Death of the Railway
Once upon a time the Chiang Mai-Bangkok fifty-five minute flight was a luxury of the bourgeoisie. The skinflints, along with the predictably ovine backpackers, took the bus, and the train was mostly reserved for the refined traveller who knew about the cheap, tepid pad tai on the Lampang platform, and the alcoholic nicotiniac who, like a teething child, can’t stop putting things in his mouth. We were a good bunch of people, the railway children: no thrills, down to earth, we enjoyed the scenes from the dirty windows, the serenity of rice paddies, floods, traffic accidents, the bawdy conductresses and the gun toting train cops. Of course there were downsides, as is routinely misunderstood in Thailand, people tend to think all westerners should be lumped together and so now and again you’d end up sitting opposite a sabbatical romance (flock deviants for sake of status) who’d talk about massage, spirituality, injustices, tattoos (cut to woman’s shoulder: Aum, Ying Yang, male prefers Che with a dash of Thai script) and the insuperable peace loving ethos of all Thai people. No bother, you could find the restaurant carriage: that mad convulsive steel box, the wind smacking fag embers into your eyes, the morose hangovers, the ghostly stations.
The alcoholics already planted firmly in their spots, by sunset half way through their first bottle of Sang Som, you purchase a plate of slop that would repel the most hardened Bang Kwangian and pay 100 baht for it, help it down with a beer, chain smoke five cigarettes and order another. Before you know it you’re chatting Pidgin with the cops, clinking glasses incessantly, and making all the women laugh when you answer in the positive to “You like Thai lady?” . . . I could never figure out why they were so formal.
As the less hardcore return to their beds the worse techno in the world blasts from tinny speakers, the place becomes a surrealist, phantasmagorical carriage from a Greenaway film, you’re left with a drug addicted Australian compulsive liar, a – now wasted – cop, who has brandished his new gun, and the muscular conductress who, ominously, is giving you the eye. Sneaking back to your cot you wonder how all these Thais could sleep so well; someone’s arm flops out from a bunk and you realise you’re going to bed with a hundred strangers. You’ve spent near to the price of a plane ticket and will be stuck in a Bangkok slum for three hours watching street kids play footy with dead rats, and their broken mothers crouch in piles of rubbish.
Who would miss this for the world, this fantastic expedition into the dark heart of Thailand? A no holds barred intro into the Land of Smiles, a spectacle of visual delights compared to a dull spell on a stuffy plane or eight hours of bus abuse. But the plane has superseded the train. Air Asia gets me there fresh faced for a grand, by noon I’ve a bag full of MBK forgeries and I’m sitting in Siam Square with a cappuccino leering at all the apex children. Even so, with this huge discount in time, I miss the stink of the railway.
At the time of writing there were huge reductions on the price of flights, although my last quote (April) by Air Asia for a return trip to BKK was over four thousand, Nok Air close to four and a half thousand and Thai over five thousand. Maybe this could lead to a resurgence in train travel.