Thai Train Trip
Ever since I was a little boy and the family took a cross-country train ride across the United States on first the Santa Fe Railroad and then the New York Central to New York I have loved train travel. That train ride was three days and three nights.
So when the opportunity to see part of Thailand by train presented itself last September I was especially happy to take it.
Herewith is the story on how my overnight train ride from Surat Thani to Bangkok took place. I was visiting my friend Mike who lives in Koh Samui (which is certainly a story in itself). Mike has now lived on Samui for over a year and wouldn’t choose any other place in Thailand. I would find out why when I got there. Alas, I had only budgeted a week for Samui and now I was due to fly back to the States. Mike had some passport business to take care of at the U.S. Embassy and some cams to get at Panthip Plaza for the computers in his shop in Bophut.
I did not in the least think of a train ride back to Bangkok on my mind two days before leaving. However, I had not made arrangements for the flight back as I had left open the possibility of leaving early if I didn’t like it there. The only airline that services Koh Samui from Bkk is Bangkok Airways. This leaves about every hour. The best flights to get for the hour-plus flight are the first and last flights of the day because they are cheaper.
After a couple of calls to the airline we realized we weren’t going to get those flights which meant spending the equivalent of around $80 US for a middle flight. We didn’t like that. Then Mike, who runs a travel agency, remembered the train ride from Surat Thani and decided to call. We called about the train service and were told that there were three trains a day leaving Surat Thani for Bangkok and you could travel bedroom, sleeper coach, and coach. The trip takes about twelve and a half hours. We were told that an overnight run for a sleeper coach would be 8000 baht. Just a little over $20 US! And that included everything—the ferry ride over to the mainland and one short bus trip from the port to Surat Thani! We were sold.
Think of it. If you kind of have to watch your baht as I do on the three-week vacation you are getting a bed for the overnight trip, you get to see some of the Thai countryside, see some Thai towns and wake up refreshed and ready to go the next morning in Bangkok for a little over $20US – less than you would spend on a hotel room. Anyone who has ever slept on a bed on a train knows what a great sleep you can get <You're joking, right?! – Stick>
So we made reservations for the train and the next day departed Koh Samui on the ferry for the mainland. In that part of southern Thailand it’s practically an isthmus although it holds several types of terrain. At the pier and the waiting station were mostly young people. The majority of them farangs with their knapsacks and it sounded like mostly from the UK or Australia although other languages were heard. When it came time to board what looked like a catamaran they mostly flocked to the top level where they had the best visibility. Mike and I however stayed on the main floor with its rows of covered seating area to enjoy the view from comfortable seats and after passing the spectacular Koh Phangan and surrounding islands were able to catch a couple of winks.
By the time we approached the coast an hour later clouds had begun to form and the rain was coming down lightly. We got our bags which were stored along with everyone else’s in the luggage area and disembarked to the sounds of loud thunder and felt fortunate to just get under the sheet aluminum canopy as we waited for the bus although the tall tropical trees shielded us from a lot of the rain. One of the guards told us that it was common for sudden, torrential showers to come down and then almost as quickly end (this was before the torrential storms that racked Koh Samui in the winter).
Almost as soon as we left the port town (I don’t remember its name) and this semi-jungle terrain and passed green meadows glistening from the rain. There were also some rice paddies and pastureland with water buffalo grazing. About half-an-hour later we entered Surat Thani. What I saw of the town reminded me of towns from fifty years ago and the train station had a quaint feeling to it. We would be left right across from that station where there were several newspaper stands and restaurants with outdoor tables that had big parasols over them. Mike suggested that we eat dinner there as there might not be any on the train and I agreed. We discovered later that Thai trains don’t have dining cars. However, there were a number of hawkers on the train who came by with items to eat for a meal, snack on, and drink during the trip so we would have been alright.
We couldn’t know that then and I was glad to sit in the afternoon sunlight so quiet that we could hear the children playing two streets down. The tempo of life seemed slow and relaxed in this wholly Thai town. When we tipped our waiter only a 20 baht note he thanked us profusely.
By the time we crossed over to the station the train was made up and ready to go.
With my heart beating (I love train rides) we boarded and entered the car. And shock—I’d forgotten that Thai railroads are narrow gauge track. So there was much less space for two big farangs like us. Nevertheless we found our seats that were for one person each facing each other. And the aisles, although narrow were big enough to have big bins beside the seat ends where you could put your luggage. Thus, our luggage was right at hand. As the train pulled out of the station we would pass some of the industrial sites near the station as well as some of the poorer dwellings of the town—neither of which were appealing to the eye. In fact, I would say that in general much of the habitat nearest to the tracks are poor—some of it amounting to only sheds. When we passed the towns, however, we could sometimes see a latticework of streets (some unpaved) with neat little stores and businesses and the odd Buddhist temple and shrine.
And the countryside was beautiful. Some farmland and rice paddies, but more untouched semi-jungle and meadow with beautiful tall trees and open land around them. My only regret is that we left in the early evening (the departure was 6pm and arrival in Bkk at 6:30am) and thus had little time to view more before dark. On the other hand the scenery may have been more spectacularly beautiful in the sunset. At any rate, as night fell Mike and I continued our discussion on the Thai countryside, bought a couple of beers and some snacks from one of the hawkers, and then let the rocking and rolling of the train lull us into contented relaxation. When the porter came at about 8:30pm to ask if we wanted the beds made up we gladly agreed. I lay in bed for awhile reading with the curtain closed and listened to the clickety-clack of the train and the sometimes low, mournful horn from the engine. These would combine to put me into a deep, comfortable sleep which I maintained almost all the way to Bangkok.
I woke up actually as we were in the station of Petchaburi and since I was sleeping in the bottom berth I was right by the window which I had left partly open. That’s right, on the Thai trains you can have the windows open. That and the fans overhead keep it cool enough. I kept the shade open, but after the train pulled out of the station dozed for awhile until I heard the train the rumble of the train crossing a cantilever bridge over one of Thailand’s numerous rivers. We were on the outskirts of Bangkok. Krungthep must be an impressive sight to Thais from the countryside. The contrast couldn’t be more pronounced. While right beside the tracks were a lot of shanties and outdoor kilns densely packed together, the skyscrapers and big buildings ahead seemed to stretch on as far as the eye could see. Going over the canals and rivers and streams make you see a part of Thailand you can’t see from the streets.
As we went on there was an expansion of the number of tracks and past some locomotive and the odd train, all of which signalled our entry into Hualompong Station. All in all it had been a very satisfying trip though the train certainly wasn’t a Super Chief or a 20th Century Limited. I would definitely recommend this form of cheap, comfortable travel in LOS and look forward to my next train trip which will probably be to Chiang Mai.
Gotta agree, the train is much more comfortable than buses in Thailand – and a lot safer too!