I don’t get on trains much, if you don’t count subways. I did have a bit of a cross-country train trip in Sweden years ago, but usually it was by car or air.
In Thailand, they seem to have a Jekyll and Hyde reputation with expats. They’re praised for their small world quaintness and their utilitarian service and low cost. I’m not sure about the former, but trains are an integral transportation option for Thais.
Trains take people almost everywhere they want to go in Thailand, maybe not as ubiquitous as the buses and minivans, but integral to people’s lives nonetheless.
But the trains often come under ridicule by expats – for comfort, for timeliness, for professionalism.
I wonder sometimes if those criticisms come from their own expectations that the Thais need to do things the way the expats are used to things being done. One of the tenants of living overseas, it seems to me, is to try to understand, and live with, what seem to you to be problems with how the locals get things done. It’s their country, so just deal with it.
Anyway, my expectations were not high last night as we readied for our trip to Nan’s hometown, Phitsanulok, in north central Thailand. I was going to be on trains and in train stations for at least 13 hours, going through an entire night without any sleep to make the journey of roughly 300 miles. And I had heard that the trains are slow, dirty, unsafe and always late.
Before the big trip, though, I had to make sure my new cat was taken care of for five days. Likewise my growing vegetable plant collection. Nan brought over two young girls, one 14 and the other 9, I think sisters. After explaining what I needed done (I’m paying the older one), we sat around and then realized all the girls were hungry. Imagine that, I hadn’t had dinner either and it was already 8:30.
So I invited all three ladies to dinner at the Little Steak House right around the corner. Don’t let the name fool you, this place makes excellent Thai food, although their prices are consderably higher than you can find on the street. Nan chose a seafood salad, Ho, the older girl, decided on Western food (pork steak, fries and salad), Ha ordered a huge shrimp fried rice meal and ate almost all of it, and I had pork slices in oyster sauce, with rice.
The total tab, including a glass of wine for Nan, before tip, was 624 baht, or $16. Everyone was full.
Shortly after, Nan and I waited for my regular taxi man to arrive, but we couldn’t get him on the phone. There was the first problem – and we hadn’t even started the trip yet. My solution was to walk about three blocks to get a tuk-tuk to take us the the train station, which is only a half mile from my house.
Nan had already bought tickets in second class, with seats assigned. 159 baht per person for the train to take us to Bangkok, where we were to hop on anothet train for the final leg.
Second class is pretty nice, not great, but OK. The seats are roomy and there’s lots of leg room – think the space on the plane at the emergency exit, but for everyone in the car. The car had ceiling rotating fans, which were going fine on the first leg when they weren’t needed because it was the middle of the night and the cool wind from outside was rushing through all the open windows. No A/C.
Strangely, on the second leg of the trip, on a different train, under the hot sun, they did not turn the fans on, even during the many short stops we made, when there was virtually no wind coming through the window openings..
The car did have two toilets, but ladies beware, squat toilets are used.
We left Hua Hin at 12:15 am and arrived in Bangkok about 6. Along the way we made 13 stops (I counted them), 6 or 7 in the Bangkok area. Like I said, these trains are utilitarian, transporting people like me long distances but also serving the short-hail commuter traffic.
I have to say here that usually when I travel I can be somewhat detailed in my preparation. I do a lot of research are where I will be going, about the transport I will be using. I write down names and addresses on cue cards of hotels I’m using, of places I want to visit. They often turn in handy in directing taxi drivers who can’t understand a word I’me saying. I print out my hotel and airline confirmations, research on the destination to reread on the trip.
For this trip, I did almost no prep. Nan was going home and asked if I wanted to go. /she has done the trip many times. I just put it in her hands. Mostly, that was a good idea, but we did have a small headache when we arrived in Phitsanoluk.
The first 200 kilometers of our trip went without incident. It was dark and I tried unsuccessfully to sleep. The thumping of the rails, augmented by periodic louder noises, as well as the constant bouncing of the train, did not help. A little after schedule we arrives at the Bangkok Railway Station, unofficially known as Hua Lamphong Station.
It is large. I’m pretty sure I would have had trouble finding my connection if I was by myself. But after an hour’s wait, we boarded the train to Phitsanulok, and the lifeline for a string of smaller cities we stopped in along the way. The trip would have taken one-third the 6 1/2 hours if not for the fact it had to serve people along the way.
Still I could not sleep. I had to see everything along the way, even if mostly what I saw was miles and miles of prairie-flat land, mostly turned into miles and miles and miles of fields of corn, bananas, sugar cane, sunflowers and, of course, rice. Lots and lots of rice paddies, in all stages of development, although the harvest in this area had obviously already passed.
Did I mention the overhead fans didn’t work, and that we stopped a lot of times, often in the middle of nowhere for only a minute. Sometimes we stopped to wait for a train to pass us in the other direction, on the paralel track. Maybe they have a rule about two trains not both being in motion when passing each other. I have no idea.
While I didn’t do a lot of pre-planning for this trip, did think to pack some snacks for the trip. I had heard there would be people selling food getting on and off at various stops but I wasn’t sure how tempting that would be.
I guess because the trip was in the early morning hours, we didn’t see many people selling food on the first train. On the second train, from Bangkok to Phitsanulok, there was a constant stream of people hawking all sorts of food. And the food was not being sold by people who got on for a few seconds at a stop. They were riding the train the entire way, preparing various food in an onboard kitchen upfront of us.
There were fresh fruit offerings, pork and sticky rice, sandwiches, numerous rice/chicken/pork dishes, water and sodas, fried chicken and something I totally fell in love with – but have no name for it.
Nan bought it because I couldn’t tell what the lady had in the clear plastic bag. That bag contained six paper-thin greenish tortilas. I’m guessing they’re rice based. Into each one you add the second ingredient, thin slivers of something very sweet. Tasted like sugar but looked like ultra thin, almost-cooked spaghetti.
The food kept coming. Nan bought four ear of corn and four hard-boiled eggs. I had a piece of fried chicken. I bought an orange soda. And those examples just scratched the surface. On the return trip, I think I’m going to just graze on the train.
But the trip was getting to be a pain. Our destination couldn’t appear any too soon. And then we arrived – right on time. And I have to say, I enjoyed this train trip, probably mostly because it was new. If I had to do it often, as Nan does, I might have different opinions, and less patience.
After arrival, we learned that there are two hotels in Phitsanulok with first name of “Amarin.” We told the tuk-tuk driver Amarin and he took us to the wrong one. Realizing our mistake we hailed another taxi and took a longer trip to the Amarin Lagoon.
Nice hotel and a great rate. And good service, too. When I realized I forgot my power converter and could not plug in my laptop, we called the front desk and they brought us a new one, still wrapped.