Our captain is a bronzed, lithe, shirtless Khmer man in a loosely fitting baseball cap. We are crammed together on his dilapidated locomotive, with dozens of other passengers, our huge bikes, and a heavy crate of frozen fish. Sporting a proud, rakish grin, he guides our transport, little more than a makeshift bogie, over the rails.
As we clickity-click-click-clack through the Cambodian countryside, passing through areas which are accessible by no other means than a lengthy hike, we can hardly contain our delight. There are no roads out here, just some disused rails and a ragtag fleet of bamboo platforms carrying passengers from one village to the next.
Cambodia has exactly two rail lines. Built in the 1930s and the 1960s respectively, they fell into disrepair from years of neglect and civil war. Suffering from a lack of funding and increasingly frequent derailments, the last regular train service ceased operation on the derelict tracks in 2009.
Long before the real coaches abandoned the failing rails, rural Cambodians had devised a cheap, black-market replacement, and they ran it simultaneously! No strangers to unconventional transport, they scavenged parts from abandoned tanks, and cobbled together lorries of their own.
All it takes is a pair of barbell-like wheels, and a bit of wood:
…with a re-purposed water pump or generator engine, transferring power to the rear wheels by belts tensioned with a stick. These rickety contraptions can haul twenty or more people over the aging rails at speeds nearing 40kph!
We couldn't pass up the chance to ride this truly unique form of transportation. On our way out of Pursat this morning, we rode to the nearest set of train tracks, found ourselves a conductor, and bargained a rate.
When enough people had done the same, we all loaded ourselves and our luggage aboard the deceptively sturdy slats of wood, and headed east, to who-knows-where!
The wind is flying through my hair, transforming its long strands into whips that strike my face, but I don't mind a bit. My knees are scrunched up against my chest, I have zero personal space, and some hard bit of our panniers is digging into my back, but I can't be bothered. I feel as carefree as a country dog on a car ride, head hung out of the window, watching the world go by.
The wooden slats holding my weight don't inspire much confidence, and I feel a bit dizzy looking down at the ground, passing just inches beneath me, but still, I'm giddy. To the rhythmic chugging soundtrack of the engine just two feet behind me, I'm on the ride of my life.
When the old woman I'm squished up against turns her wrapped head around, and flashes me her betel-rotted smile, patting me warmly on a sweaty, sunburnt shoulder, I am officially having the coolest experience of our entire trip.
A rickety ride on Cambodia's bamboo railway trumps it all.