The International Steam Pages
The Indochina Steam Adventure - Reality!
As one gets older, increasingly one has to pay for pleasures which once were (almost) free. With this in mind I joined an international group of ten enthusiasts who were prepared to invest a significant proportion of their life savings to savour steam in Cambodia in 1999, one of the last countries in Asia (and for some the World) which did not yet feature in their collection. This tour was organised by Florian Schmidt who has now organised several steam tours in Cambodia.
For an introduction (and loco details) read the report of Florian Schmidt's March 1999 visit. Bear in mind that regular steam ceased here in 1991 and that conventional tourism is in its infancy with most of the country except for Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat effectively 'off-limits' until recently. But if running around rural tropical Asia with a 60 year old French built metre gauge Pacific is your idea of fun, then perhaps you too should consider the trip next time it is on offer. Click here for Cambodia 1990 and Cambodia 1991.
Sunday November 14th
I had flown into Bangkok from London via Hong Kong the previous day to keep down my rapidly escalating costs and had spent the night in a hostel for single ladies on the northern outskirts of Bangkok, where I was allowed to sleep undisturbed by order of my host's Thai wife who had previously inspected and passed the premises. An early start found me on TG696 to Phnom Penh along with a full plane load most of who seemed bound for the more conventional attractions of Angkor Wat and the (alleged) surplus female population of Cambodia.
I was a little troubled by not having a photo for my 'visa on arrival' but I was not alone and the standard U$20 sufficed. We had resplendent rooms in the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel and an excellent buffet lunch washed downed with just one extremely expensive beer.
In the afternoon while the sun was still high we visited the royal palace and adjacent silver pagoda, pleasant enough but in reality a less crowded version of their Thai counterparts. Those with more time than I had been to Angkor Wat and had been mightily impressed. A visit to the imposing French colonial station found the usual reported mass of rusty rolling stock. The combined locomotive shed and workshops produced a large number of stored diesel and steam locomotives, the latter generally in better looking condition. And outside gleaming in the sunshine as promised was 231.501, in light steam most of which was expended on a few whistles before it ran up and down a couple of times. Verdict, definitely so far so good and if the steam came up to the quality of the evening meal then there would be no problem at all.
Monday November 15th
The next morning we were declined an early start on the grounds that it would interfere with the service trains. These appeared to be a train to/from Sihanoukville on alternate days and one freight and one mixed train running daily to Battambang. The west line is actually much busier than this implies as the locals use masses of four wheel trolleys powered by a small petrol engine to transport themselves and their goods (mostly firewood). At 08.30 our train (two vans, two flat wagons and a couple of coaches) was ready to depart for Pursat (190km) and much film was expended before and during departure as we stopped several times for runpasts before we left the city area. The track was by no means perfect but certainly better than I expected. Progress was leisurely as we passed through rice paddies but the sun was now behind us and rather high as we branched north-west. The rice alternated with scrubby regenerating woodland and eventually at around midday we stopped for water from a small river whose bridge had suffered war damage and was propped up in part by a pile of sleepers.
Further progress was no more than steady and it was clear that there would be limited opportunities for photography owing to a combination of mediocre weather, few available spots (the non-cultivated areas are still considered unsafe because of mines) and the need to make a crossing point with incoming trains. Eventually the weather relented and we were able to make three runpasts, quite pleasant but definitely not to the liking of those taking video owing to reluctance to maintain the regulator open. After this the light failed and we reached Barmak (120km) where we watered and found the two incredibly crowded service trains. The rest of the journey was candlelit before a 19.30 arrival and we stopped for a very average meal before retiring to our well appointed local hotel.
Tuesday November 16th
I have to confess that I was not feeling at my best as we were hauled out of bed for a 06.00 breakfast. Hints of early brightness were no more than that and by the time we got to the station (where we found near derelict 231.506 on shed) for some runpasts it was raining... Still the result was some good steam effects and even a rainbow for those looking in the right direction. The return to Phnom Penh had to be tender first as the Pursat triangle had been largely cannibalised. So the fact that it was overcast was no disaster. Again we found the service trains at Barmak, outbound this time and despite their diesel power they were well covered photographically. It was good to see that the locals found the arrival of a steam locomotive more worthy of attention than the arrival of a dozen European visitors. Fortunately, the weather now steadily improved so we were able to concoct a runpast at the second water stop by running the locomotive round the train. We then set off for home, narrowly failing to complete a last runpast before the light failed. The first two days had passed uneventfully (not a trivial concern given the country's recent history) and the locomotive had performed almost faultlessly. The still photographers were quite well satisfied given the nature of the countryside, but the video photographers were still struggling for quality material.
Wednesday November 17th
For the first time we had a really sunny day. We were at the station for a planned 07.30 departure, but the exertions of the previous two days had obviously had their effects and 231.501 was half an hour late. We headed for the open country with a number of pauses to build up steam (it seems that one of the boiler tubes was 'blowing') which made organising runpasts easier. The main problem was that it had been a longer monsoon than usual and much of the land next to the railway was at the very least waterlogged and sometimes under water. However, by now the loco staff had a better idea of what was needed. Highlights of the morning were the river bridge where your scribe was reduced to wading thigh deep to get the picture he wanted and the runpast starring one of our accompanying soldiers (who throughout gave the impression that their services were definitely not needed). We reached Takeo just before 14.00 and found it one of the more attractive stations we had seen (not difficult as most seemed to have been damaged/destroyed during the troubles).
While taking water we now lost our tour leader who had a business meeting next day half way across Asia and then made out way back to Phnom Penh tender first. There was a major crisis en route as the loco was short of wood and there was very little available for purchase. In the end the crew were forced to repurchase the railway's own scrap sleepers and these only just sufficed to get us home again at 20.00. However, we had a 'Plan B' as we were caught up by the service train which would have pushed us in if it had been necessary. We had another excellent evening meal (although something in it definitely did not agree with my digestive system) and the following morning the party broke up to go their separate ways. In my case I was off to Myanmar to visit the Burma Mines railway.
The above account cannot convey just how enjoyable the trip was. Bearing in mind that the last Khmer Rouge attacks on the railway were in 1996, the turn around in the country is quite amazing. Travel is clearly safe (at least in the daylight) and we had good facilities throughout. The railway staff and the people we came across were every bit as friendly as I have found in Myanmar (Burma) but they were clearly not used to seeing foreigners. We achieved far more than we could possibly have expected considering that this was the first ever such tour in the country.
Would I recommend the trip? Unreservedly, yes. The only negative aspects were the expense and relatively limited photographic opportunities, but these were more than outweighed by all the positive aspects. Watch this space for information on a rerun in 2000.