Monday, September 30, 2013

A train, a track & a hilux sandwich

After lots of planning, hours spent on Trip Advisor working out the logistics and some blind faith that Thailand Railways would indeed send our tickets (bought a month out) to our hotel in Bangkok we headed out in the predawn cool for what we knew was going to be a long day.

Haulamphong Railway station is Bangkok’s Central – but funnily enough it doesn’t compare with the Berlin Hauptbahnhof or even Sydney’s central.  Our train, the “Tourist Excursion train to Nam Tok” was scheduled for a 6.30am departure.  Our expectations of comfort etc were low, and met but hey, it’s an adventure!  It departed sort-of on time and painfully slowly crawled its way out of Bangkok’s sprawling metropolis.  Satellite dishes on rusty iron & plastic sheeting roofs are just a bit incongruous.


We had ‘booked seats’ but when we got on there were people in these seats so we just found an empty one further along the carriage and figured we’d deal with the seat issue later.  A man in a uniform saw we had tickets and walked past.  Sometime later the boss ticket man came through and started moving people all over the place.  We knew he was the boss ticket man because his uniform had more gold buttons, more ribbons etc and he was wearing a hat!  We followed his instructions when he gestured that we were in the wrong seats, and then insisted we had our right seats  when we realised our seats were facing the way the train was going and the lady occupying them suggested we take the seats opposite and therefore facing backwards.

Once the important train ticket man got seating sorted he took off his special hat and took hold of a megaphone and became the funny tour guide – shame we had absolutely no idea what he was saying but it must have been funny because he and the rest of the passengers all laughed.  Maybe it was something about the silly farang (foreigner) pair in seats 32 & 33.


First stop was the town of Nakhon Pathom for a 40 min visit to the Giant Chedi – pretty amazing from a distance but we were saving the knee so didn’t venture much past the markets where we got muffins for breakfast from a little cake shop and coffee from a street cart.

This train is notoriously slow (and late) but we arrived at Kanchanaburi pretty much on time.  The train stops for 25 minutes so you can walk across the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai.  Besieged by vendors trying to sell us books, food, and tacky souvenirs we made our way to and over the bridge on foot.  Back on the train for the slow crossing.


Back on the train and through some really pretty landscape we rocked and clattered our way to Nam Tok.  This little town is the end of the line and most passengers were Thai day trippers heading for the waterfall.  It seems that 10 scheduled hours (5 there and 5 back) on the train for 2 hours at the waterfall is a strange way to spend the day but they all seemed to be enjoying the party atmosphere with lots of seat swapping, eating and laughing.


This train is 3rd class so you’re a/c is an open window.  Track side maintenance is pretty much non-existent so by the end of the trip the floor looked like it had been mulched – track side greenery was whipped off by the train and showered in through the open windows.  We put the window up except for the top 6-8” but still managed to get covered in leaves, bits of stick, and even the occasional insect.

We had arranged for a car & driver to meet us at Nam Tok to take us directly to Hellfire Pass.  We wanted to visit the Memorial Museum and walk the track.  The driver found us – not hard there were only 3 other white people on the train and with the aid of some pretty simple gestures, showed us the way to the 7/11 where we could grab something a bit more substantial to eat.  We didn’t have time or language skills (and he certainly couldn’t act as a translator) to venture to the road-side food carts.  Sandwiches, a couple of cartons of flavoured milk and a bag of what I thought was mango slices and we were off.  Turns out I had inadvertently bought a packet of pickled mango – oh well, tick that off the list of life’s experiences.

The drive from Nam Tok to Hellfire Pass is about half an hour.  The Memorial Museum is quite small but is the starting point of a 90min walk along the actual rail bed.  We got the audio guide, the walkie-talkie (to call for help etc) water and applied bug spray as instructed and set off – not quite sure what to expect and wondering if Tony’s knee would in fact hold up given the warnings about the need to be in good physical shape due to the steepness of the path.

 The audio guide is excellent and despite some really heavy rain our driver met us at the Hintock cutting end in a little under 90 mins.  Pictures probably give some idea of what our diggers endured but I cannot imagine what they went through, especially in the monsoon season where it apparently rained for 140 days straight.

This says it all....

We had wanted to visit the Weary Dunlop Memorial Park, but the original owner of the resort where it is situated  (and designer/builder/funder) has sold and the new owners only allow resident guests – damn shame because he could make some money by charging an entry fee to non-guests.

Back to Kanchanaburi, paid the driver and grabbed a coffee before hopping on the 5.20 bus back to Bangkok. 
We both dozed a bit but I woke bolt upright & wide awake at some very hard breaking, a skid and then a loud bang.  Yep, the bus and a Toyota rukus-like-thing had turned a Toyota hilux into a sandwich.  We sit on the bus for about 20 minutes, the next scheduled bus pulls in to the space between our bus and the other accident vehicles, everyone off our bus and onto the other one… ooops not enough room – OK wait for the next one (20 minutes) – rain starts – 10 remaining passengers get back onto our original bus, it pours, the bus leaks, we move seats.  Next bus goes through standing room only.  Our driver gets back on and moves our bus 100m up the road where we wait again.  Next bus (the last for the day) stops and we get on, and get a seat.  Sunday night traffic in torrential rain into Bangkok is snails-paced.  Finally about 9am we stop at the southern bus station.  Get a taxi back to the hotel and peel off the wet clothes before heading out to see if we can find dinner at 10pm in the pouring rain.

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