Why the train is the best way to see South-East Asia, and why it may not be for much longer…
by Pat Dylan Taylor
For reasons too tedious to go into here (if you’ve worked for any length of time in Thailand, you can probably guess why), I had to leave the Kingdom for a few days recently for one of its more stable neighbours. Having made similar trips before to Vien Tiane in Laos, and convinced I’d about exhausted all that that particular city had to offer, I decided to venture South for the first time to spend a long weekend in Penang, Malaysia. With the budget too tight for air travel and no particular desire to spend the 22-odd hours from Bangkok contorted, Kama Sutra-style, into a bus seat, I decided to take one of the State Railway of Thailand’s overnight sleeper trains.
It wasn’t a decision I had to think about too much. See, sad as it may sound, I love rail travel in South-East Asia. Everything about it – the sounds, the smells, the sights – is strangely captivating to me. Trains here are great rusted diesel-spewing dinosaurs, relics from a lost era that wind a stately pace through trailing jungle or over rickety wooden bridges.
There’s a real sense of adventure to rail travel here, you see. Unlike the increasingly anodyne cities, with their endless billboards and superhighways, the railway takes you through a forgotten world of slum-blocks and abandoned freight cars, over seemingly endless palm plantations and paddy fields that sweep for mile after brilliantly green mile to brooding, mist-shrouded mountains. As the city fades away to a smear of smog on the horizon, the flash new plastic signs in the Bangkok stations give way to hand-painted notices flanked by arrows, charmingly marking off destinations past and destinations yet to come.
Riding the trains here makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back to a time when travelling was full of intrigue and romance, like you’re Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Each four-seat compartment in the carriage is a world unto itself, in which big-city Thais on business mingle with Filipino tourists, European backpackers and vendors laden with vegetables. When the seats are converted into bunks (and it happens, by necessity, pretty early on), you can seal yourself off behind a curtain and be left with a window out on the world, watching the night fly by from the comfort of your freshly-laundered sheets.
Of course, needless to say the days of these grand old trains are increasingly numbered. In the past few years, the current Thai government has enthusiastically laid out big plans for high-speed rail links between a few major cities, with the ever-popular Bangkok to Chiang Mai run being one of the first routes touted as in need of an upgrade, and the rest set to follow soon after (although in Thai bureaucracy terms, this could be any time between next week and the heat death of the universe). Nevertheless, once the option of a Shinkansen-style bullet train becomes available, the fate of the current great rusty hulks will be sealed. They’ll face a future of quiet retirement in a Bang Sue junction lay-by, or an even less dignified place on a concrete stand in some future Suan Rot Fai, to be clambered on by yuppies flipping peace-signs for their Instagram pictures (or to be bought up wholesale by British Rail).
Thais don’t want lumbering old engines and hand-painted signs. They want high-speed Japanese technology and in-carriage magazine racks, stations of stainless-steel and glass with air-conditioned waiting rooms showing Ching Roi Ching Lan on enormous flat-screens and a palatial terminal concourse with a Doi Chaang and an MK Suki, and really, who can blame them? Swanning around in a Panama hat and feeling like Cary Grant are great for those of us with the luxury of time, but not so great to anyone who has to make the trip on a regular basis. Thailand, and Asia, is changing. There’s money to be made in every soi, people to be moved, products to be sped to every corner of the country and beyond. Speed and functionality are the new dogmas, and these sad old trains are becoming increasingly obsolete in the face of this brave new world.
It’s already started in Malaysia. Cross the border and you suddenly hit mile after mile of pristine new rolling-stock, stainless steel columns, platforms so new the plastic hasn’t been peeled off the benches yet. It was all clean, fresh, new and utterly dead. I can count on one hand the amount of people I saw in or around the three or four stations on the way to Penang, and over half of those were wearing hard-hats. No vendors, no food stalls, no conversation. These were places where one waited and that was it. But it’ll all be part of an infrastructure that will get people to where they’re going faster and that is, ultimately, I guess, all that matters.
Wannabe-Cary Grants, then, take the train when you can – the 21st century is coming, and it’ll be arriving shortly.