The International Steam Pages

Steam in Cambodia 2000

Bob Underwood, based in Phnom Penh reports on a steam trip from Phnom Penh to Kampot 5th February 2000:

"4-6-2 Wood burning locomotive 231.501 departed Phnom Penh 0730 5 Feb and arrived in Kampot about 1630. Consist included locomotive/tender, three empty freight cars, two coaches, a 'bar car,' and an open gondola of sorts used by chefs from Le Royal Hotel, which catered a track side lunch buffet. The driving force behind trip seemed to be the 'Foreign Corespondent’s Club of Thailand', and about 45-50 folks (mostly westerners) from Thailand flew to Phnom Penh for the event. About 25 'ex pats' living in Phnom Penh, from the international schools, a few embassies, and NGO’s rounded out the group. This was not promoted as a railfan event and only a few of the crowd were buffs. I think a few of these may have taken cab rides or just set up on the tender. The train must have dead headed back to PP, as we returned to Phnom Penh 7 Feb after a day of touring the Kampot/Kep/Bokar National Park. Phnom Penh sponsors included Diethelm travel, and we overheard some say there would be repeat trips if there were more interest. Railfans may prefer to advise Diethelm to cut out fancy meals and some side trips and focus more on run-bys. Still, it was a great little trip. It cost $165, which included all transportation, meals, hotel, etc."

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Here is some press coverage:

Rare rail expedition through Cambodia's troubled history

KAMPOT, Cambodia, Feb 9 (AFP)

The small seaside town of Kampot hadn't seen anything like it for ages, when Pacific 231 -- a steam locomotive built in France in the 1930's-announced its arrival with a loud whistle and plume of white smoke.

The antique engine and its six wagons emerged last weekend from the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh's colonial railway station, source of the 166 kilometers (100 miles) of track that wobble and wind passengers to the country's southern coastline.

This train's journey, its first outing in more than 30 years, marks the end of a decades-long period during which Cambodia-and its rail network-was ravaged by a civil war. (Well we all know you can't believe everything you read in the papers. RD)

Clutching their 1950's and 1960's-era tickets, tourists were eager to experience the nostalgia of a bygone era and taste a piece of Cambodia's seldom seen pre-genocide history.

"I think this first trip could open enormous possibilities for tourism in the region, and maybe even give the railway a bit of a kick start," explained trip organiser, Philippe Decaux, a Bangkok-based television producer and former president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

"I wanted to help people to discover something else in Cambodia other than the usual visit to the Angkor temples," he said referring to the fabled 10th and 11th century northern temple complex, symbol of the country's once glorious past.

"The idea of a train was a good way to do this," he explained.

On board were 80 passengers-the majority of them businessmen, journalists and diplomats-keen to discover Cambodia's scenic southern provinces of Kandal, Takeo and Kampot at the leisurely pace of 30 kilometers (18 miles) per hour.

At the engine and surveying the tracks ahead were the French-trained crew.

"We used the last French spare parts to get it going, but the technical plans disappeared under the Khmer Rouge," explained Reth Boen, assistant director of the Royal Cambodian Railways.

Put in service in 1944, Pacific 231 has survived almost every episode of Cambodia's tragic history, through the spill-over of the Vietnam war to Khmer Rouge supremo Pol Pot's murderous 1975-1979 "Killing Fields" regime, during which as many as two million people are believed to have died.

During the brutal civil war from 1979 to 1996, after the Khmer Rouge were pushed out of Phnom Penh and into the jungles by an invading Vietnamese army, the railways repeatedly fell victim to rebel attacks that claimed the lives of 712 travellers, 49 staff and 68 soldiers, according to official figures.

It was on this very line, at Phnom Trach-at 142 kilometers south of the capital, and half an hour from Kampot-that three western backpackers from France, Britain and Australia were kidnapped and murdered in 1994.

But with Cambodia now at peace since 1998 elections, the government is hoping tourism will pick up.

The Pacific 231 locomotive will soon be set to sound its whistle at the seaside resort of Sihanoukville, named after the country's revered king.

But trips further afield will have to wait for the 600 million dollars needed to revamp Cambodia's war and neglect-ravaged rail network.

"When we speak of Cambodia, it is always of genocide, war or landmines," lamented Khieu Kanharith, Cambodia's secretary of state for information, himself a survivor of Khmer Rouge forced labour.

"But this journey is providing a different vision, one of a country and its people at peace, working and communicating together."

Rob Dickinson