we hopped a moving cargo train somewhere in Arizona and rode for hours sitting on the floor of the empty car with our feet hanging out watching the scenery go by. When the train stopped, we jumped off, only to realize we were in the middle of the desert somewhere with no paved road in sight. All our water was gone and we walked for hours, completely lost until we came to what could only be described as a sort of a ghost town. A tumbleweed actually rolled past in front of us as we entered this place and there were about half a dozen very skinny dogs just hanging around with no collars or signs of domestication at all. We could barely speak our mouths were so dry as we came to an elementary school that seemed to be empty.. but there in front of the school was some kind of miracle. A soda machine stood and to our eyes it was shining and glittering like a god of hydration and compassion. We walked up to it reverently only to find out that our salvation only cost 50 cents. I pulled out a dollar bill but realized there was no place to insert it. It was one of those older machines that only took quarters. We emptied our pockets. No quarters. We opened our backpacks and turned them upside down, dumped everything out on the ground. No quarters. What a cruel god of hydration this was…to offer this relief but not fulfill its promise, to laugh at our suffering. We went around this frighteningly quiet ghost town trying to find a person who would be willing to give us 4 quarters for a dollar bill. At last we found a small boy who seemed to appear out of nowhere. He seemed to already know what we wanted but we asked him anyway. And yes he did have quarters. But only 2. Would we be willing to trade one dollar for 2 quarters losing half the value of our money? You bet, we were willing. The boy gave us the 2 quarters, took our dollar bill, and ran off with a wry smirk on his face, obviously pleased with his earnings. We felt cheated. But only for a moment. In the next moment, we experienced nirvana when the taste of Dr. Pepper touched our lips, rolled smoothly down our throats, and quenched our thirst.

    Not as thrilling as your wet and rainy experience in Cambodia, but another cargo train story to tell, just the same.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Cody – That’s still quite a story for sure! As I was reading it, I felt a sudden urge to do some train hopping in the US myself 🙂

    2. Cody

      Hi Earl,
      I didn’t think my story would give anyone the urge to go train hopping, hehe.
      Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend it these days.
      It would be better to find an old hippie or folk song about train hopping and sing it in the shower while you are imagining that you’re train hopping.
      😉 Cody

  2. Keith Woods

    Hey Degsy,
    I remember bits of that but not as well as you. They were gunshots werent they? Forgot that. How did we get to the lake? Email me. In spain if youre travelling through?
    Keith

    1. Earl

      Hey Keith – Those were definitely gunshots! And if I remember correctly, we took motorbike taxis from the train station to the lake. I can recall speeding down the streets at night hoping we’d arrive without any problems!

  3. Todd D

    Hey Earl,

    Great website from what I’ve seen so far! I went to Cambodia a couple years ago and really enjoyed it. Something about the tropical, 3rd world country feel maybe.
    But did you ever hear of the Tuk Tuk drivers bringing their customers to the local gun range after the tour of all the temples?? Haha it was awesome. Here’s where you could have shown your AK-47 skills rather than in the Great Shanghai bar!
    I look forward to reading more!

    1. Earl

      Thanks for the comment Todd!

      I remember hearing about those gun ranges and people having a chance to use rocket launchers and grenades but I never went myself. The Great Shangai is the closest I’ve gotten to such weapons 🙂

  4. Adam

    What an amazing story. I was only meant to be on the internet for a couple of minutes but had to keep reading.

    Thanks for sharing -I’ve already found myself talking about this story today with friends.
    .-= Adam´s last blog ..How to Pay off Debt =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Adam – Sorry for keeping you on the internet longer than you were supposed to! But I’m happy that you enjoyed the story. If you ever make it over to Cambodia, be sure to take that train…I have a feeling its an adventure every single time it runs.

      Thanks so much for adding your comments!

  5. Pingback: Fun Friday Round-Up: New Blogs To Consume!

  6. Chris

    Earl,

    Great site. I have a cruise ship question. I’m thinking about working on a ship for six months to a year, and I noticed you worked on a ship for a while. Right now I’m a logistics officer in the US Army, so I’m sure I can apply some skills to ship life. Are there certain companies you recommend? What can I expect for pay? Do I have to sign a contract or can I do just six months?

    Thanks and keep up the good work!

    Chris

  7. Nelia

    I haven’t, actually. I’m more of motor bike type of chick. Where are you now? Or do I need to wait for your next post?

    Thanks for sharing your journey. I look forward to the next round!

    1. Earl

      At the moment I’m in Mexico as I’ve been down here for the past five months or so working on improving my Spanish. But I make it out to SE Asia at least once or twice every year!

      Maybe next time I get out that way I’ll have to try the motorbike method of travel – I’m sure that leads to plenty of stories to tell as well!!

    1. Earl

      Hey Nate – Great to hear from you as always! I think it’s quite liberating to undo the mindset that life is all about achieving specific goals and arriving at specific destinations in order to progress. When we start to appreciate and benefit from every step of the journey, the value of every experience increases infinitely.

      It all seems to come back to that idea of living in the moment over and over again!

    1. Earl

      Hi Nelia! I’m actually not in Cambodia at the moment and this story was actually from a couple of years ago. But for some reason the other day I was thinking about this particular train journey and decided to write about it! I know you spend time in Cambodia, have you ever taken the train over there??? Surely if you’ve eaten the tarantulas you’d be able to survive the train!

  8. Clay

    Earl,

    I’d like to sincerely thank you for not insulting my intelligence with countless “list” posts and mindless how-to guides, or wasting my time with diatribes that are better suited for an e-mail to mom.

    While other blogs falter while trying to tell me they’ve got everything in life figured out, yours simply continues to remind me that I’ve got so much left to experience.

    Thank you.

    1. Earl

      Hey Clay – Thank you so much for your comment. Honestly, I can’t tell you how important such a comment is to me as it is my sincere desire to avoid a preachy, ‘i’ve got it figured out’ style of blog. As I mention in the ‘about’ section of the blog, I don’t even want to begin to claim that I have any answers. All I hope to do is inspire a few people to make the most out of their time in this world and to enjoy the unparalleled benefits of first-hand experience. Your comment has really given me a boost in confidence and I truly appreciate that. Thanks again Clay!!

    1. Earl

      Hey Adam – I couldn’t agree with you more…in many countries, it is impossible not to have a story to tell after a train journey!

  9. Liz

    It sounds like my trip to India but wilder hahaha… I would love to jump onto a cargo train like that! Must add it in my list of things to do…(hopefully I will skip the shooting part. =)

    Excellent story!

    1. Earl

      Hi Liz – I highly recommend it! Sometimes we never know what we’re getting ourselves into when traveling…even an innocent decision such as taking the train can lead to the most unexpected adventure…

    1. Earl

      Hey Moon! Thanks so much for reading and leaving a comment, I truly appreciate it.

      After waiting an additional 30 minutes on top of the train we were finally allowed into the station. It turned out that a group of three guys had attempted to rob the ticket office but a group of police officers nearby thwarted the attempt. Two of the guys were shot and killed by the police in the brief shootout.

      When I visited Cambodia, I remember hearing gunshots every night in the distance and walking around the city at night wasn’t even an option. Overall it seemed quite peaceful, but due to the poverty levels, violent crime was definitely a regular part of life. But it is still such an amazing place and I actually have some friends living in Phnom Penh right now who have nothing but positive things to say about that city!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *