I wonder if Paul Theroux ever saw something like this, I thought to myself.
Beneath my observation point on the mezzanine balcony, a scout and guide troop was assembling itself on the open expanse of Bangkok’s Hualamphong station floor. After some cajoling from the troop leaders, a few densely-packed lines were formed, followed by the instruction to plonk themselves down on the floor en masse.
Sipping at an iced black coffee in an desperate attempt to cope with the stuffy humidity, I watched as the troop then suddenly dispersed to swarm some of the vendors around the station concourse, leaving their backpacks behind in their quasi-orderly lines. A short while later, new snacks and drinks in tow, the troop reassembled in their lines, and were then marched off to their train.
The station floor was visible once again, with no trace remaining of the organized chaos that had occupied that space for the prior quarter of an hour.
Soon enough, it was time for me to take my own leave, to pass under the portrait of King Rama V that gazed over the waiting hall, to board the daily 14.45 ‘International Express’ bound for Butterworth, Malaysia.
Getting these tickets had been an adventure in itself. I had gone to Hualamphong three days prior upon my arrival in Bangkok, only to be confronted with “sorry, no more available” at the ticket counter. The agent, for dramatic effect, swivelled his computer monitor to show me a somewhat incomprehensible screen of numbers and letters. The important thing though, was that the seats on the train were all zeroed out. “Look!”
This was a little unanticipated. I later realize that I have arrived during a school holiday and was intending to travel at the end of this holiday, and on a Friday, hence the train selling out. Perhaps it was time to abandon the dream, and return to the modern default – to take the plane. While an extra day in Bangkok would normally be no cause for concern, this time was different: I had a family anniversary to get to Penang for on Saturday afternoon.
But back on the Internet, I find that the one direct daily flight between Bangkok and Penang is booked out. Few other options – either exorbitantly priced or involving unprotected air connections – seem to present themselves.
But then The Man in Seat 61 reminds me that the whole Bangkok-Butterworth journey is only undertaken by two carriages. Other parts of the train, and indeed other trains, run and terminate at Hat Yai, a little before the Thai-Malaysian border.
Armed with this sliver of knowledge, the next day I return to the station ticket counter, and ask for a ticket – on the same train – from Bangkok to Hat Yai. Success! At least I will get a thousand kilometres or so out of Bangkok. That train is due into Hat Yai at 6.30am, and I figure – or so the internet tells me – that I can get a bus from Hat Yai to Penang in time for the evening.
Thankfully, all this is moot when, in a final roll of the dice, I arrive at the station an hour or so before the International Express is due to depart, and ask at the ticket counter about this last leg, from Hat Yai to Butterworth. And lo and behold, a cancellation has meant that there is a seat after all. So I walk away from the counter, with a little quiet fistpump to myself, now with two tickets in hand for the same train – from Bangkok to Hat Yai in one carriage, and then Hat Yai to Butterworth in another. A little shuffling around will be required, but it is at least much more reassuring than taking the bus.
I also quietly thank the inefficiencies of the Thai railway, and the fact that it has not adopted airline-style dynamic ticket pricing. The price for this little bit of split-ticketing – which remember, has only fallen into place an hour before departure – is little different to a single through ticket, at 1497 Thai baht.
Bangkok’s Hualamphong station is a terminus, with the line heading northwards. The first hour of this journey thus is a somewhat tortorous crawl through the northern Bangkok suburbs. A multitude of level crossings, combined with the density of Bangkok’s road traffic, make it slow progress indeed. But then soon enough we begin a looping westerly curve, over the Chao Phaya river to finally head southwards.
The urban greyness of Bangkok soon gives way to the green of the countryside: rice paddies, palm oil plantations, and patches of jungle and overgrowth. On the train, however, there is a constant stream of people through the carriages and the hiss of the doors sliding open: ticket inspectors, railway police, catering staff, hawkers who hop on and off from station to station. There is even a cleaner, armed with a mop and bucket, whose valiant work is utterly undermined by this parade of people and their trail of shoeprints.
