The train was travelling at top speed when the accident occurred. After decades of service the rail line finally snapped, buckling in front of the locomotive and forcing it off the track. Mercifully the top speed in question was a shade under twenty miles per hour, and the passengers were able to disembark safely and push the vehicle back. After a spot of ad hoc welding under an unforgiving sun, the line was back in service, and the train rolled into Phnom Penh the following afternoon – sixteen hours late, but just about in one piece. If you want your trains to take you smoothly, safely and efficiently from A to B, head to Japan. If you want the diametric opposite, come to Cambodia.
Cambodia’s trains largely exist to transport freight, rather than people – most sport just one passenger carriage, which may itself be filled with livestock or other goods. Some passengers, indeed, find it preferable to sit on top of the train, clambering up in the manner of an action-movie stuntman, then clinging on for dear life as the carriage wobbles its way forward. Any discomfort is mitigated by cheery locals, waving from the fields, and stupendous views of the Cambodian countryside – on the way from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh, the line aims straight at photogenic Mount Bokor for what seems like an eternity, then spends almost as long inching its way around the picturesque peak.
The train schedules are far from fixed, while the journey itself is sometimes free – on the day of the aforementioned accident, none of the passengers had been required to buy tickets because the stationmaster was asleep in his bedroom, which doubled as the station’s ticketing booth. Such loose schedules call for the occasional burst of creativity – from some stations, late-arriving passengers can be whisked up to the train aboard a rail-adapted Honda cub. Taking the bullet train? Way too predictable.