Tag Archives: Train

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.


Historic Amtrak Train Station ~ Niles, MI


The Coast Starlight


If yesterday’s travel fiasco was about exposure to random chance and chaos, today’s journey was about safety and security. From the moment we climbed aboard our sleeper car and ensconced ourselves in bedroom B, we have been living like princes.

The Amtrak’s Coast Starlight is a fantastic affair, the closest thing to luxury travel as many of us are likely to get. There is, of course, the Pacific Parlour car, a refurbished dome/lounge car from the old Santa Fe Railroad. (For those of you who came to our wedding, our FUN train was an early version if what would become the PPC.) There is also a dining car serving three meals a day (I had a fork tender lamb shank for dinner; Tim had a steak) including desserts (the chocolate mousse cake was yummy, but the red velvet cake was a little pushy and we ended up in a fairly heated argument). And of course there are the views. Our one full day started with a brief glimpse of snow covered, mist shrouded Mount Shasta and ended with sunset over the Columbia River. In between, there were forests, the Cascade range, and the mighty Wilamette.



Thanks to the magic of Amtrak Guest Rewards, we were able to get a Superliner Bedroom. As fabulous as it sounds, the SB provides a couch big enough to accommodate two sprawled out human forms, and two huge windows through which you can watch the world scroll by. There are buttons and knobs, secret compartments, and beds that descend out of the ceiling. And of course there is the mighty shoilet, complete with piping hot water and indigo blue night light. Slide the door shut and the Coast Starlight’s Superliner Bedroom becomes something else entirely; part spaceship, part submarine, part womb with a view.

Thank you Amtrak for another lovely trip!

California Chaos ~ Amtrak Adventure Day 2

Yesterday, I foolishly wondered what would happen if the Southwest Chief was so late that we missed our connection in L.A. Honestly, it seemed like such an innocent question; as speculative as wondering what might happen if I found a magic ring or a secret doorway hidden behind a patch of ivy. As far as I can remember, Tim said something about a “guaranteed connection.” He might have mumbled something about a bus, but I was so busy formulating my next sentence — “well that’s not going to happen anyway, so why even worry about it? — to pay close attention.
You see where this is going. At eight o’clock in the morning, we were woken by our car attendant, Evan. He informed us that our train had been delayed throughout the night and that if we were lucky, they would hold the Coast Starlight until we arrived in LA. When we went for breakfast in the dining room, our waiter Scott told us that in all likelihood, we would miss our connection and we would be forced to take a bus to catch the Coast Starlight somewhere up north. Later, as I was entering the shower/toilet booth (or the shoilet, as Tim calls it), a disembodied voice came over the intercom, letting us know that all passengers heading north to Seattle would be detraining in San Bernadino, catching a bus to Bakersfield, and then boarding a California Amtrak commuter train that would take us to Martinez, where we would finally catch up with the magnificent Coast Starlight.
Tim was nonplussed. We would be missing all the gorgeousness between LA and Martinez! no breakfast on Olveras Street, no gawking at LA’s Union Staton. no visit with the old Fig Tree at the Santa Barbara Station, no sea lions or surfers frolicking in the Pacific Ocean.
But what could be done? We, and all of our fellow northbound travelers, got off at San Bernadino and crammed ourselves onto a bus bound for Bakersfield. We crested Cajon Pass, a famous railroaders landmark, and arrived in Bakersfield with barely enough time to catch the northbound San Joaquin, Train 715. While searching for and hefting our luggage, we were unceremoniously hooted and hollered at by various Amtrak representatives. “You better hurry up!” “The train is about to leave in a couple or minutes!”

In case you are an Amtrak representative and you want to know, such exhortations are not helpful in the least. What frazzled, worried, disgruntled passengers want to hear are words of assurance and comfort. “Yes, this is the train you are supposed to board.” “We can’t check your luggage here, but we’ll be happy to help you get it to the baggage area!” or even a cheery, “you’re doing great!” All of this “Hurry up!” and “You’re going to miss the train and then what are you going to do?!” hair on fire business makes everybody uncomfortable.
One fellow passenger, a woman dressed in items purchased at a world market, lost her shit while carrying her bags from the bus to the train. “What!? They’re not going to check our bags?” she screeched. She looked to Tim and myself in search of support and shared indignation. I averted my eyes and followed Tim wordlessly. As we situated ourselves, she kept making eye contact and flashing a look of deep and abiding exasperation. I kept thinking to myself, “what will it take for this woman t realize I’m ignoring her? How much more averted can my eyes possibly be!?”20120310-001635.jpg20120310-001655.jpg20120310-001712.jpg
You see, although this unexpected and innocently predicted diversion was annoying, it was familiar as well. For at its essence, traveling is going forth to meet uncertainty head on. You hope that your plane will arrive on time, you hope your hotel won’t have bedbugs, you hope that you’ll find a gas station before your car stops working. But all of those hopes add up to exactly nothing when an engine decides to break down or your train is brought to a standstill by freight traffic bottle-necking as it heads to LA. And one of the lessons of a traveling life is that what makes it spectacular is not its predictability; The very thing that transforms life into adventure is uncertainty! without it, we drown in routine.



What do I do now? Whose advice do I listen to? What are my options? How much control do I have? These questions informed our second day on the train, just as they inform all of our lives. Traveling allows us some practice time with them; gives us a chance to test drive potential answers. And if you do it often enough, you emerge from the chaos and unpredictability with confidence, adaptability, resilience, and flexibility.

Or, I suppose, you could end up bitter and angry, outraged at how nothing turned out the way you wanted or expected it to; perennially disappointed by the pearls thrown upon the mud before you.

We never saw our angry co-passenger again. but I am willing to bet that when she tells the story of her travels, what she’ll talk about are not the hours of peace, beauty, and calm that she enjoyed once she boarded the Coast Starlight. Instead, she’ll tell her friends and family (perhaps through a blog post much like this one) about the crazy day where nothing went right but everything turned out just fine.

Night Train

in the second-hand light of the full moon, the desert looks like the ocean floor. bioluminescent creatures slide through the darkness. a swarm. a school. a city.


Waiting for the Southwest Chief

the #3 southwest chief lost an engine outside of lamy, NM and was delayed for close to three hours. cold and windy though it was, Tim and I chose to wait on the platform rather than in the overcrowded waiting room. eventually we gave up and went for coffee.




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