At least these are perhaps the most spacious train seats that I have ever been in. Wide enough to seat two, for the sleeper segment of the journey only one person is allocated to the seat. A giant pillow means that my best efforts at making progress with a book are defeated by dozing off to the clackety-clack sound of wheels on rails. By the time I rouse myself, the sun is beginning to set, for which my seat is on the ‘right’ side of the train to see the glowing ball of orange gently arc towards the horizon. The landscape is also gradually giving way to the hills and mountains in the distance, the Tenasserim Hills that mark the natural border between Thailand and Myanmar silhouetted against the setting sun.
Why is it that the more high-tech a train, the worse its catering options for the masses? Eurostar, the TGV…all you ever end up with is a microwaved gloopy panini. By contrast, the best train food I’ve ever had was on a slow Amtrak sleeper from Washington DC to Atlanta, ribs cooked to perfection and the chance company of a member of the US House of Representatives heading back to his district for the weekend. In second place was gloriously unhealthy early lunch on in a Czech dining car from Dresden to Prague, where the cook looked simply delighted to have a customer.
But on this train, the ‘Bogie Restaurant’, as it calls itself, is a site of frenzied activity. For some reason few people seem to choose to eat in the restaurant car. Instead, the car is half occupied by restaurant staff busily plating up meals, and then covering them in clingfilm to be carried through the carriages to the passengers. So I am largely alone for dinner – although it is by no means quiet, as the rattle of the wok competes with the sizzle of frying.
With nine different set meal options, now this is a kitchen worthy of the name! I go for the set with both fried pork and green curry chicken, which also comes with fruits and soup, and in a matter of minutes, fresh, steaming portions are put out in front of me on the checked tablecloth. Nothing is out of a microwave, instead all prepared a few feet away, and it tastes like it.
While contemplating this overnight journey, I had stumbled across a YouTube video of the ‘turn-down service’ in action (again hat-tip to The Man in Seat 61). By the time I return to the sleeper carriages, the attendant is already well into his motions further down the carriage, and I am just in time to watch him at work. It is a supremely coordinated sequence, repeated bunk after bunk: a rhythm of unlatching the upper bunk that swings down from the ceiling, then latching it in; sliding the two seats together to form the lower bunk; retrieving, then laying out the mattress pads stored in the upper bunk; and finally, the fresh sheets that cover the pad and go over the pillow.
The result is a completely flat and relatively soft berth, wide enough to roll 180 degrees, and while the carriage is ‘open’ and not divided into individual cabins, curtains give a pretty complete amount of privacy (although not to sounds). Rather cleverly, there are small shelves built into the carriage ceiling for those of us in upper berths to store bags within reach of the upper berth. So given the relatively early sunset in Thailand, by 9pm most of the carriage has their curtains drawn, and I too, easily drift into sleep.
The train is due into Hat Yai at what seems like an inordinately early 6.30am, although it is light by then. When I wake myself most of the other passengers are also well on their way to gathering their belongings, and the attendant comes by shortly to pack up the berths, and we return to our sitting positions. Unfortunately, however, 6.30am comes and goes and Hat Yai is no-where to be seen. Instead, groggily drifting in and out of sleepiness, even as the scene outside the window continues to brighten. It is not until around 9.30am that Hat Yai Junction finally arrives. I get my bag but insead of joining the exodus of the carriage, I head down to the part of the train continuing on to Butterworth, and find a new set of seat-mates, all equally half-asleep, even as the train inches backwards and forwards in jerky movements as it sheds its extra parts – most of the carriages and the dining car. A short while later, we pull out of Hat Yai, and head for the Malaysian border.
One of the more iconic modern examples of contrasting development trajectories is a well-known photo of forests along the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. In a neat, undulating line, the Haitian side is stripped bare, while the Dominican Republic remains densely forested.
The change in crossing the Thai-Malaysian border is less stark, but noticeable nonetheless, at least in railway terms. On the Thai side, the tracks are ‘open’ – people happily/dangerously cross wherever they want and fields and buildings skirt right up to the edge of the tracks. Entering into Malaysia, however, the tracks are ‘closed’, fenced off with an strip of land between any development and the tracks. The Malaysian rail network has recently completed a double-tracking and electrification project right up to the border, so suddenly, overhead wires, and freshly-laid track ballast, yet to be weathered by the rain and pollution, also appears alongside the track that we are running on.
