Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bangkok north to Chiang Mai by train by Saigon Charlie

June 2001- by Saigon Charlie
I decided to get away from the heat and noise of Bangkok and head up to Chiang Mai by train for a few days. I had never taken this trip by train before having gone up to Chiang Mai from Bangkok in the early 1990s by air, so this was to be another experience.

As I started taking notes for my journal on the way up, I just couldn’t help but be amazed at the quality, comfort and beauty of the day train (08:25 Express) that I was on. I thought to myself things have sure changed in recent years…….until I took the night train back.

It seems that even though there are several trains during the day and at night in both directions, the quality of trains, even though the price is the same, is radically different. Even the steward on the night train back admitted the difference is great.

I guess one really had no right to “complain” which I am not, it just shocked me to have had such a comfortable, relaxing and quiet experience on the way up and than to turn around and experience what I refer to as the “night train from hell”. The story begins…

20 June 2001 – Bangkok to Chiang Mai Journal Notes

Express - Day Train to Chiang Mai – I awoke this AM with the new day’s light coming into the bedroom from the balcony door witnessing once again another beautiful day’s sunrise. Seemed like a perfect day for a train trip.

As I packed a simple bag and got some research materials together, I checked my e-mail. It seems hotmail is terribly slow again which has been the case for the past three days. Yahoo was offline last week and since the other web sites are responding in a normal fashion, it must be an issue specific to these email services.

On the way to the train station, I stopped off at my favorite cafĂ© at the base of the Soi Ari BTS station, had a couple cups of coffee and read the Bangkok Post. As I didn’t want to be late for the train and not knowing exactly where or how long it would take to get there on a weekday morning, I headed out on the Skytrain at little past 07:30 with a ticket stating an 08:25 departure time.

The travel agency I am using now is near the Asoke BTS station and they have been more than helpful in my recent flight to Amsterdam and with the purchase of this 540 baht, air con/second class, train ticket. They have a separate ticketing department for train travel upstairs and the woman was nice enough to write out a note in Thai telling where and when I needed to be at the train station that I could hand to the Taxi driver. She also indicated to me that the Siam Center Station was the closest BTS station to the train station and as it turned out, from the time I left the Siam BTS station to the front of the train was only 18 minutes and 41 baht. I keep using the word “amazing” when I refer to getting around Bangkok anymore as the Skytrain allows you to do things and go places and have flexibility no even dreamed of only a few years ago.

08:28 – Train Departures the Railway Station
State Railway of Thailand - call (02)225-0300

As the train pulls out and moves from the yard, I am immediately struck with the sea of humanity living within inches of the both the moving train and the tracks. Everyplace your eyes gaze there is something, either in, around, under or on top of an object, whether manmade or nature.

It appears that leaving Bangkok is a series of starts and stop, similar to driving. They don’t appear to coordinate the train crossing signal with the road signals and it does not appear to have priority as we are constantly stopping and waiting for the signals to change, a gate to go down and than we proceed forward.

As we pass into an area where the tracks are paralleling a “ditch” places between the tracks and the road, it is once again a sight of contrast and contradictions. The area itself is trimmed and trees, plants and flowers have been planted to obviously make an attempt to hide the putrid mess that lies and is flowing in the ditch. I don’t even think the word “pollution” can be used as you have to have something to pollute, this is just an open cesspool.

08:42 – Ticket Checked

Right before our first stop at the Samsen Station, my ticket is checked by a very official looking man. Prior to this I have been watching the 5 “stewardesses” directly in front of me chatter away, put on their makeup and the start of preparing snacks for later on. I am also wondering at this point what "express" is being defined as and how many actual stops we will make over the next 11 ours.

NOTE: As it turned out, this train provides four snacks/meals along the 11 hour trip for free. NOTHING on the night train was free and I was shocked later on to learn that I had to pay for the orange drink that was free before. Same class ticket on the same train system, just going the opposite direction.

08:50 - 09:15

We have stopped again but it appears to be at some train yard where they appear to be repairing older equipment and rail cars. The sign calls this place "Bang Sue Junction". If I was a train hobbyist, this would probably be a fun place to wonder about in.

It also amazes me how difficult to get away from cellular phone's ringing and all those very loud conversations. Gotten use to it on the Skytrain but I guess I did have some type of fantasy of this being the "Orient Express" but that illusion is lost immediately with the ringing and musical renditions constantly be played.

Just before 9AM I start to see the massive concrete pilings of incomplete section of the Skytrain system. I have often wondered about this section and where it went. I lovely refer to is as the "road to nowhere" whenever I come upon it. It is amazing how massive the pilings are. They appear to parallel the tracks for some distance.

