Riding On The Rails
I don’t know about you, but I have always been fascinated by trains. As a young boy, I considered myself to be lucky to live a few minute’s walk from my town’s train station. My old neighborhood was a great place for a kid to wander around, and Union Station was the kind of building that they just don’t build any more. It was constructed during an era when it was a big deal to travel out of town. This was reflected in its grand architectural style that reflected a certain dignity that sadly is now out of date. There was lots of marble, fancy woodwork, ornate lighting fixtures and mosaics. I can almost taste the freshly made buttermilk donuts that you could buy at the coffee shop. I can almost hear the announcements echoing of the vaulted ceilings announcing train arrivals and departures. My mother took my brother and me down to New York City a few times. It was quite the adventure. I remember that the carriages seats had thick suede upholstery. I also recall an elegant (at least it seemed to young Sawadee) dining car. Clickity-clack, clickity-clack all the way to “The Big City. I wish I had some pictures of Union station to share with you. Unfortunately this ‘grand old lady’ was torn down in the 1960’s to make way for a supermarket parking lot! What idiot thought this was progress? There aren’t any craftsmen today of the old school who could build anything like it. My old home town doesn’t even have a train station any more….just a plastic “phone booth”, and trains in fact don’t even stop there anymore. Sigh.
Fortunately, my new home town of Lampang has a quite a bustling train station. Fortunately it is not a modern building, and still retains some character.
While not as busy as the provincial bus station, a fair number of trains stop there every day, including the overnight express to Bangkok. Recently I had some free time between the end of school and the beginning of the summer program. I usually take the overnight VIP bus down, but to be honest, I never really enjoy the eight hour trip. The VIP bus may have more legroom than other buses, and the air conditioning always works, but I have never been able to get comfortable enough to sleep. The bus is always shaking and wobbling enough along the highway to make using the “sanitary facilities”, a.k.a. the so-called toilet an unpleasant, experience…to say the least! So when an American friend of mine suggested joining him on the train to Bangkok, I was ready and willing to give it a try. A first-class ticket cost about 1200 baht, which is hardly a bank breaker.
So, with my purple L.L. Bean rolling duffle bag in tow we waited for the 8:00 PM train to arrive. You may be able to set your watch in say Switzerland by a train’s arrival or departure, but this is Thailand, and being use to “Thai Time”, I wasn’t surprised when our train chuffed into station at 8:30. If anyone one out there is contemplating a move to The Land of Smiles, you really need to cultivate the patience of Job when it comes to keeping to a schedule. It’s much less stressful to assume that any and all events will never start on time. I always carry some reading material to pass the time.
All aboard the conductor cried….or something to that effect in Thai. I was pleased that he carried my heavy bag onto the train, and into our compartment. While not quite small enough to induce claustrophobia, there wasn’t room to as they say, ‘swing a cat”. If there are any Marx Brothers fans out there, picture “the stateroom scene” from A Night at the Opera. Oh well, the room was big enough for two beds, bunk-bed style.
Eventually the conductor came around to punch our tickets and make the beds up. We of course had to stand out in the corridor while he transformed a single bench into beds. I wisely jumped at the chance to claim the lower bunk. Hey, I needed to get up several times in the night to pee, while my friend didn’t! The though of stumbling down a ladder while in a stupor was a recipe for disaster. Our compartment was just a few steps from the restroom. While strictly utilitarian, it had adequate facilities. Still, the movement of the train made me grateful that I only needed the toilet (a squatter) to pee. Note to Thai Railways: a western toilet would be a wonderful innovation!
The beds while narrow were comfortable enough, and the linen was clean. I can’t honestly say that I had a solid night’s sleep. The train rocked, or I should say jerked around pretty strongly. Still, I was much more comfortable than I would have been on the bus. When we arrived in Bangkok, I felt refreshed and ready to go. I am pleased to say that I made it to the taxi queue without being assaulted by guys trying to get me into an un-metered taxi. What’s more, the fellow directing the line, flagged a taxi over for me, lifted my duffle into the trunk, and told the driver my destination. Now that’s what I call service! You don’t always see good service in Thailand, so when someone does an outstanding job, you really do appreciate it.
Last year I stayed at Town Lodge on Soi 18. I had a nice time there, so I decided to stay there again. The hotel is at the end of the soi…and I do mean at the very end of a dead end street. It is a five minute walk to the corner of Sukhumvit, but that is the only drawback to staying there, and a minor one at that. Town Lodge is owned and operated by some Swiss, which is reflected in the pleasant rooms and the friendly hotel staff. My standard room was colorfully painted, and the bed was comfortable. The AC was up to snuff and there was plenty of hot water in the bathroom. (If only the Thais didn’t insist in designing showers that flood the bathroom floor!) There were the usual amenities, such as a stocked mini-refrigerator and one that I found handy…a digital safe. At 1200 baht a night, I consider the hotel to be a bargain. Yes, there are less expensive places to stay, but I prefer to spend a little more for a nice room.