At Padang Besar station, immigration formalities for both sides of the border are completed. For the passenger, however, the most noticeable design difference between the Malaysian and Thai networks is that Thai station platforms are ‘at grade’ – level with the track, so the passenger has to climb up onto the train. Malaysian platforms, by contrast, are level with the carriage floor. So when the Thai carriage rolls into the Malaysian station, a stopgap solution is found – some planks that somewhat precariously bridge the gap between the carriage floor that is designed to plunge downwards to track level, and the platform.
In his history of efforts at international government, Governing the World, Mark Mazower writes about the rise of ‘scientific internationalism’ at the dawn of the 20th century, when an international bureaucracy (that still remains with us today) began to emerge to attempt to coordinate and unify scientific expertise. The harmonization of technical standards – efforts to speak a common scientific language – was seen as a step to making the world a more peaceful place. The “metric movement swept most of Europe by the 1880s”, Mazower writes, and similar movements of standardization in other spheres were also underway, such as the adoption of the Greenwich meridian for navigation and timekeeping purposes.
The metric system, of course, saw only incomplete adoption – and the railways also saw a similar story, where in different parts of the world, different track gauge widths are used, the result of a mix of geography, technology, and the path dependency of sunk infrastructure costs. Even today, trans-European through train travel (i.e. the Paris-Moscow Express) includes a technical stop at Brest on the Belarussian border for carriages to be raised and bogies replaced, in order to continue the journey onto Moscow on wider Russian-gauge track than the European standard.
For my journey, therefore, the fact that the International Express chugs smoothly over the Thai-Malaysian border is also a quietly remarkable non-event. With both countries having adopted the same railway standard of a 1,000m gauge, the diesel-powered train is interoperable across the border, with only a change of locomotive from the State Railway of Thailand to Keretapi Tanah Melayu, the Malaysian rail operator.
The ‘Express’ is a somewhat sad two carriages when it gets into Malaysia, trundling southwards for the final couple of hours from Padang Besar to Butterworth. As if to amplify the reduced stature of this train, the air conditioning decides to pack in for most of the remaining time on Malaysian tracks.
By the time we pull into Butterworth, some two hours behind schedule just before 3pm, it has been 24 hours since leaving Bangkok, the longest I’ve spent on a train. I once spent an almost similar amount of time – I think it was closer to 18 hours – on a Shosholoza Meyl sleeper from Durban to Johannesburg, and more recently, the 12 hours of a daytime train on the Overland from Adelaide to Melbourne. (I’m not complaining – bring on the Trans-Siberian!).
One of the trendy images that floats around twitter is a map of isochronic distances from London in the early 20th century, illustrating travel time, rather than absolute distance. As I disembark, It feels as if I have just walked out of the era of those maps, where travel is measured in days rather than hours.
It is, after all, a journey covering well over 1,100km, a whole day on the rails compared to the sub-2 hour flight time that Google Maps seems to prefer. One of The Economist’s recent book reviews, of a airline pilot’s memoirs, speaks of the ‘place lag’ somewhat endemic to air travel, “the inability of our deep old sense of place to keep up with our aeroplanes”.
There’s none of that on this trip.
A shuttle minivan takes disembarking passengers up to the nearby ferry terminal – and after some fumbling with change for the antiquated turnstiles, I am on the ferry across to Penang island. The haze limits visibility, but the giant hulking outline of a Star Cruises liner is visible in the distance, as are a range of other container ships: one Marshall Islands-flagged vessel has the same orange submarine-like emergency lifeboat seen in Captain Phillips, which seems somewhat incongrous in the density of the Penang harbour. But while the Horn of Somalia is on the other side of the Indian Ocean, pirates are also not unknown in the Straits of Malacca.
The ferry journey – a service that has been the subject of much recent debate between the state and federal governments, but seems to function adequately today – is just ten minutes or so before disembarking.
I make it in time for the family anniversary, where I am asked, somewhat incredulously: “You came by train?”
“Yes, I did.”
All images (except the Google Maps screenshot) by Nick Chan. Please do not reproduce without credit.