At 09:00 we stop at the Bang Khen (pronounced Bang Ken) rail station. If I had known this was a stop, I would have come here instead as it far closer to the apartment and the Ari BTS station than going to the main station downtown.

We than proceed past other stations with names such as Lak Si and arrive at Don Muang Station at 09:15.

09:15 Don Muang Train Station - Bangkok Airport's Train Station which is also the same name as the airport.

At this stop there is a large group of individuals that board the train. There are obviously the expected foreigners with their backpacks coming from the airport, a group of colorfully, clothed Monks, an assortment of Thais and soon the seats start to fill up but I appear to be left with an empty seat next to me.

You can see all types of facilities supporting the airport as well as the very large Amari Airport Hotel which is across the street from the train station.

09:20 - The 1st of several free meals and snacks

At this point we get served a free, breakfast meal/snack depending on your perspective. I think most Thais would call it a meal, most Americans a snack.

While eating my meal and enjoying some coffee, I start to notice the change in scenery outside. Actually starting to birds using the pools of water and the beginning of rice paddies.

At 09:50 we pass through the larger town of Ayutthaya and at 10:00 we come to a complete stop next to a large complex of the Italia/Thai Company. Appears we might be waiting for another gate to drop before moving forward.

10:30 - An abrupt stop and a long wait

In what seems like nowhere, the train comes to a rather abrupt halt and we set for the next 20 minutes. Funny as I look around and wonder if something has happened that there is nothing around us. Nothing. No people, no roads, no villages.

The train keeps "revving" its' engine up and than powering down and than doing the same thing over and over again. Without knowing what is going on, it is almost like we are "stuck". After 20 minutes of this very disconcerting process and noise, we start to move forward.

11:30 - 12:10 Chan Sen to Nakon Sawan

Right before our stop at Chan Sen at 11:30, I notice harvesting machines in the fields around us. Must be a fairly wealthy part of farm country as this is some expensive equipment and there is a lot of it.

During this stop another train passes us heading south and we get our second meal, lunch, which consists of rice, a fish-paddy on top of the rice, a salad consisting of some "meat balls", sponge cake and water. A very Thai lunch but filling although the thing that is suppose to be fish leaves a bit to be desired.

I notice a very large Budha on a hillside off to the west of the train near the village of Ban Takhli. At 11:45 we pass through Huwai and there really is a noticeable change in the topology and the fields. Seems to be getting richer, lusher, with less people and far fewer houses. Even the size of the rice paddies seem to be increasing. The train's speed as increased as well through this less congested area, probably around 100 kilometers and hour.

Around noon before our stop in Nakhon Sawan, the hills start to form around use and it appears we are entering some type of valley with a long ridge to the east paralleling the tracks with a less defined area off to the west.

Nakhon Sawan is only mentionable as it appears to have quite a number of new homes built in large, housing estates. I also notice the first birch trees I have seen here.

13:00 - 14:45 Ta Phan Hin to Uttaradit

Ta Phan Hin seems like a fairly large town with houses overhanging the canal paralleling the tracks. After a freight train passes us heading south, we begin to move again.

At 13:15 we stop at the village of Prichit where we once again pick up many passengers. Still manage to hang onto my empty seat next to me.

At 13:40 we stop again at some place I am unsure of the name. Many get off here.

At the town of Phitsanulok, we stop again and let another passenger train pass us heading south to Bangkok. I notice a large hotel called the Topland. I also notice they ring a bell three times at each stop right before the train leaves and there is always one uniformed individual carrying a green and red flag that seems to be indicating when and if the train can proceed forward. Even in the smaller towns, there are usually two visible men in uniforms, one carrying the flags, signaling to us as we pass through.

At 14:20 we pass through Ban Khon.

At 14:25 we come to a stop in Phichai. Interesting place from what I can see with a 2 minute stop. As we start to pass out of the town, there appears a huge mansion off to the left. Somebody here has some significant money. There are also a lot of Telco towers in the area.

At 14:45 we stop in Uttaradit for 10 minutes. Long ridge of hills to the west which are very striking and tall over the valley. As the people move to get off the train, I notice a group of monks getting off here as well.

This seems to be a large town and has a very large train yard although I can't quite explain it, it seems odd. I have now noticed an increase of my uniforms and now am seeing a group of men with a different uniform and red arm bands. There is also a huge school complex here. For who and what I don't know as there are no signs that I can see that tell me what it is.