On the ground floor of the hotel is a Club Toxic, which when I poked my head into in the evening had four or five attractive young ladies sitting around. It is hardly a destination as such, but if you are staying there, it is a place to have a drink, some pleasant conversation, and a game of pool.
Soi 18 has a number of useful shops. There are at least 6-8 places to get a massage, a couple of mini-marts, and a number of decent looking restaurants. It is a short walk to the Emporium and a convenient Sky Train station. Halfway up the soi is a taxi queue, with plenty of cars and motorcycles lined up. I had never taken a motorcycle taxi before, but decided to give it a go. Wow! Now this is a great way to get around Bangkok quickly….assuming of course that you survive the experience.
Among the things I need to do while in town, was to undertake a minor mission to a part of the city I had never been to before. About four years ago I purchased a Phillips electric razor at Big C in Lampang. I made a point of asking the sales clerk if replacement blades were available. You really do need new blades every year or so. “Oh yes sir! Of course sir! No problem sir!” This being Thailand, one year later when I needed a set of new blades, I heard a different song being sung. “Oh no sir! I have no idea where you can find such a thing sir!” I don’t know about other parts of Farangland, but in the U.S. replacement blades are generally on the rack right next to the razors themselves. For the past few years, every time I’ve been in a large department store, like Central in Chiang Mai, I’ve asked the same apparently silly question, and time after time I’ve received the same answer. “I don’t know.” This was approaching something or the order of The Quest for the Holy Grail…at least to me, because my dull razor was not delivering a close, comfortable shave. Big surprise eh….after four stinking years! On this trip to Bangkok, I found myself asking “The Question” to the Albert Einstein of sales clerks in the Emporium. “We don’t carry that sir, but let me find out the address of the local Phillips service center. They will certainly have that for you!” And as God made little green apples, the young man look up the information and wrote it down for me. Here was yet another example of good service. Sales clerks all over Thailand could take lessons from this fine fellow!
So, with the name and address of the service center in hand, I set off to a distant soi, somewhere north of soi 100 + …the exact soi eludes me at the moment. On a whim, I decided to take a motorcycle taxi. After donning a helmet were off like the proverbial shot. Man, this guy was either an ace or an idiot. Bobbing and weaving through traffic, we slipped left and right around cars and trucks, squeezing through spaces seemingly (at least to me) waaaay too narrow to fit through. Needless to say I keep my legs glued to the side of the motorcycle. At times we took to sidewalks when there was no room to maneuver, and even at one point on to the median. We did however make it alive and in one piece, and in at least half the time it would have taken by car.
As I started walking down the soi, I wondered if I was at the right place. There was a decidedly gritty, industrial feel to the area. Eventually though I found myself at my destination. I am willing to bet that I’m one of the few, if not the only farang who ever walked through the doors of this establishment. I was cordially greeted. Still having a few of the brains I was born with, I knew that my limited Thai might not be up to the task, I brought along my razor to show exactly what I needed. “No problem sir! We have exactly what you need!” Ah! Sweet music to my ears! A young fellow soon not only installed my new blades, but gave my shaver a through cleaning as well. I think the folks there were thrilled to help a nice, polite farang. I was certainly thrilled with everyone’s smiling faces. Once again on this trip I received A-1 service.
One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was to stock up on some books. There are no English bookstores in Lampang. I spent some time browsing in Kinokuniya in the Emporium, and managed to find a few things of interest. I spent much more time, and bought many more books at Dasa, a second hand bookstore between Sois 26-28. I absolutely love used bookstores, and Dasa was chocked full of all kinds of goodies.
The owner was a very nice fellow, who told me to contact him before my next visit, to see if anything I was looking for was in stock. This was good service encounter # 4. The gods were smiling on me, and I was basking in my good fortune.
Besides shopping, I desperately wanted to eat at some good restaurants .Specifically I wanted something that I could not find in Lampang. Since my adopted home is not on anyone’s map of gastronomical “must visit” locales, it had been a looong time since I had had what I consider a meal worth talking about. Guidebooks to Thailand sing the praises of “Fine Thai Cuisine”, but alas, what I find more often than not, is what I call “dishwater” noodle soup and greasy curries.
I always find it useful to do a little research on restaurants I might want to try. I came across one outstanding one almost around the corner from me on Soi 20. I am referring to Bei Otto, a fine German restaurant that has been around for ages. After enjoying one of the best meals I have ever had in Thailand, I know why it has flourished for so long.
