Steeped in politics, the history of Cambodia’s railway is short and tragic.
The first line was constructed by the French in the 1930s and 40s to link Phnom Penh to Bangkok, but was terminated at the border a mere four years after completion when the French Indochinese government suspected Thailand of supporting the anti-French, anti-colonial Khmer Issarak movement. The second line, from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, was completed with the help of France, West Germany and China in the 1960s, with the hopes of boosting port activity and reducing reliance on Thailand and Saigon. But then civil war broke out, and the railway fell victim to heavy artillery damage and the whims of the Khmer Rouge, who went as far as destroying the tracks in several places. In the 1980s some services were resumed, but after decades of neglect and lack of funding, services stopped completely in 2009.
Since then there have been efforts made to rebuild and reinstate service on parts of the lines, but currently the only passenger rail travel available in all of Cambodia is on the bamboo railway. Battambang is famous for its bamboo railway: ramshackle wooden carts powered by small engines that are quickly assembled to transport people and goods on the neglected tracks. While it used to be a popular form of transport throughout the region, nowadays it’s primarily a tourist attraction and nothing more.
But there’s another railway sight in town, ignored by the crowds but definitely of interest to the urban explorer. On the west side of the city stands the old Battambang train station, still in relatively good condition with its shuttered gates and clock indefinitely set to 8:02. The train tracks are mostly overgrown, except for a small field where someone has set up a badminton net. Beyond that are the hulking leftovers of dilapidated warehouses, signalling equipment, and rail stock. But despite their condition, a lot of the buildings are still in use by the less fortunate residents of Cambodia’s second-largest city as housing, storage, and even a mobile phone shop.
We wanted to check the warehouses out, but a pack of unfriendly-looking guard dogs gave us The Eye, so we crossed the tracks and headed West instead. Behind the rail yard, Battambang’s famous French-colonial architecture was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the townspeople live cheek-and-jowl in blocks of wooden shacks. Little kids ran around playing in various states of undress while their mothers greeted us cordially from handmade hammocks strung on trees or beneath houses. The wooden neighbourhood vibrated with bass as a group of guys ate dinner on their porch to the banging sound of Khmer techno, but no one really seemed to mind.