It’s been quite a bit of fun writing up this ‘Travelling in Thailand series and for the forth and final part I just had to write up a whole blog on the unmistakable Thai Train.
During this series I didn’t even mention ‘motorbike-taxis’ – probably cause I am in the habit of writing about them quite a lot anyway! And how about the ‘car’, sorry – but such a boring form of getting from A to B shall have to wait for a new series! Then what about the horse, elephant or even buffalo? Guess I shall have to find some space to fit them into another blog sometime.
I hate to say it, but in the eyes of the Thais, the train is a ‘last resort’ when it comes down to ‘transportation preference’! Just ask any old Thai what they think about the state of Thailand’s trains and you’ll hear a flurry of remarks along the lines of “Darned slow”, “Crummy service” and “Never on time”. Guess they aren’t far off the truth! Since the Thailand’s train system is ‘a government service’ the state officials employed to run the things aren’t in the habit of working their guts off for a pittance wage. Every branch of Thailand’s government is renowned for its civil servants who hate being called ‘servants’ and instead feel that they are doing the public a favour and ought to be respected forthwith.
Thailand’s poor old train service has certainly gone down-hill over the years but it is still the best mode of transport to really see and feel the country! A bus up to Chiang Mai may take 9 hours but the blessed train plods along in no rush whatsoever and does the distance in 12 (if you’re lucky that is!). But what a great way to go! Sat on the upcountry bus you’ll be bored stiff with a TV blaring away in front showing some corny quack-wack Chinese soap opera, then for a view from the window you’ll be seeing nothing but huge billboards erected along the road, just waiting to fall over… (on a motorcyclists head). The train however, offers you some excellent views of the Thai countryside and its paddy fields, farming families and water buffaloes. Then in the morning you’ll be waking up to some gorgeous sunrise. Not having to just plonk yourself in the seat all evening, the upcountry train provides passengers with a groovy restaurant. Though the prices are rather over the top, you’ll have the opportunity to meet a whole variety of characters and especially other Thai state officials (they get a discount on train travel) hoping to practice their English with some foreigner. Thailand’s civil servants are famed for a few things and besides just laziness, they are; playing cards for a few baht (under the table of course!) and drinking whisky like there was no tomorrow.
If you fancy ordering some beers on the Thai night train it is advised to flash a bitta Thai lingo and pretend you know the score as employees on the train are synonymous for ‘over-charging’ beer-swigging Farangs. I remember the last time I took a train up to Chiang Mai and got into conversation with some banana-shake-backpackers and a few Thai army boys returning home. The backpackers had supped up all their beer and when they asked the waitress for the bill, I was surprised at the cost of a large beer – 100 baht! Not expecting to pay that much for a darned beer, I asked for my bill only for the waitress to reply, “that will be 160 baht for two bottles please”. Glad to be paying the Thai price, I sat back down and had one more!
Just ask any of the train officials and they all have a stock of nauseatingly bad stories about ‘Farangs!’ and for some strange reason, ‘drunk ones’ especially. There was the true story of a pack of Farangs from Europe a couple of years back who had been partying it up on Koh Samui over the new year. Getting on the train, the officials in charge ordered them to ‘control their alcohol consumption on the train’ as they were already smelling to the heavens and being loud-mouthed. Failing to heed the advice of the train officials they continued drinking their supply of alcohol which they had brought along with them, stuffed in their bags. They were warned too of standing in the gangways and opening up the door to have a smoke. Anyway, the story goes that around midnight one of the guy’s girlfriends starts running up and down the isles screaming at the top of her voice for the train to stop. Her boyfriend had simply disappeared after the last time he had popped out for a cigarette and…….. fallen off the train. Quite a lot of negative publicity was given to this story and especially about the quality of the Farangs heading to Koh Samui these days! You have been warned!
My favourite train route just has to be the Isarn (north-eastern) one that runs from Korat (Nakhorn Ratchasima) to Ubol Ratchathani on the Thai/Khmer/Laos border. I’ve done the route twice now stopping off every day at a new town like Surin, Buriram and Sisaket. The train is nearly always late but it’s darned cheap, incredibly slow and full of north-eastern locals speaking their local Khmer or Isarn dialects while pigging away on grilled chicken, papaya-bok-bok and sticky rice. For friendless it’s hard to beat the Isarn folk and you’ll soon be asked to help consume their lunch with a few glasses of whiskey. Even for me, the folks are as nice as can be but actually understanding what they are saying is a different kettle of fish! Try the route you won’t be disappointed!
The train is also the place to eat! The upcountry chug-along day-train is a haven for vendors coming on to the train trying to sell you a whole variety of food from the likes of dried squid to grilled meat balls. The for some weird reason, whenever a ‘drinks lady’ spots a male Farang she automatically sticks a can of Beer Chang in his face as if he lived on the stuff! Countryside train stations are quiet places run by some station-master who does virtually nothing the whole day long but watch TV, eat, drink, gossip with some friends and occasionally water the flowers. Fine job – his only responsibility in life is to wave the train past – twice a day!
When I first came to Suphanburi I had to go buy a ticket for the Bangkok-Penang train at the station here. Now, half the locals here don’t even realize the town has a train station! Arriving at the station, it took me 10 minutes of looking around to actually find someone who was working! I finally found the station-master sat under a tree outside, again drinking whiskey with some buddies of is! He seemed pretty perplexed when I explained that I needed to book a ticket to go to Penang, I think his first words were “Are you sure, we have a train that goes to Malaysia!?’ It next takes the guy another 10 minutes to turn on his computer, another 10 to call up a colleague in Nakhorn Pathom province to find out the code for the Penang/Butterworth train and finally another 10 to print out a ticket, I mean the mechanism looked older than him!
Talking about the Bangkok-Penang (Butterworth) train, now that’s the funkiest train Thailand has to offer! Funny to listen to the ‘tanoy’ when the train is approaching the station (I always take the train at the Samsen station instead of Hualumpong) “Passengers pls get ready for boarding, the International Butterworth train is approaching” makes it sound like you were at the airport! That is one heck of a train though and a bargain and a half, at something like…. eleven hundred baht! Very recommended!
If you are a newbie to Thai trains and fancy the idea of taking one, it is advised to book well in advance (if it’s a long distance one). Absolutely no need to go to the main train station you can book a ticket at any old station in Thailand – they are all computerized these days. If you are wanting to take a really long distance one, like to say Hat Yai or Penang I suggest you take along some sandwiches drinks etc….. as the food on the train is pish-poor and darned expensive! It isn’t a crummy slow chug-along day-train neither, so vendors aren’t allowed to pop on the train at every station it stops at!
And finally, if you get a sleeper get a ‘lower’ one! The ‘upper’ ones are right hassle to climb up to, the cabin light glares in your eyes, they are quite tiny and in the morning you will have no where to sit until the person in the ‘lower’ sleeper decides to pack up his/her bedding and give you your seat back. Plus, a ‘lower’ sleeper offers you lovely views of the sunrise, not a bad thing to wake up to!
BTW: It’s been fun writing about the witty side of life in Thailand but I would like to offer the readers another side to my writing. You may have noticed that I have started a new series on ‘Thailand News Stories’ but I will also be starting up a couple of new series on “Thailand’s most influential persons” and “Insights”. See how it goes, will be interesting for me too, to write about topics just that little bit more serious……