I am certainly no restaurant critic, in the formal sense of the word, but having been around a kitchen or two over the years, old Sawadee has developed a keen eye and discriminating palette. I spent two grueling years under the tutelage of some of the top chefs in the world while studying at the CIA. No, not that CIA! You can call me a lot of names, but a spook is not one of them! I am referring to the Culinary Institute of America, where among other things; I learned to whip up a Hollandaise sauce in my sleep, make lobster bisque that the gods on Mt. Olympus would approve of and had my first introduction to Thai cooking. Funnily enough though, even after being exposed to so called “haute cuisine”, I never became a food snob. I have no problem scarfing down food that would make Auguste Escoffier turn over in his grave. Chillie dog? No problem….and could I have extra onions on that please? And how about an ice cold Dr. Pepper to wash that down?
Anyway, getting back to my meal at Bei Otto; sometimes what seems like the simplest dish to prepare requires more skill than you can imagine. The evening I ate there, I ordered the Pork Schnitzel, probably one of the most popular dishes in Germany. While waiting for it to come, I was brought a basket of warm rolls and sweet butter. You can keep your manna from heaven. I’ll take these crusty delights any day of the week! While not always the case, if a restaurant serves quality bread, the rest of your meal will probably be above average. My schnitzel was not for those with a dainty appetite. Portions here are for folks who came to eat! The flavor was delicate, and not at all greasy.
Accompanying it was a generous mound of fried potatoes, and a side order of sauerkraut. A wonderful German beer was on tap, and was just the ticket with such a rich meal. Ordinarily I do not eat desert, but when on holiday, what the hell! I had something called Red Grits. The name doesn’t sound all that interesting, but was actually superb. It consisted of strawberries, cherries, red current and raspberries with red wine, topped with vanilla sauce.
Oh, I should add that the service from the Thai staff was excellent. Most Thai restaurants are clueless about service. My roll of good luck was continuing. I’ve included the restaurant’s website, if you are interested.
I hadn’t had a chance to visit with Stick in quite a while, so I was happy to hang out with him the next day. We started out with an exceptionally fine Indian lunch at Bukhara’s, down near Soi 7. If you like Indian food, I highly recommend it.
One thing that Stick and I have in common is that we both enjoy just strolling around and observing the parade of daily life going by. I think we saw a wee bit more than the usual parade when we headed up to Panthip Plaza to check out some electronics. We ran smack dab into the Red Shirt procession that was snaking its way through Bangkok. Wow! Talk about a “sea of humanity”! I have no idea how many tens of thousands of folks were riding by in cars, trucks, vans, tuk-tuks, motorcycles and buses, but it could easily have been in excess of 100,000. Add to this an equal number of people cheering along the sidewalks, on bridges, roofs and hanging out of windows. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood. I saw nothing but smiling…if determined faces. I just happened to be wearing my Lampang tee-shirt that day. That got me plenty of thumbs up; being that Lampang is solidly Red Shirt country. Being a foreigner, I wisely keep my Farang nose out of politics. Still, for what it is worth, if the current Thai government thinks that these folks are going away anytime soon, they are sadly mistaken. Until there are free and fair elections, there can never be any hope of genuine reform. Yes, I know that the expression “free and fair elections” is an oxymoron that equals Faux News’s claim of being “fair and balanced”! We spent several hours on and off watching the crimson tide. It being a hot day, I felt the need of something refreshing to cool me off. Luckily we passed by a branch of Ice Monster. The term ice is somewhat misleading. Think snow; fluffy, sparkling snow….covered with a variety of healthy toppings. My favorite is a mix of mangoes and strawberries. This confection is refreshing won’t add any extra pounds to your waistline.
One other restaurant I went to while in town is worth mentioning. Stick recommended Duke’s Express at the Emporium, which according to him had the “best hamburger in Bangkok”. I enjoy a hamburger now and then, but Lampang is unfortunately a hamburger free zone. I was more than eager to enjoy one. Folks, I haven’t eaten all that many hamburgers in Thailand, but the one I had at Duke’s was fantastic.
The home made french fries were a nice touch as well as free refills on drinks. I’ve found out that they have a branch in Chiang Mai, and look forward to paying them a visit soon. http://www.dukesbangkok.com/dukes.asp
Even though I enjoy coming to Bangkok once or twice a year, after a few days I am more than ready to head back home. I just am not an urban dweller at heart. So, with a shopping bag or two, it was time to get back on the train. Hualamphong station is a very busy place indeed. There was not a single seat available…or I should add even a few square feet of floor to sit down on. Luckily I didn’t have long to wait before my train arrived. I was even luckier that I didn’t have to share my compartment with anyone. I managed to sleep a bit during the night, which was nice. I have no plans to return to Bangkok anytime soon, but I think when I do, I will skip the bus and ride the rails once again.
I am away in the northeast of Thailand at present and pressed for time hence no comments. Sorry!