The reader should disavow themselves of the widespread delusion that train travel in Asia was ever a romantic experience. Those holding fantastical thoughts of exotic winds, picturesque villages and exotic locals are likely to be disappointed. The wind carries pollen from the fields that causes the worst allergies, the villages are corrugated shanty towns, the locals attired in flipflops and oversize Doraemon t-shirts. The heat squeezes you like having an anvil on your chest.
Central Bangkok is 80 kilometres and two hours away. The calculus of ticket pricing was lost to reason. The cost is a nominal 14 baht – less than 20 pence.
The heavy industrial train that juggernauts itself towards the platform is the locomotive equivalent of a tramp-steamer, propelled mostly by its own weight and good will. The light around its utilitarian bulk bends as it approaches; the time dilation caused by such a mass explains why they never run to time. The schedules are just probabilistic approximations as operators never agree on the correct time.
Getting on is life-threatening – the waiting ticketholders rush the doors the second the train stopped; having to stand is clearly the worst of all possible outcomes. Fighting to get a seat means you might not lose face but you might lose a limb. The appendages lost in the struggle matter little.
Standing on the journey exposes the passenger to all sorts of additional risk. There’s little respect for individual space; hawkers, carrying calve muscle-threatening sharp-edged buckets of iced-drinks, rice meals and unshelled eggs, jostle their way through the carriages, unperturbed by the density of standing passengers.
These fierce and determined saleswomen could teach aggressive sales techniques to stock market traders. Many of the locals travel with bulky goods that block the walkways and exits too. There seems an unspoken arms race in carrying the most absurdly bulky items. Personal space is just a gap to stock more goods in.
The ticket inspectors, attired in fitted military-style uniforms, pass amongst the passengers clicking their punches to signal their approach. It is vitally important to collect those small fees.
Thais sleep in every seat. No-one ever seems to miss their stop.
The train passes through endless fields of rice, banana and abandoned buildings. Labourers plough paddies in the heat. The local platforms vary, some are decoratively painted in bright colours, most are just bare concrete sited as the only obvious marker of a named destination amongst the anonymous fields. So many passengers get off in the most isolated of spots, the only conclusion is they must enjoy long walks.
Eventually, the fields end, the train passes container yards and multi-lane highways. Planes pass closely overhead. Shanty residencies press tightly to the sides of the trains. Strategically placed furniture, often inhabited, identifies safe spaces between the tracks.
From the glass-less windows you see children swimming in highly polluted dykes, old people dozing in the heat and pre-slaughter wicker-caged ‘free-range’ poultry. Mounds of abandoned TVs and broken spirit houses dominate the industrial kipple littered liberally everywhere. Not soiling the environment you live in clearly isn’t a widely shared notion here.
The one sadness of the journey is where it ends – Hua Lamphong Station in Bangkok, which is now an aging relic of an Asia passing into memory. It is soon to be replaced by a contemporary one. It screams ‘old world’ at the visitor. The horror of modernisation looms.
To call Hua Lamphong beautiful would perhaps be to abuse the adjective. It isn’t pleasing to look out – it certainly isn’t one to experience under duress. But as somewhere to soak up some old world chaos, to see decaying old engines, the surreal ephemera that people travel with and the colourful sights of Thais working and travelling, there is nowhere else like it. Stations aren’t just waypoints, here they seem to be temporary homes too – there are no highspeed links and urgency is an alien concept. Communities grow whilst people wait.
Is this a journey that can be enjoyed? Ultimately not, in most circumstances it is hot, crowded and so so tedious. It really is the least glamorous way to get anywhere. The locals know the train system is a joke and it’s taken as a necessity, not a luxury.
Other than the modest existential benefits of experiencing new sights, this is one to live without. Get the sleeper train to Chiang Mai instead.