Thursday, 7 April 2011

Transportation in Battambang, Cambodia

Planes, Trains and Automobiles in Battambang, Cambodia

Improvements to infrastructure here in Battambang over the last few years have made significant changes to everyday life. New roads have made the city accessible like never before and Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the Thai border can be reached quickly and without too much bruising to the backside. Like most provincial capitals Battambang had an airport with daily flights to Phnom Penh but with the improvements to the roads this service was no longer required and the airport closed about five years ago.

Regional Railway Battambang

My wife remembers a road trip to Phnom Penh taking three days and until fairly recently the journey could easily take a day. The air service was therefore an important link with the capital. So despite the rumours about the airport reopening I don’t think this will happen – there just isn’t the need for it any more. Battambang also benefits now from a good mains water supply in the town and fairly reliable electricity from Thailand. I say fairly reliable because every so often (at least twice a month) the supply does fail plunging the city into darkness. Thankfully at Bambu Hotel Battambang we have a diesel generator as back up for these periods – the beer will always be cold! Sometime in 2013 Battambang will be connected to a new hydro generating plant in the Cardamom Mountains which hopefully will give us a cheaper and more reliable electricity supply. One piece of infrastructure however that has remained defiantly unimproved is the railway “network” so when I noticed that the main station in Battambang appeared to be getting a facelift I was keen to investigate.

Battambang Railway

The last passenger train rolled out of Battambang a couple of years ago but by then the service was a shadow of its former self. In fact there was only one scheduled train per week from Phnom Penh to Battambang which ran on a Saturday before returning to the capital on the Sunday. The journey time was somewhat unreliable and was scheduled for 14 hours but often took much longer sometimes failing to arrive at all. Considering the distance to Phnom Penh is only around 300km this must have rated as one of the slowest railway journeys in the world. The reason for this of course was the dilapidated state of the track and the rolling stock – it simply wasn’t safer to go any faster. In fact looking at the state of the tracks it is hard to believe any trains ever ran on them. This is all about to change though. An Australian company, Toll Railways, has been granted a long lease for the Cambodian rail system and has started to upgrade the tracks and facilities. Last year the line between Phnom Penh and Kampot on the coast was reopened, initially just for freight and now they have turned their attention to the northern line which will run through Battambang and up to the Thai border at Poipet. As far as I can see all that seems to be happening at the moment though are cosmetic improvements.

Around Battambang Railway 

Battambang station is been repainted and the offices are being refurbished after years of neglect. Reassuringly though no attempt has been made to repair the station clock which still gives the time as 8.02 as it has for years. I asked one of the workmen when we might expect to see some trains here again but he just shrugged and thought that it may possibly be sometime in 2013 – and presumably at 8.02. This looks rather optimistic given the lack of urgency. The whole track needs to be dismantled and re-laid and I would imagine this would take some time. It was fun though wandering around the station and the engine sheds. Clearly in its heyday Battambang station was a busy place with a number of platforms, sidings and warehouses. Nowadays it is home to some rotting carriages, a number of cows, chickens, plenty of children and a couple of Toll Railways painters.

Battambang Railyway Station

One aspect of the Cambodian rail system that continues to thrive – albeit unofficially - is the Bamboo Train. I would imagine that just about every visitor to Battambang has had a go on this and with good reason – it is great fun. Essentially the “train “consists of a bamboo platform on a set of wheels that buzz up and down the buckled tracks propelled by what looks like a lawnmower engine. It has become a major tourist attraction here but it is more than that as the locals use it to carry all kinds of provisions to villages and communities along the line. Just before we opened Bambu Hotel last year I took all our staff for a trip on the train. Most had never been on it before and I was keen for them to know a little about it as I knew virtually all our guests would have a go during their time in Battambang. If you meet another train coming the other way the train that is deemed to be the lighter of the two – with least passengers or freight – has to disassemble, let the other pass and then reassemble before continuing. During busy times, and if you are unlucky, this can be quite tiresome especially in the middle of the day as there is no shade from the sun. These days tourists generally only go on a short section of the line – from just outside the city up to the long burned out Ou Sralou station about 8km away where there are a few drink and food stalls to relax at before returning back down the line. The track is in such a poor condition that the ride can be pretty scary and it resembles at times a rollercoaster.

Battambang Train Cambodia
Talking to some of our guests at Bambu Hotel, it appears that sadly a lot of the tour companies now are refusing to let their customers go on the bamboo train for insurance reasons. Certainly the trains and the track don’t conform in any way to safety regulations but with a bit of common sense it really isn’t very dangerous. In any case it looks like the days of the bamboo train in its present state are numbered. Obviously when the tracks are ripped up it will cease to function and although I reckon the bamboo trains will return once the new rails are laid (there probably wont be more than one proper train per day) the ride will be much more comfortable and therefore less fun!

No comments:

Post a Comment