Thai Trains – Murderously Good Orient-Style Travel!
Phil Hopkins, Travel & Arts Correspondent
Overnight train travel has all the excitement of a Boy’s Own story and the potential for an Agatha Christie novel, especially when the locomotive is traversing a foreign landscape and taking you ever closer to the exotic city of Bangkok.
My affectionate three-night stay in the Northern city of Chiang Mai, with its searing temperatures and laid-back lifestyle, ended abruptly at 4pm when the entire staff at the Away Chiang Mai Thapae Resort Hotel seemingly lined up next to our taxi and waved goodbye, as we departed for the rail station.
Entering the small concourse, a smiling guard silently examined our ticket. “You can board from 4.30pm but until then go.” His command in broken English, was full of good intent and the uniformed rail assistant pointed us towards a quaint, air-conditioned first-class lounge.
There were a handful of dated, black upholstered chairs. Two Japanese ladies had their heads bowed and fiddled with smartphones as another couple gabbled away in some unknown tongue. At the far end of the room neatly laid out cups and saucers, similar to those you would have found in a 1970’s kitchen, invited visitors to boil the nearby kettle and mash a cuppa. The air conditioning whirred, and all was cool, calm and collected.
Outside the ‘Monks Only’ waiting area, conveniently located next to a huge golden Buddha, sat empty and, with barely time to enjoy our green tea, we found ourselves walking towards Platform Three and wafted into carriage number two.
The accommodation was open plan and, after pushing our luggage along the carriage’s narrow central walkway, past ceiling-high ‘mail nets’ containing folded mattresses, some bemused Thais watched curiously as the determined European tried to figure out how, later, his two seats would transform into double bunks.
I was only half way through the puzzle with beads of sweat pouring from my brow, when two immaculately uniformed guards arrived and requested our tickets. One called out a series of words as the other meticulously wrote down his drill-like commands.
Half way through his verbal monologue the guard halted abruptly. “You in seats five and six but wrong car. You in standard. Should be in first, Carriage one!” We had just unilaterally demoted ourselves to cattle class but quickly rectified the mistake by unceremoniously shuffling down the train one carriage more. A nearby monk in his orange robes smiled as we made the short journey to opulence!
In carriage one a private double-bunk cabin awaited complete with sink, complimentary bottles of water and a surly looking guard who assured us that he would return later to make up our beds! Shrink-wrapped linen lay neatly on the small table affixed to the carriage window, silently awaiting the return of its master.
Having steadfastly failed to pack any food for the 13.5-hour journey – I must take full responsibility for fear of instigating a domestic – my partner advised that we would be at near starvation point within three hours, despite the fact that we had enjoyed a beautiful goodbye lunch in Chiang Mai just two hours earlier!
However, it was an unfounded fear because, minutes later, there was a knock at the door and in popped a jovial looking lady, with a rapid sales patter that quickly left our arms swamped in Pringles, Oreo biscuits, two iced coffees and the promise of a hot meal at 7pm, more coffee and a breakfast 45 minutes before our 6.15am disembarkation the following morning.
Our intrepid Travel Editor, Phil Hopkins, gives a quick glimpse of train cuisine!
It all came to £35 for two people (1400 baht), reasonably expensive by Thai standards but, considering that locals are invariably low-paid, and the food eventually provided was not only boiling hot but clearly home-made and fresh, only a curmudgeon would have resented the uplift in price.
Our train trundled along, stopping at a series of local stations before getting into its stride for the uninterrupted journey towards the capital. The stunning greenery of rural Thailand passed before us, waving a sad goodbye to the Englishman; even the countryside seemed polite.
As dusk turned to darkness only the occasional car headlights at a rural crossing pierced the dark night as silence fell across the train.
True to his earlier promise the surly guard appeared shortly after feeding time and, with the strength of Atlas, lifted the back rest from what had previously been a double bench seat, clicked it into a fixed bracket half way up the cabin wall and, somehow, produced a double bunk with greater panache than Ali Bongo headlining at the Batley Variety Club. Lego would have recruited him on the spot!
With calm restored and passengers fed like lions on an overnight circus train, first-class cabin doors snapped shut as blue, concertina privacy curtains in standard carriages were drawn to hide the weary travellers behind them.
The train was silent but for the trundling and squeaking of its carriages as the loco wended its way through the darkness of Thailand’s landscape.
It was way too exciting to sleep, even for a man of 57 who had lost the toss and found himself on the lower bunk!
The toilets were clean if a little antiquated – hard aluminium in one and the other requiring of strong thighs and a good squatting technique. There was a shower but, somehow, with all the movement of the train that would have been one step too far.
I returned to my cabin and resolved to relax and rock myself to sleep by counting lotus leaves in this country of a thousand Buddhas.
There was a shout. “It 5.30am!” Had I really been asleep that long?
The verbal assault was followed by a knock at the door and, as promised, the night before, our surly guard, complete with broken English, stood motionless with just 45 minutes left to Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong train station.
We had barely finished our breakfast, Chinese style Dim sum, vegetable soup and papaya fruit for desert, as our surly guest silently waited for us to momentarily vacate the room so that he could dismember our bunk beds and re-establish cabin order.
Less than an hour later we were standing on the platform at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station, looking for our next guide, and awaiting yet another leg of our continuing adventure.
Agatha Christie had not been on-board looking for inspiration, and there were no murders on this particular Orient express, but the excitement of our 751km journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok had lived up to all its expectations, and I left the train knowing that all was well, and that in my schoolboy dreams, I had just saved the world from disaster and prevented havoc besetting one of Thailand’s most poetic train journeys!
www.railway.co.th/checktime - State railway Thailand
www.tourismthailand.org – Official site of Thai Tourism
www.destination-asia.com – The company that set up this trip
www.thailandelephant.org - Thai Elephant Conservation Center
www.awayresorts.com – Prices for the Away Chiang Mai Thapae Resort Hotel
www.bangkokair.com – Internal Flights
www.cibtvisas.co.uk - visas
http://www.thaiembassyuk.org.uk – travel help
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Thai Trains – Murderously Good Orient-Style Travel! , 27th April 2018, 16:58 PM