The charm of 3rd class trains in Thailand
Where I come from (Hungary, Central Europe) we find it almost natural that the railway is left to slowly but surely wane. Lines are closed and stations fall into decay. We don’t even have dining cars any more.
The railway in Thailand is alive and kicking as it’s still one of the main modes of transport. What’s more, the construction of new lines can be expected in the future thanks to Chinese investment. All this in spite of a busy network of budget airlines and thousands of bus services throughout the country. Low fares must be one of the main advantages for local passengers and it’s something we, travellers, also appreciate. On the other hand, the train rides that can often take half a day or more offer a very special opportunity to know more about Thai people, their customs and even their food.
Why take the train?
I have always thought of the bus as a necessary evil. In my childhood I constantly struggled with motion sickness even on shorter rides – I remember one day I could hardly get off the city bus in time… Later I learnt how to control my breath and other factors but I still prefer to travel by boat, motorbike, bicycle or, better still, by train. And in Thailand there are rails to take you to almost all main attractions (except the islands but you don’t go there by bus anyway).
We got off the plane near Pattaya and we spent the first few days there to get over the jet lag. Many years ago we were lucky enough to try the slowly crawling its way to Kanchanaburi. So when I noticed that Pattaya has its own railway station, there was no doubt how we should get to Bangkok.
Faux leather seats and refreshing breeze
Then when we were heading south the night train came in handy. It takes the adventurous traveller to Chiang Mai in 13 hours, a flash of time really. The only problem is that we don’t like to plan ahead weeks in advance, far from that. But the better seats are taken relatively fast so once again we had to make do with the 3rd class carriage.
Narrow seats with artificial leather upholstery (that stick better than Michelin tyres in the tropical heat), fans buzzing on the ceiling, windows you can fully open and an attentive choice of squat and sit-down toilets.
Suddenly disgusting gutter stench fills the atmosphere of the carriage. I look out and see that we are just passing by a smaller river, so upset by road construction that it no longer knows which way to flow. It doesn’t really flow anywhere. However, filthy water flows into it from all sides because sewerage is still missing. But the vivid green rice fields and the coconut palms soon make us forget the unpleasant experience.
The landscape you are leaving behind is well worth the attention but if you get tired of that you still have your fellow passengers. They are mostly simple everyday people, hardly any tourists. You can even catch a glimpse of traditional woven skirts on the north-eastern line. Heading in the other direction towards Malaysia more and more female faces are hidden behind hijabs while men wear the sarong instead of trousers. Thai people are generally smiling and open so it’s not hard to strike a conversation with them. Although language can be a difficulty. This didn’t prevent my son from making friends with two young girls who happened to sit opposite him…
The trains have a dining car with chairs and tables carefully protected with nylon cover. The chairs are not fixed to the floor; your orders are taken by a smiling waiter and the dishes won’t leave you disappointed…
Finally, there are the hawkers! I have observed how they work – I had plenty of time as it took 18 hours for us to get from Bangkok to Hat Yai, in 3rd class again. 5-6 men and women get on the train with their goods at a larger station and they start moving to and fro between the carriages. Others sell food prepared in the train’s own kitchen. The array of goods is amazing: all types of “fried rice”, the typical Thai fast food, pre-portioned with plastic spoons; the same with pasta; peanuts, home-made rice pudding, cakes, biscuits and fruits served with spicy sugar and quall eggs(!); brightly coloured cold drinks, hot coffee and tea…
They keep walking up and down with their boxes, baskets and buckets for two or three hours, offering their goods in a singing voice. As time passes, ice slowly melts in the drinks and hot dishes slowly cool down. As a result, prices start to slowly sink. Then they have reached the level where the seller feels it’s no longer worth carrying their weight around. The remaining drinks end up between the rails and I guess they take home the food for their families.
The train keeps rolling and a new team gets on with fresh stock at the next stop. And I eagerly watch what else I should try.