Stickman Readers' Submissions June 7th, 2004

The Sprinter Train To Pichai

I’ve been visiting Thailand since 1986 when I was on “R ‘n’ R” from Saudi. Since then I’ve visited the LoS in excess of 20 times – making friendships in Phuket, Pattaya and Bangkok. Presently living in the UK but when retirement comes, it will be spent in Thailand! One rather special friendship is with a fellow Brit who moved to Phuket from the Middle East some 15 years ago to run a bar in Patong. Eventually tiring of that, he moved, with his lady and their children to Pichai. It was there that I visited them in March 2004. The following is my account of the train journey to Pichai.

He Clinic Bangkok

At 8 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, I take a taxi from the Honey hotel to Hualaompong station. I’ve booked a ticket on the air-conditioned “Sprinter” to Pichai – a 6-hour journey for the princely sum of 379 Baht – how did they arrive at that figure? The train is due to depart at 9:30 and at 9:15 passengers are allowed to board and take their assigned reclining, comfortable seats. Promptly at 9:30 the train pulls out of the station but not before it has been thoroughly cleaned inside and out. It’s not long before we reach Don Muang airport and the outskirts of Bangkok. Nothing remarkable here – similar in fact, to most Western cities surrounded by industrial areas. It’s only when the train reaches Ayutthaya that one realises that one is in Thailand at all. For a while there are miles and miles of nothing, with very little around except the ubiquitous temples. Much of the countryside is charred and blackened – fires started by the farmers to burn off last year’s harvest, I presume.

Looking at my map, I’m reminded just how big Thailand is – I realise that my journey only covers a small part of it indeed. As the train reaches Nakhon Sawan, it’s as if a switch is pressed and the scenery changes. Now it’s verdant, fertile farmland – almost as if we’ve crossed an invisible border into Thailand’s rice bowl. At each station, a smartly uniformed man, presumably the stationmaster appears on the platform with red and green flags and signals to the train driver as appropriate. I don’t know anybody in the West who is young enough to remember such conduct.

I decide to stroll through the carriages in imitation of the locals, so camera in hand, I get out of my seat only to observe a trolley laden with plastic boxes approaching me. These look very similar to the ones use by the airlines to serve lunch. With good reason – this is lunch! 379 Baht and a meal is included – what a bargain! I remind myself that actually, this is what things really do cost in Thailand – how we are overcharged in Phuket, Pattaya etc. To be fair, the food is basic – reheated noodles aren’t the best fare but mai pen rai. After this repast, I resume my wanderings and get talking to the guard, resplendent in military-style uniform and whose smiles are as bright as his buttons. He is accompanied by his young daughter – must be school holiday time! My lack of Thai and his lack of English impose a slight barrier but it seems that smiles, gesticulations and pointing at maps and timetables are a fine way to communicate. I’m waved into the Engineer’s seat to facilitate my picture taking – no one seems to mind that I could lean on any of the controls – another mai pen rai I suppose. By this time we are north of Pichit and approaching Phitsanulok – the scenery has included rice paddies, banana plantations, fields full of buffalo and – more miles and miles of nothing!

CBD bangkok

I return to my seat – an elderly gentleman behind me takes great interest in my timetable and is somewhat bemused to see it’s incorporates both Thai and English writing. He’s not the only bemused one – I’m trying to use it for its proper purpose! Still, this is all to the good because the said gentleman solemnly announces each station as we approach it – quite useful in fact and I’m appropriately grateful.

What’s this? The food trolley approaching again? Yes, believe it or not, we are being fed a sweet snack this time. By now the train has passed Phitsanulok and according to my map and timetable should be nearly there. I approach the friendly guard who makes it clear that there are 3 stops to go to Pichai. Sure enough, at 3:40 by my watch, the train pulls into Pichai – it’s 1 minute late, something most British train companies would love to achieve! My new friend the guard is at pains to ensure I alight from the train, and waving goodbye, I do just that. The farang population of Pichai has just doubled!

Pichai is Thailand. Not “Farangland” like Phuket and Pattaya, but “up-country” in all its glory. It’s an eye-opener but a lovely one. For those people who, like me, stay mainly in the “usual haunts” – give it a try. Even if you don’t have a reason to go – just go and see where the people you meet in “Farangland” are from. Go and see unspoilt countryside.

The return journey was, perforce, similar. A notable difference was that, on the particular day I chose to travel, there was no “Sprinter” train. I therefore took the regular air-conditioned second-class train. The differences? Well it takes an extra hour because it stops at many more stations entering Bangkok via a different route. No food is provided, but at nearly every stop, food and drink vendors get on the train. Oh, I nearly forgot – it’s only 289 Baht!

wonderland clinic

Finally I feel I must mention the only unpleasant aspect of the return journey. As the train grinds slowly through the outskirts of Bangkok one is able to see the very, very poor people who live on both sides of the tracks; the children playing mere metres away from the trains, in the filth of a busy urban railway network. Despite all my visits to Thailand, existing in the familiarity of Nana, Cowboy etc. this is something I’ve never seen close-up. It behoves us all to remember that in Thailand, the rich may be rich, but the poor are wretched indeed.

March 2004

Stickman's thoughts:

Trains in Thailand are great!

nana plaza