15:00 - Bandan - The Start of the Jungle Climb

As we start the climb into the jungle, I start taking more photos. This is definitely the second stage of the journey as for the past six and a half hours, the sites and terrain have been pretty much the same. That is all changing very fast.

The road that was along the tracks in this section of the trip would be an incredible road to wonder along on a motorbike. I'll have to remember to do that someday as it really is beautiful through here.

We pass through the first of three tunnels at 15:15 and than again at 15:20. The second tunnel is much longer than the first. At 15:25 we pass through the mountain town of Huai Rai without stopping and I notice rice growing from anywhere that seems flat and corn on any clearing on the mountain sides.

At 15:35 we enter Den Chai where there is a large train yard and several tracks. Here we also get another snack and drink. Feels just like kindergarten all over again. Guess it is time for my afternoon nap.

16:00 - 17:00 - Ban Pin to Mae Mo

As we finished the long climb into this valley from Bandan, we exited into a valley at the town of Ban Pin. From there across this lush, green valley, I could see another, even larger range of hills in front of us that needed to be crossed. The water along here seems to be flowing north. That is odd.

At 16:20 we pass through tunnel number three on this trip. There are rock slides along the sides of the track. At 16:40 we enter the mountain village of Pang Puai where we encountered another freight train heading south. I also notice a tree has fallen over the phone lines and pulled them down to where they are almost touching the ground. Wonder if anyone knows or has lost their phone service?

16:50 Wow! Civilization again, highway, houses, school children as we are enter another high valley.

A small girl riding in front of her mother on a motorcycle is stopped on a narrow, dirt road near the train tracks and is waving at us.

At 17:00 we pass through the small, valley town of Mae Mo which has some side tracks. It is here that the road starts again and we start climbing again

17:05 - 18:15 - Sala Pha Lat to Khun Tan

The train is really moving as we approach the village of Sala Pha Lat but slows down some as we pass through it. We are now in a long, flat valley with more hills ahead with the road once again on our left. A few motorcycles can be seen on the road.

We than pass through the small town of Mae Tha at 17:12 and make a stop at the big train station at Lampang at 17:25. At Lampang there is another large shuffle of people getting on and off. Many of the passengers getting on are Muslims which is interesting this far north. This really is a big station.

Once again at 17:40 we stop and wait at the station of Hang Chat for another southbound train to pass. The station here is quite pretty and looks like maybe something you would see as you are passing through Switzerland. There are dogs sleeping, beautiful flowers, colorful pots,etc.

At 18:00 we passed the Chiang Mai to Bangkok evening train which as soon followed at 18:15 by the entry into a very, very long tunnel. Without a doubt this is the longest train tunnel I have been in and without really thinking about timing the trip through the tunnel we exit at a place called Khun Tan which is the middle of a deep valley with steep walls.

8:15 - 19:00 - Khun Tan to Lamphun

We pass through Khun Tan quickly and at 18:30 enter Tha Chom Phu whose train station has a beautiful lake behind it. Moving to fast to get a good photo of it or the lake as the train has really sped up. Quite pretty here as well.

At 18:33 we pass another quaint train station at Sala Mae Tha. You can see small rice paddies nestled between the hills.

At 18:45 we stop again at Nong Lon. Nothing passes us but once again the guys with their red and green flags are near the train. I wonder if every segment of the trip is actually controlled by the station and these men with their flags?

From here we really pick up speed and are screaming as we enter Lamphun at 19:00 where we once again stop and do the passenger shuffle. As I set here and wait again, I notice the symbol of the rail system, a train wheel with wings on it. Quite neat actually.

19:15 - Twilight arrival into Chiang Mai

In spite of the throng of Tuk Tuks, Taxis and guest house promoters that meet the train, I opt to walk out and away from the station to get my bearings and think for a moment. I has been many years since I have been here and I need to reflect on where I am and where I need to go.

Across the street from the train stations there are some hotels with reasonable rates posted outside but twice what I know I can find away from here and closer to the center of town.

As I am standing there thinking, a younger girl (who isn't in Thailand) comes up to me and shortly after that her Tuk-Tuk friend. We figure out what I want to do and we settle on a price of 30 baht (started at 50 Baht) for a ride to a guest house they show me that is only 150 baht so off we go.

Along the way however as we enter the old part of the city and make our loop around the wall, I notice several signs and guest houses that look interesting and affordable. Eventually I tell them to stop and hop out, back tracking a bit.

Although it was a bit more than I was planning on spending, I found a wonderful place with a beautiful garden, pool and a very large room with a fan and hot water for 250 baht a night. It seemed quiet, clean and as it turned out had a great staff.

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