Tag Archives: railway

Evening Train to Chiang Mai

By the time our last day in Bangkok rolled around, we both were ready to leave. It is an amazing city and yes, we just barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer, but the heat, the pollution, the overwhelming influx of tourists; it was becoming all too much for us. We packed up our belongings, hefted our packs onto our backs, and headed back to Hua Lamphong train station.

Our train was scheduled to depart for Chiang Mai at 6:15 pm. Checkout from our hotel was at 12:00, so we had a few hours to kill before boarding. We dropped our luggage off at the holding area (40B) and considered our options. Tim wanted to buy some shorts and I was looking for a Thai-English dictionary — and of course we wanted to EAT — so after some deliberation, we headed back to The Paragon. After having experienced more of “real” Bangkok, it seemed even more decadent and Roman than ever. There are tourists who never venture far from these few blocks of BKK, and in some small way, it makes sense. If you want to be pampered and have every conceivable need satisfied without ever having to leave air-conditioned comfort; if you want to shop to your heart's content and enjoy the benefits of your currency's strength against the Thai baht; if you want to avoid squalor and poverty and discomfort; this is the place to be. Once again, I was so non-plussed I only took one picture in this damned place. Here it is.

Eventually we settled on an Indian restaurant that shared a “courtyard” with Thai and Chinese restaurants. When we sat down, we were handed 6 menus — two for each restaurant; one for specials and one for regular options. We ate, discussed the nature of travel, shared insights into our experiences in Bangkok, and generally lounged our way through our free time. Realizing that boarding time was imminent, we made a couple of quick purchases (Instant Thai: How to Express 1,000 Different Ideas with Just 100 Key Words and Phrases for me and some sunscreen for Tim) and then hustled our way back to good old Hua Lamphong.

My sister requested some photos of everyday folk in Bangkok, and there's no better place for people watching than a train station, so here you go, Dixie:

Boarding time came and we headed to Platform 5, Car 6 of Train 1, heading to Chiang Mai. Hooray!

According to Tim, the train was built by Daewoo in 1996. The first class (air conditioned, private roomettes) section was sold out, so we opted for second class seating: an air conditioned car, shared seating, upper berths for sleeping. What this meant was that Tim and I had to share space with a couple of strangers. My stranger was a Chinese dude who like me, topped out at about 6 feet. Tim's was an elderly Thai woman with a cough and a face mask. We exchanged exactly ZERO words with these people.

In the next seating pod, two British tourists shared seating with a timid Thai woman and a middle-aged man of Indian descent. They spoke to everyone in what sounded like very proper English accents and never once tried to speak Thai. Beyond them was a group of boisterous college boys who spent most of the evening playing cards, talking and laughing uproariously. The rest of the car had a similar composition; a handful of awkward tourists tossed in with a bunch of locals. It was a strange experience. The locals ignored us, and for the most part, we ignored them right back. Even the engineer and train stewards performed their tasks with professionalism, but very little in the way of friendliness. As we pulled out of Lua Hamphong, Tim stared out of the darkening window, watching Bangkok fade from view. I sat with a notebook in one hand and and Instant Thai in the other, doing my best to puzzle out some way to communicate in Thai.

The one exception to the relatively impersonal atmosphere we experienced on the train was the car attendant tasked with taking food orders and delivering meal trays.

This dude was, as the British tourists put it, a “right jolly fellow.” He spoke English in a lilting accent and didn't let our lack of comprehension prevent him from making jokes, pulling faces, and generally cracking himself up. His happy demeanor — and the fact that the dining car was terribly crowded and lacking in air conditioning — convinced Tim to order a set meal for dinner: rice, penang curry with duck, cashew chicken, soup, and half an apple for dessert All this cost B160; around $5.25.

I passed on dinner for two reasons. 1) I wasn't hungry. Normally, this wouldn't have stopped me, especially where duck curry is concerned, but there was also reason 2) Tim told me that the bathroom did not have a western toilet, it had the take-off-your-pants-and-squat-kind-of-toilet. Now I realize that I will have to use one of these things eventually, but the thought of having my initiatory experience on a moving train — one might even use the word turbulent — was too much for me to consider. I contented myself with eating a couple of spoonfuls of Tim's meal and I have to say, it was DELICIOUS.

After a couple of hours of travel, a train steward came through and began setting up everyone's beds.

In no time at all, everyone was tucked into their berths. Even the raucous young men in the center of the car had settled into their beds, content to whisper their jokes and to muffle their laughter. Soon, the only sounds were the occasional snores of our fellow passengers and the creaking heartbeat of our train hurtling through the darkened landscape of Central Thailand. As is my habit on moving trains, I fell asleep almost immediately.

Despite my best intentions, I woke in the middle of the night with a pressing concern. Luckily, I had discovered that one of the two bathrooms on Car 6 did have a western toilet and so I climbed down from my windowless, curtained capsule, and gave it the old college try.

The toilet itself wasn't so bad. It wasn't the newest or cleanest thing upon which I've sat down, but in my travels, I've encountered plenty of facilities that make this room seem like the Grande Palace. What was troubling was not the bathroom, nor the toilet; it was a mysterious heap of balled-up tissues that sat on a low, skinny shelf.

