Ways to come and go: plane, bus, boat. But then nothing says travel like a train.
Bangkok’s central train station, magnificent Hualamphong, dates back to 1916. I reckon there’s no better place to start a trip in Southeast Asia. But get there soon, as the station is almost done.
On the platform at Hualamphong. Photo: David Luekens.
I’m aiming for the 07:00 departure. This means I’ll need to get there an hour early. Why? So I can grab a quick khao pad and coffee at one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants by the station. Years ago I planned to stay at a monumentally dire hotel just down the road; it was so bad I spent the entire night in one of these cafes. I continue to honour them in thanks.
I love Hualamphong for its towering arched roof and the spacious interior sans maniacs. The way, when you walk through to the trains, it opens out—railheads all in a row. Every Thailand trip really starts, or ends, here. This is the start and the end of the line.
This is travel.
Take me away. Photo: David Luekens.
I climb onto the 07:00 #111 train bound for Phitsanulok. I’ll be in P’lok in a few weeks to check out the old student Communist hangout in Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park, but for now am heading just up the line a little. The ride to Ayutthaya is just 90 minutes, but the food vendors are plying fare on board like plague is coming. No breakfast beers on Thai trains anymore, but there’s kai yaang and coffee and that will do fine. Never say no to barbecue chicken for breakfast, I say.
I hear the loco engine rev up, then there’s that familiar groan and shudder. Everything shakes and rattles. The train lurches, cars smack together, my shoulders falter back. A false start? Nope, we’re off.
Kachunk ....... kachunk ..... kachunk ... kachunk.
We crawl north through downtown Bangkok, bystanders pausing just beyond the ballast as we pass. Ice-filled baggies, tied up top with straws poking out, fly from windows up-train. A celebration of plastic.
About to cross the Chao Phraya, returning from the South by train. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
As on the Chao Phraya yesterday, a voyeuristic tilt tempts as I coast past people’s lives. Years ago, I saw a boy standing at a window along here as my train crawled through. He wore an ochre sarong and, hands on hips, he glared at the train. I went to take his photo as we passed, and seeing my lens he gave me the finger.
Now I just watch. Like the river yesterday, life slides by. I soak it up.
Momentum turns to speed. I can hear the level crossing klaxons before we reach them. At Petchaburi Road, a bazillion motorbikes squat against the guardrail. Engines revving, surrounding bubble gum-coloured taxis, they’re itching for the train to pass. Behind, an exhaust-belching Transport Company provincial bus reminds me why I am on a train.
Make yourself comfortable. Photo: David Luekens.
We accelerate, swaying left and right, with the occasional lurch back or forward.
Kachunk ... kachunk .. kachunk . kachunk.
Window down, my elbow on the edge. Wind in face. Gazing.
Ten minutes later the train starts to slow. My phone slips off my knee, cluttering to the floor. A passing drinks seller sets her ice-laden bucket down. She bends, picks up the phone up, handing it back with a smile. The train groans to a stop at Samsen station—far closer to where I slept last night.
Cruising on the Khon Kaen to Udon Thani train. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
But why miss a chance for one last pass through Hualamphong? It’s a hub on a vast rail network interlinking a growing part of Southeast Asia. And, as with the disappearing river trips in Laos, one should grab the moment when one can.
Tomorrow I will explore Ayutthaya.