TRAVEL & TOURISM
HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]:

Trains, boats or planes? - trains, definitely

 

Trains, boats or planes? - trains, definitely

David Bennett
Last Saturday we came back from Bangkok after visiting a friend. We often travel by the 2nd class Aircon Overnight Express train service, but, as it leaves Bangkok just as it’s getting dark, we thought this time we’d try the ‘rapid’ train, leaving at 2.30 p.m, giving plenty of time to view the Thai countryside on the way. The train is scheduled to arrive in Chiang Mai at 5.30 a.m. the following morning, meaning we would arrive back home in time for coffee and the Bangkok Post. One little problem - the train has fans, not air-con - mai pen rai!
We arrived at Hualamphong railway station late, with only a brief half-hour to spare - nowhere near enough time to do justice to the eating opportunities. We would normally be in the station’s food court, tucking into some of the best (and certainly cheapest) Indian curries in Thailand. This time, however, we only have time for some wonderful snacks and fried chicken on sticks (spatchcock), served with raw white cabbage, slices of ginger and whole chillies.
The train leaves at 2.29 p.m. - one minute early - this is looking good! We’ve booked an upper and lower bunk, arranged on each side of the carriage. Evenings on Thai trains are usually fun, with lots of banter (to say nothing of flirting) going on between the travellers and the railway staff.
For those who have never travelled by train in Thailand - this is how it works. You order dinner to be served sometime between 6 p.m and 8 p.m. The stewards fix you up with a temporary table, and then deliver your meal. I have always found the seafood to be very good and generous - any of the one-plate rice dishes are also good. Ice-cold beers are delivered constantly. You will first be offered the combo menu. It’s okay, but it’s best to ask for the ordinary menu (tam madar).
After dinner, the stewards come round with sheets, blankets and pillows and make up the beds. Each bunk has a little reading light and a curtain for privacy - it’s all very clean, quite nice and cosy.
The train soon became very hot with the sun streaming through the window - the ceiling fans were definitely not up to the job. But - what a fantastic kaleidoscope of images as we pass Don Muang (the old airport) and head on through northern Bangkok and into the countryside. We are travelling through countryside that is only ever seen from a train window.
At Lop Buri, about 3 hours into our journey, we see hundreds of monkeys swarming over the Khmer-style stupas… on the station platform is a huge gilded monkey statue, maybe 30ft high. I make a note to come back to Lop Buri and stay a few nights
Later in the evening it seems it’s even hotter, so I open the mosquito screen to let in some air. A lot of travellers are keeping their curtains open to get some air circulating. At about 1 a.m., we stop dead - and in come the mosquitoes! Luckily, I have hairy legs - they land on the top of the canopy and then have to struggle down to skin level to inject their deadly venom - by which time they are smacked. I kill at least 30 mosquitoes and sustain just one bite - not bad.
A little while later it cools down and everyone manages to get some sleep. At about 6.30 a.m. on Saturday morning, I wake up and find we have stopped again - this time it’s that kind of ‘stop’ that has an aura of finality. We are in the middle of quiet countryside, with gently swaying bamboo and the morning sunshine, but after 30 minutes or so we have to face the fact that we have very definitely …Stopped. People are rousing themselves; coffee and tea is being brought round, and rumours are starting to circulate. ‘There is a small problem’.
When we look out of the window, the ‘small problem’ becomes apparent - we no longer have an engine! The engine has gone. It is no more. It seems we are to wait for another engine to be sent down from Chiang Mai. Mai pen rai – again!
The stewards are, as usual, unflappable and jolly, and by now the passengers are strolling up and down the track and discovering we are parked at the end of Mae Tan Noi station. So - time for breakfast and a chat to our neighbour from Brazil, who is travelling in Thailand for one month and speaks perfect English. We order rice with pork and a fried egg on top. The meal is brought up, very freshly cooked, and served Thai style with wedges of cucumber. Delicious and, at 80 baht a plate, very good value.
Eating breakfast reminds me of the time we took the train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok which also suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere - two cooks got down and started picking fresh herbs. Within 5 minutes we were off again, and we were overwhelmed to find those fresh herbs were used in our dinner that evening. Where else in the world (in the universe?) would a train stop so that fresh herbs could be picked for dinner? Incredible!
Time is passing, and an old Thai man is hopping up and down. Apparently, ‘they’ are going to send out a bogie. I’m not quite sure what this bogie is going to do - but I’m pretty sure it isn’t going to tow us to Chiang Mai! Sure enough, a small works platform with a red flag and a couple of chaps set to. After 30 minutes or so the bogie tootles off up the line and silence once more settles over our little section of Thai railroad. Time to sit on the step of our carriage, in the sunshine, and read a book.
I suggest to the chap from Brazil that maybe we should start looking round for building materials in case we have to build a house here. At 10 a.m, the welcome sound of a train whistle rouses us as our new engine appears at the far end of the station. A cheer goes up and everyone scrambles aboard. The new engine is connected, and we are off in about 10 minutes. The next stop is Chom Pu station, where we stop for 20 minutes, then move off again - somehow we all know by the way the train revs up to a cracking speed that this time we really are on our way to Chiang Mai.
A couple of young Australian backpackers think this is all real fun and talk about the dismal way in which solar energy is not being used in Australia, and how they so welcome their new Labour government. We finally arrive at 1 o’clock. That’s 22.5 hours in total. My lower bunk cost 541 baht - I calculate I’ve been charged about 24 baht an hour for an unexpectedly long, but very interesting and pleasant trip. Next time, though, I’ll upgrade to 2nd class aircon!