What could this possibly be? What expected behavior was I to infer from its presence? I didn't know then and I don't know now. When next I visited the bathroom, after the sun had risen and we were approaching Chiang Mai, it was gone.

All in all, the train trip took about 16 hours. For about 14.5 of those hours, I was relegated to my comfortable — if windowless, berth. The gentleman in the lower berth, like the woman sleeping below Tim, showed no desire to sit upright until we were just 30 minutes away from our destination. What this means is that I saw very little of Central Thailand's landscape. True, I had learned some rudimentary Thai phrases, but I would have gladly traded that knowledge for a window to the outside world.

Only after our section mates woke up did the car attendent come through and set up our seats. For the first time, we saw the world beyond Bangkok.

We arrived in Chiang Mai bleary-eyed and blinking in the bright sunlight. While the other tourists scattered like chicks, we sat down in the tiny food court and enjoyed two cups of instant coffee. That's the magic of travel; even the act successfully ordering Nescafé is a delicious victory!

Welcome to Chiang Mai!


The Hua Lamphong Train Station ~ Bangkok

After a long subway ride, we arrived at the magnificent Italian Renaissance style Hua Lamphong Train Station, built from 1910-1916. Compared to the completely modern Sky Train and Bangkok Metro, the Hua Lamphong is like a glimpse into Bangkok's past. Sounds of children playing, engines idling, and low conversation fill the vaulted space with kaleidoscopic echoes. Monks in bright orange robes, backpackers in various stages of “going native”, and a steady stream of locals add to a sense of surreal timelessness.

Purchasing our tickets to Chiang Mai proved to be a relatively simple task. Two banks of ticket counters — one for same day travel, one for future reservations — flank the arched walkway leading to the train platforms. We headed to the appropriate line and were greeted by a smiling young woman. In lightly accented English, she asked us about our plans and then acted as our interpreter for the ticket agent. In the end, we purchased two 2nd class tickets — a pair of upper berths in an air conditioned car — for about B1532; roughly $25.00.

This coming Wednesday, we will board a lavender and purple train car, and 15 hours later we will arrive in The Capitol of the ancient Lanna kingdom.


rio chama rv park, cumbres and toltec narrow gauge railroad ~ chama, nm ~ october 3, 2011

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a visit to the durango and silverton narrow gauge railroad museum ~ durango, co ~ may 27, 2011

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the cumbres and toltec tourist railway ~ chama to antonito, new mexico


for those of you who haven’t yet realized, tim loves trains. loves them. i’ve asked him lots of questions, trying to understand what it is about this particular mode of transportation that has so completely captured his imagination, but as far as i can tell, it’s something he was born with. there was no particular moment, no particular experience that ignited his love of trains, the fascination was simply always there.

i on the other hand, grew up feeling nothing for trains. an old depot or an abandoned spur line, in my opinion, held little to enthrall or delight. in fact, i think i would have been hard pressed to even identify an old depot or an abandoned spur line. a typical scene from the early days of our journey found tim wandering happily through some railyard or another while i sat in the truck playing scrabble on my ipod and waiting impatiently for the fever to break.

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i might not have shared his enthusiasm and his siblings might have made fun of him for it, but despite our nonstop ribbing and the very grudente (portuguese for sticky or clingy) label of train freak, tim’s love of all things railroad has remained unchanged. “it’s one of my happy places,” he says. “i’m not going to spend time apologizing for that.” to that i say good for him! for even if i didn’t fully understand or relate to this “happy place” of which he speaks, his love of trains has brought me to many remarkable places and provided me many unforgettable experiences. without his love of trains, i probably would never have been aboard the empire builder as it sped through the winter or watched julia and julia in the pacific parlor car while the full moon shone above. i would probably have never ridden the hiawatha rail trail or experienced this .

and that would have been a small tragedy, because the cumbres and toltec is an amazing and beautiful thing. pulled by a beautiful old steam engine, the train follows miles of narrow gauge track over mountains, along rivers, across bridges, and through tunnels. the winding, twisty passage crosses the colorado-new mexico border 11 times! and if that’s not enough joy, midway through the journey, the train stops in osier, co and passengers are provided with an all you can eat buffet made up of all your holiday favorites: turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, various vegetables, mashed potatoes, and of course, salad and dessert bars. a full day train ride through beautiful landscapes and punctuated by a sumptuous thanksgiving dinner? honestly, what could be better?

tim and i rode the cumbres and toltec in june of 2009. a few months short of a year later, in april 2010,we returned to chama on our way to see tim’s sister — and her now fiancee — in telluride, co. the trains weren’t running yet and the april light still held the chill of winter. the three of us wandered the quiet railyard retelling stories of our ride and examining various rail cars. as i stopped to take the umpteenth picture of the evening, i found myself wistfully suggesting another trip on the ol’ cumbres and toltec. tim looked at me, surprise written on his face. and with that, the truth was irrevocably revealed: the ranks of train freaks has grown by one. namely me.

so go ahead and make fun. tim’s a train freak, i’m a train freak and this pretty awesome dude is a train freak, and one day — maybe not today and maybe not this year — you’ll wake up and realize that you’re a train freak too. they’re just that cool.

Posted by Wordmobi